The Y2K Bug
Carson published Men in the Off Hours early in 2000. New Year’s Day of that year, January 1, 2000, was a monumental event in human history. Actually, it was a monumental non-event. For several years before the clock ticked over to 2000, scientists and computer programmers warned the world of the potential madness and mayhem that could be caused by the Year 2000 bug, commonly known as Y2K. The problem stemmed from the technological confusion that many computers were expected to experience when trying to read the year 2000 in their coding. This problem was initially created in the 1950s, when the first computer data was stored on cardboard punch cards. Because space on these cards was limited, and since dates were used repeatedly in many computer programs, programmers made the decision to limit the year date to two digits, with the first two digits of the year implied (For example, 1957 was recorded as 57.) This practice continued into the 1990s, long after computer storage space, or memory, became cheap and plentiful. The problems started to surface in the early 1990s, when some computers began trying to process year 2000 dates. In some cases, the computers interpreted the date as 1900 and used this faulty information in their calculations. In others, the computers malfunctioned or shut down. With help from the mass media, this problem was hyped up, and some people thought that the world might undergo a technological armageddon. The business world spent billions of dollars attempting to make their computers Y2Kcompliant, some people moved their families to self-sufficient farms, and others simply made the decision to cancel New Year’s plans and stay home. In the end, however, New Year’s Day 2000 went off without a hitch.
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In order to get through her emotional ordeal, the poet attaches special significance to a squirrel, with which she has an imaginary conversation. The ability to talk is a human quality, so when Carson gives this quality to the squirrel, even in an imaginary sense, she is personifying it. This idea is important to understanding the poem. The poet’s boyfriend or husband is gone, so she seeks out the guidance of another male figure to take his place and give her closure. However, she is alone, and there are no human men, so the squirrel fills the role of the male. The fact that Carson is doing this becomes abundantly clear when one notes the different ways that she refers to the squirrel throughout the poem. When the squirrel first begins his imaginary conversation with the poet, the poet refers to it as a male: “he seemed to say.” This continues throughout most of the poem, as the squirrel is referred to by “he” or “his.” Normally, when people refer to a squirrel or other small animal, they do so in a gender-neutral way, saying “it.” By the end of the poem, Carson herself is also referring to the animal as “The squirrel,” in a gender-neutral way. The change is important. Now that the squirrel has served its personified purpose and helped her realize the pain she needs to address, the poet returns the squirrel to the world of animals, and it becomes an “it” once again.
The imagery in this poem is striking and helps to communicate a lot of information in a small amount of space. The economical use of words to create powerful imagery is one of poetry’s hallmarks, and this economy is evident from the first stanza. Carson uses three lines to establish many facts: it is New Year’s morning after an...
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Topics for Further Study
Discuss the origin and history of New Year’s resolutions, including the countries or regions that still subscribe to this tradition and any statistics regarding how many people actually keep their resolutions.
Choose one of your own New Year’s resolutions that you currently have or have had in the past. Write a short poem that depicts this resolution.
Writers often use the coldness of winter to signify a death of some kind, as Carson does in “New Rule.” Find another poem from any point in history that uses winter in this way, and compare it to Carson’s poem.
Research the worst ice storms in the United States and Canada in the last two hundred years. Plot them on a time line and write a small description for each one of them that gives the date, location, and severity of the storm. Also, write a small report on how an ice storm is created.
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What Do I Read Next?
Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangoes (2001) uses a collection of poems to explore her ambiguous feelings about a troubled and adulterous marriage.
Carson’s Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (1995) examines loss and longing as they relate to both life and love. As in “New Rule,” the book includes invented dialogue between the poet and others. Like most of her other works, these other characters are generally figures from history or mythology.
The unusual, artistic structure of “New Rule” is one of the poem’s strongest features. However, Carson’s structures look conventional compared to some of the fantastic poetic structures of e. e. cummings. E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems 1904–1962 (1994) includes all of the poet’s works, which are arranged and displayed according to the poet’s original directions.
The Ice Chronicles: The Quest to Understand Global Climate Change (2002), by Paul Andrew Mayewski and Frank White, documents the icecore drilling on the Greenland Ice Sheet in 1998. This experiment has given scientists clues about the history of Earth’s climate over the past 110,000 years, including information about the current fluctuations in climate.
In Rick Moody’s novel The Ice Storm (1994), several troubled relationships in a small neighborhood in the 1970s come to a head during an ice storm. The book was adapted into a film by the...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Baker, David, Review of Men in the Off Hours, in the Kenyon Review, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring 2002, pp. 150–67.
Carson, Anne, “The Glass Essay,” in Glass, Irony and God, New Directions, 1995.
—, “New Rule,” in Men in the Off Hours, Vintage Contemporaries, 2001, p. 12.
Chen, Ken, “Interview with Anne Carson,” in Satellite, Vol. 1, Issue 1, October 1999. Available online at http://www .readsatellite.com/culture/1.3/carson.chen.1.3.1.htm (last accessed January 2003).
Hoffert, Barbara, Review of Men in the Off Hours, in Library Journal, Vol. 126, No. 7, April 15, 2001, p. 102.
Logan, William, “The Way of All Flesh,” in the New Criterion, Vol. 18, No. 10, June 2000, pp. 63–70.
Marks, Steven, “Anne Carson,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 193, American Poets Since World War II, Gale, 1998, pp. 46–53.
Pettingell, Phoebe, Review of Men in the Off Hours, in the New Leader, Vol. 83, No. 1, March–April 2000, pp. 34–35.
Phillips, Adam, “Fickle Contracts: The Poetry of Anne Carson,” in Raritan, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fall 1996, pp. 112–19.
Review of Men in the Off Hours, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 247, No. 6, February 7, 2000, p. 70.
Seaman, Donna, Review of Men in the Off Hours, in...
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