Anne Carson 1950-
Canadian poet, essayist, novelist, librettist, and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Carson's career through 2003.
Carson is regarded by many critics—particularly in her home country of Canada—as one of the greatest English-language poets to emerge in the late twentieth century. Her works are experiments in genre, blurring the lines between verse and prose, fiction and nonfiction. As a classics scholar, Carson draws on her knowledge of ancient history and mythology in much of her poetry, making frequent allusions to classical literature, music, art, and philosophy. Among Carson's most successful works are her book-length “verse novels,” Autobiography of Red (1998) and The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (2001), and the poetry and prose collection Glass, Irony and God (1995). Carson has received numerous literary grants, awards, and fellowships for her poetry, including a Guggenheim fellowship, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2000, and the 2001 T. S. Eliot Prize for The Beauty of the Husband.
Carson was born on June 21, 1950, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She studied Greek and Latin in high school, which contributed to her life-long fascination with classical literature. Enrolling at the University of Toronto, Carson earned a B.A. and later returned to obtain a M.A. and Ph.D. in classics, graduating in 1980. She also studied Greek metrics for a year at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In 1980 she began teaching classics at Princeton University, serving as a professor there until 1987. Carson has also taught classical languages and literature at Emory University, the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, the Humanities Institute at the University of Michigan, and the University of California, Berkeley. While teaching as a visiting professor at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1999, Carson collaborated with her students to create the libretto for an installation-opera titled The Mirror of Simple Souls. In 2002 Carson became a professor of classics in the Department of History at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. While best known for her poetry, Carson has also published a number of scholarly essays in the field of classics as well as translations of classical texts—such as Electra (2001) and If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (2002). In addition to the MacArthur Grant and T. S. Eliot Prize, Carson has received several other awards for her work, including the Lannan Literary Award for poetry in 1996 and the QSPELL Poetry Award in 1998. She was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography of Red and a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for The Beauty of the Husband.
Carson's works of verse and prose are characterized by several unique formal and stylistic qualities. Most notably, Carson blurs traditional categories of genre, constructing hybrids of the essay, the autobiography, the novel, the verse poem, and the prose poem. Carson's background as a classics scholar colors all of her writings, which feature frequent references to Greek mythology and such ancient poets, philosophers, and historians as Sappho, Plato, and Homer. She routinely renders elements of history and mythology in contemporary terms and modern settings, often conceptually closing the distance between the past and the present. Her verse places references to modern popular culture, such as film and television, side by side with references to ancient Greek culture. Her pastiche approach to genre, form, and subject matter, as well as the strong element of irony that pervades much of her work, have earned her the designation as a postmodern or post-structuralist writer, although the terms metaphysical, surrealist, and magical realist have also been applied to her work. Her book-length essay Eros the Bittersweet (1986) is derived from a line by the ancient poet Sappho. Carson's essay draws upon the poetry of Sappho, the philosophy of Socrates and Plato, and the fables of Franz Kafka to explore the relationship between knowledge, desire, and the imagination. Her volume Short Talks (1992) is a collection of miniature essays, ranging in length from a single sentence to a paragraph, that reflect the formal qualities of prose poetry. These “Short Talks”—as Carson labels them—cover such topics as the Mona Lisa, Vincent Van Gogh, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, and Brigitte Bardot. Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan (1999) is a dense and complicated series of essays on loss, absence, and death, which has little in common with Carson's previous works except for its primary method—juxtaposing the classical and the contemporary. Originally delivered as lectures in the Martin Classical Lectures series at Oberlin College, Economy of the Unlost places the fifth-century B.C. Greek poet Simonides in conversation with Paul Celan, a twentieth-century German poet who committed suicide.
Carson has published several collections of poetry, such as Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (1995), Glass, Irony and God, and Men in the Off Hours (2000). Plainwater includes the long poem “Canicula di Anna,” which is sometimes referred to as a verse novel. “Canicula di Anna” is comprised of a series of fifty-three numbered poems, interweaving the events of a modern-day academic phenomenology conference with the story of a fifteenth-century painter. The modern events are described from the perspective of an artist who has been commissioned to paint a group portrait of the scholars at the conference. Glass, Irony and God presents five poetry sequences and an essay. In “The Glass Essay,” an extended poetry sequence, Carson draws on the life of Emily Brontë as she attempts to make sense of her own failed relationship with a man. “The Glass Essay” also includes a visit to the narrator's mother and father (who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease), sessions with her psychotherapist, and an encounter with her former lover. In the collection's only essay, “The Gender of Sound,” Carson provides a gender analysis of speech, arguing that women's voices have been repressed throughout history. Men in the Off Hours, which derives its title from a quote by Virginia Woolf, is a volume of Carson's writings in a variety of forms—short poems, epitaphs, eulogies, love poems, and essays in verse. A series of poems, under the collective title “TV Men,” presents hypothetical television scripts featuring a cast of literary, historical, and mythical figures including Sappho, Antonin Artaud, Leo Tolstoy, Lazarus, Antigone, and Anna Akhmatova. In one of the “TV Men” sequences, Hektor, Socrates, Sappho, and Artaud come together during the filming of a television version of The Iliad in Death Valley, California.
Carson's novels in verse, among her most recognized works, include Autobiography of Red and The Beauty of the Husband. Autobiography of Red retells a story from the legend of Hercules in a modern setting—Carson uses “Herakles,” the traditional Greek spelling of the name. Carson transforms the ancient myth, in which Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged monster, and steals his magical red cattle, into a modern day parable in which Herakles breaks Geryon's heart and steals his innocence. In Carson's version, Herakles and Geryon meet while attending high school. Herakles is portrayed as a rough but attractive rebel, while Geryon, who is red and has wings, is characterized as a quiet, sensitive boy. The two become romantically involved, but Herakles insensitively breaks off the relationship, unable accept Geryon's absolute love for him. Several years later, the two encounter one another in Buenos Aires, whereupon Geryon becomes entangled in a love triangle with Herakles and his boyfriend, Ancash. Autobiography of Red is written in a verse form that resembles prose, alternating long lines with short lines. The work opens with an essay on the ancient poet Stesichoros, on whose poetry fragments Carson's narrative is based, and ends with a fictional interview with Stesichoros. The Beauty of the Husband, subtitled A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos, narrates the breakdown of a marriage primarily from the perspective of a middle-aged woman. As the subtitle suggests, the volume is broken into twenty-nine sections—named “tangos” after the complex and evocative Latin American dance—and Carson intersperses each section with quotations from the poetry of John Keats. Throughout The Beauty of the Husband, Carson experiments with shifting perspective, alternating between the empathetic voices of both the husband and wife.
Though Carson's work failed to receive considerable critical attention until the publication of Glass, Irony and God and Plainwater, she has since become one of Canada's most lauded modern poets, receiving praise from such noted critics and authors as Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro, and Guy Davenport. Gail Wronsky has stated that Glass, Irony and God is “one of the most daring and significant and original books to appear in decades.” Jeff Hamilton, commenting on Carson's inventive use of form in Plainwater and Glass, Irony and God, has asserted that both volumes “accomplish the enormous task of reimagining the border between the meditative lyric and the autobiographical narrative poem.” Reviewers have commended the erudition and ambitious scope of Carson's verse, consistently describing her poetry as inventive, visionary, and highly original. Carson's utilization of the “verse novel” format in several of her works has also been praised by academics impressed with Carson's stylistic innovation and mastery of form. Several scholars have discussed the influence of Carson's academic background on her poetry, with many arguing that the poet's frequent classical allusions bring a wealth of texture and depth to her writing. Roger Gilbert has noted that, “Carson is a professor of classics, but unlike many academic poets she deploys her scholarly voice as a dramatic instrument whose expressive power lies partly in its fragility.” However, some have objected to Carson's tendency to cite obscure historical sources, faulting her for overindulging in esoteric textual references. Such critics have claimed that Carson's dense subject material often detracts from the emotional impact of her poems. Regardless, Carson has developed a reputation among scholars and audiences alike as one of the dominant writers in Canada's poetic canon.