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Poetry

Men in the Off Hours
Anne Carson
Alfred A. Knopf, $24 (cloth)

by John D’Agata

It was Hegel who called this "the age of prose"--very unhappily, too. Prose, after all, is where memoirs live--along with political speeches, how-to books, committee-meeting minutes. Prose is the place of pedestrian thought, of walking thought, as Socrates would say--thought without the benefit of wings. It is, wrote Samuel Johnson, in the first English dictionary, a "plain, simple, matter-of-fact speech, and hence a dull or commonplace expression, quality, spirit, etc…. It is the opposite of Poetry." A century later Ibsen quipped that "Prose is for ideas. Verse for visions." And even yesterday, on the radio, I heard Mario Cuomo bemoan the tedium of this year’s political campaigns by pleading with the candidates: "You must campaign in poetry! Then you can govern in prose!"

Anne Carson’s new book, Men in the Off Hours, is trying its darndest to be poetry. It’s got the line breaks, and the allusions, and the snap-fast turns of Pound. But it’s also got some squishy parts: typographical gimmicks, versified prosiness, the occasional clever one-liner converted into epigrammatical couplets. Ultimately, however, Men in the Off Hours is a fascinating read, especially considering Anne Carson’s past as a classicist who wrote essays, but even more so in light of the future role as a poet that her formidably large audience (her previous collection, Autobiography of Red, sold more than 25,000 copies in the United States alone) has been hoping that she would unconditionally embrace. For in the fourteen years since the publication of her first book, Eros the Bittersweet, Carson has pounced onto the American literary scene from the bona fide obscurity of classical scholarship to the A-list of best-selling contemporary poets. She’s won a Lannan Literary award, a Guggenheim, and the darlingship of the New Yorker’s poetry staff--and all, at the time of those kudos, with only a book-and-a-half of poetry to her name: Plainwater (1995), a collection of approximately one hundred pages of poetry and one hundred pages of essays; and Glass, Irony and God (also 1995), another mix of poetry and essays, which most readers likely only remember for its long, memoiristic "The Glass Essay."

But then, in 1998, came Autobiography of Red, a heavily narrative "novel in verse" that no critic to date has managed to explain in terms of poetry, but that nonetheless secured Carson’s place in the contemporary pantheon of American poetry. Consider, for example, the comment made in the New Republic that Carson’s loose-limbed formal strategy of alternating long and short lines in the book was "too much like tennis with the net down." Consider, too, Bernard Knox’s response to that criticism. He argued in the New York Review of Books that Carson’s problematic lines in Autobiography of Red could be considered formally close to the dactylic rhythms of Homeric hexameter and therefore an entirely appropriate English free-verse version of the elaborate triadic arrangement of strophe, antistrophe, and epode in the original Greek text on which Carson’s story was based. And yet, even Knox eventually threw up his hands in his review, admitting that "for the most part the diction is that of prose," and wondering aloud, "Was the decision to tell the story in verse justified? Why did Carson not leave it in prose, as she did ‘The Anthropology of Water,’ the long account of her pilgrimage to Compostela in Plainwater?"

Indeed.

After all, Anne Carson was once an essayist. In 1986, when Eros the Bittersweet was published, it first stunned the classics community as a work of Greek scholarship; then it stunned the nonfiction community as an inspired return to the lyrically based essays once produced by Seneca, Montaigne, and Emerson; and then, and only then, deep into the 1990s, reissued as "literature"and redesigned for an entirely new audience, it finally stunned the poets. After all, as far back as 1984, essayists like Annie Dillard, Susan Sontag, and Harold Bloom were praising Carson for her innovative work in the essay. Indeed, "Kinds of Water" and "Short Talks," two examples of Carson’s earliest and best work, appeared in the Best American Essay anthologies, of 1988 and 1992 respectively. Yet, interestingly, when the original publishers of these two essays were credited in Plainwater’s acknowledgements, someone in error, or with a knack for marketing, changed the Best American Essay citation to Best American Poetry.

Essays are a hard sell in America. Recently, Publishers Weekly estimated that essay collections both under-sell and under-number the poetry collections published and sold annually in the United States--an interesting statistic considering how loud the howling gets each April when National Poetry Month organizers plead with Americans to help save the genre. Over the past few decades the essay has become a kind of literary third wheel, the ugly stepsister to poetry and fiction. These days American essayists find themselves vying for national literary awards in categories called "Criticism," "Biography," and "General Nonfiction"--venues in which they’re pitched against autobiographies, scientific studies, and collections of literary criticism. Even Poets and Writers, Inc., the national organization dedicated to "connecting the literary community," has this footnote in its application for inclusion in its Directory of American Writers:

To be eligible for listing you must have at least 12 publishing credits. THESE HOWEVER DO NOT COUNT TOWARD POINTS FOR LISTING: self-published work; ... writing for children under the age of 12; ... any work of nonfiction, including essays, criticism, and creative nonfiction [my emphasis].

Who could blame Carson, therefore, for wanting to turn magically into a poet? "Nothing to me is more interesting than the spaces between languages," Carson mentioned recently in a lecture in San Francisco. And, ultimately, Men in the Off Hours is just that: a very long lay-over in the gulf between scholarship and art; a documentary about one writer’s transformation from ugly duckling essayist to beautiful poet swan; a book, in the end, not of poetry per se, but of translation--between languages, between identities, and ultimately between genres.

"There are three things I like about Alkman’s poem," Carson writes in "Essay on What I Think About Most," explaining the formal cavorting in a seventh-century Spartan fragment:

First that it is small,
light
and more than perfectly economical.
Second that it seems to suggest colors like pale green
without ever naming them.
Third that it manages to put into play
some major metaphysical questions
(like Who made the world)
without overt analysis.
You notice the verb "made" in the first verse
has no subject: [?]
It is very unusual in Greek
for a verb to have no subject, in fact
it is a grammatical mistake….

It goes on, detailing how Alkman managed to create interesting verse by toying with the assumptions of his lyric-listening audience. In the case at hand, he has intentionally misstated a simple grammatical equation in one of his metaphors, therefore drawing attention to it, and thus ultimately succeeding at performing the lyric’s duty: drawing its audience into participation with the poem and its lyric activity.

But "Essay on What I Think About Most," the poem written by Carson about Alkman’s poem, begs the question: does it succeed? As a lyric, as an invitation for lyric activity, to what extent does it welcome our participation in its "overt analysis"? In other words, how prosaic, rhetorical, or argumentative can a poem be before it becomes something else altogether, before it reverts to prose, to essay?

Some history: The word prose came into English use by way of the Latin prosus, the Vulgate’s paired-down simplification of prorsus, itself the contracted form of proversus, "to move forward," as in Cicero’s prosa oratio, "speech going straight ahead without turns." Notice, however, that the Latin root of prose has in it the word versus, which comes from the Greek verso, the little mechanism on a plow that allows a farmer to manually turn a furrow--or, for our purposes, a "line." In Latin, verso became versus and its verb form vertere, meaning "to turn"--hence the English vertex, vertigo, and even the word conversant, "one capable of spinning an interesting tale." Verse, in other words, is etymologically both the root of prose as well as its direct opposite in meaning. No wonder this scholar of classical texts is blurring genre distinctions.

Take, for example, one of the most obvious occurrences of genre-shifting in Carson’s new book. "Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve" casts Deneuve as a classics professor infatuated with a female student in a Greek seminar she is teaching. Yet this "essay"--transcribed entirely in prose in Men in the Off Hours--originally appeared in lines in a thirty-page spread in Seneca Review three years ago.

Note a section entitled "Shame" in the original version of the work:

Shame too
is a relation.
The fact that the girl has been absent from the seminar

for a week now
is a rusty edge
that the woman collides with repeatedly as she sits in her

Monday office
paging through
lecture notes and looking out on snowstreaked slate roofs.

A flag shreds itself
in the icy wind.
Telephone rings. Jagged pause. Girl’s voice,

Which she has
never heard before
on the telephone, is surprisingly dark and a little wild.

Animal lopes through her
and turns at the wall.
Claws rake it. Not coming to the seminar today. Thought you

should know.
Girl stops.
She waits. And then, Do you care?with a torn laugh.

The same section in Men in the Off Hoursis re-titled "téléphones":

Shame is a rusty edge that Deneuve sits on as she pages through lecture notes in her Monday office. Outside a flag shreds itself in the icy wind. Telephone rings. Jagged pause. Girl’s voice, which she has never heard before on the telephone, is animal. Claws lope through her and turn at the wall. Not coming to seminar today. Thought you should know. Girl stops. Deneuve waits. And then, Do you care? with a laugh--

Previously, Deneuve had been merely referred to subtly in the subtitle of the work; now, however, she takes center-stage, replacing the more generically mysterious "woman" from the earlier version, and adding to this meditation on desire the same sexual baggage Deneuve carries with her from role to role in her movies. She becomes, so to speak, "stock footage," and the work as a whole is much more cinematic, a quality it shares with a large portion of the book’s imaginary scenarios with writers, painters, and mythical figures on the sets of TV talk shows, commercials, and films.

Yet, formally speaking, is there something missing in this de-versed version of "Irony is Not Enough"? Or, in truth, were there never really lines in the first place? In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that I accepted this "poem" as an "essay" for Seneca Reviewand so I felt obliged to ask Carson about the work’s latest transformation. Carson replied that she felt the work needed to feel more claustrophobic and that its earlier incarnation, in lines, was much too airy, surrounded as it was by lots of white space. Whenever a writer mentions typography as playing a crucial formal role in the creation of his or her work, some readers may feel the urge to roll their eyes. But bear in mind, once again, that Carson is a scholar of Greek. And Greek is a language unbound by syntax. It does not require its words to follow a prescribed sentence pattern to convey meaning. It is, literally, a sculptural language. And sculpture, I think, is a useful metaphor to have in mind while reading Men in the Off Hours. From its shifts in syntax in the plain, spear-headed sentence sounds of "New Rule" or the dizzying wound-up clatter of "Why Did I Awake"; to the near-concrete poems of "Hopper: Confessions" or the tiny "Epitaphs" strewn throughout the book like little tombstones carved in soap; to the rhetorical essays complete with footnotes or the essays that read like poems, Carson’s Men in the Off Hoursmakes it clear that those two separate desks at which Carson often claims to work--one for "creative" work and the other for "critical"--are getting very close.

Take, for example, the series of versions, adaptations, and out-right appropriations of the work, lives, and legends of Catullus, Artaud, Tolstoy, and Sappho that Men in the Off Hours offers up at its core. In essence, the whole middle hundred pages of the book could be considered a meditation on translation: its virtues, vices, and ultimate potential for duplicating the kind of lyric experience that readers have come to expect in poetry, and thus the kind of thing Carson is prone to try to complicate. At the same lecture mentioned earlier, on translation, a young man stood up to ask Carson about the long-awaited translation of Sophokles’s Elektra that she had supposedly been working on for Oxford University Press. Carson responded by saying that she ran into some problems during the project and ultimately was forced to abandon it altogether.

The young man asked, "What kinds of problems?"

Carson responded, "Translation problems."

Young man: "Like?"

At which point Carson produced a handout for the audience, detailing the dozen or more words for the kinds of screams attributed to Elektra in the play. These, along with the half-dozen or so other screams that each character in the play is assigned, made Carson feel that trying to render such precision from Greek into a language whose standard form of exclamation is the all-encompassing "Oh!" would be a task more difficult than interesting.

And so, in Men in the Off Hours,we get the alternative. In a section of the book titled "Catullus: Carmina,"a title often attributed to Catullus’s collected works, Carson strolls through the ancient Roman poet’s best-known and most-loved work, slowly transforming, and then unhinging, each poem’s presumed meaning:

On her lap one of the matted terriers.
She was combing around its genitals.
It grinned I grinned back.
It’s the one she calls Little Bottleafter Deng Xiaoping.

This is by no means a faithful translation of Catullus’s famous "My Lady’s Pet," although it is presented, under the title Passer Deliciae Meae Puellae, as something that should provoke us to at least think of Catullus as we read it. A rough, literal translation of Catullus’ original is this:

Thrush, my lady’s pet,
with whom she plays while she holds you in her lap
or gives you her finger to peck
and provokes you to bite sharply
when she, my shining lady love,
has a mind for some sweet play, hoping,
I think, that when the sharp smart of love dissolves
she will find relief in her pain, but
oh that I might play with you as she does
and lighten the gloomy cares of my heart!

Catullus wrote about desire and sex and the sticky, dirty gossip of late-Republican Rome. He was a contemporary of Cicero, Caesar, and Lucretius, and was regarded by all three of them as a young turk, a rebel credited only after his death with single-handedly snapping off Latin poetry’s chains to war, law, history, and the gods, and paving the way for the first truly original Latin poets just a generation down the road: Horace, Virgil, and Ovid. Because of this reputation, poets ever since have borrowed Catullus’ simple, colloquial verse as a runway for their own flights of fancy. For example, e. e. cumings:

little bird, her darling
sometimes when she plays with you
she suddenly holds you tight to her breast
or sticks out a finger--oo, you little rascal
you peck, go on do it again, harder, oo …

--and he’s off. Now consider Byron:

My darling’s canary, her plaything, her pet, With whom all her troubles she loves to forget,
When my sweetheart has mind to indulge in sweet play,
And so for a moment her passion allay,
She lets you for warmth in her soft bosom linger,
And smiles when you peck at the tip of her finger …

--and so on. Carson’s indulgences with Catullus join a long line of inventions. Here the scholar in Carson intends to advance the conversation about translation and appropriation and the contract of artistic license between critic and poet. Carson the artist, on the other hand, is exploring the outer limits of lyric possibility. By titling each of her riffs on Catullus after the actual first lines of his poems, and then by translating those first lines--quite literally, in most cases--Carson invites readers to participate in the very act of translation, inviting us to notice, figure out, or simply wonder where, to what extent, and why she has deviated from the original Latin. It’s a kind of lyricism that succeeds in ways her more straightforward poems, such as "Essay on What I Think About Most," do not.

Yet, in the end, even these "false translations" aren’t all that exciting. They’re clever, and they’re fun, and they’re another brilliant showcase of Carson’s utterly original experience of the world, but they fall short of rising to the full potential urgency of this book. Men in the Off Hours is reminiscent, conceptually, of the recent three-volume "account" of the Iliad by Christopher Logue, a cinematic, thoroughly modern work of translation; of Robert Lowell’s Imitations, a tiny book that reveled in literary appropriation; or even of Christopher Marlowe’s translation of Ovid and Petrarch’s imaginary "Letters to Classical Authors." But the similarity Men in the Off Hours shares with these books stops, I think, at its conceit--for Marlowe’s translation, for example, is still widely considered one of the best English versions of Ovid’s work precisely because it moves beyond conceit, beyond form. It is eager to identify with its subject even as it takes great liberties in content and form.

At the tail end of Men in the Off Hours, Carson offers a sweet, brief, lyric essay entitled "Appendix to Ordinary Time," which announces the recent death of her mother, and which enacts, in a formal experiment that is at once heartbreaking and chillingly ingenious, this book’s promise, and its problem:

My mother died the autumn I was writing this. And Now I have no one, I thought. "Exposed on a high ledge in full light," says Virginia Woolf on one of her tingling days (March 1, 1937). I was turning over the pages of her diaries, still piled on my desk the day after the funeral, looking for comfort I suppose--why are these pages comforting? They led her, after all, to the River Ouse.

One reading of this passage could logically cast Carson’s mother as its subject; the other reading would obviously place Woolf in the light. "I was turning over the pages of her diaries, still piled on my desk the day after the funeral…" is grammatically ambiguous--the pronoun vague--and so for a brief moment the two women linger in a parallel present tense, neither of them gone, both clutched in Carson’s mind. "Lost, yet still there," as she describes the sensation later in the essay. What Carson finally discovers she loves about Woolf’s unedited notebooks and diaries is the existence of crossed-out lines, because "Crossouts are something you rarely see in published texts," she writes. "They are like death."

But a simple line of poetry, fully realized, fully felt, and free of the visual tricks that merely play with form, is also like death--the breath, the mind, the prosa oratio, as Cicero would say, cut off mid-stream, mid-thought, waiting for the little versoto kick in, and turn.

John D’Agata’s first collection, Halls of Fame,will be published this year.

Originally published in the Summer 2000 issue of Boston Review



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