in the Off Hours
Alfred A. Knopf, $24 (cloth)
by John DAgata
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 years political campaigns by pleading with the
candidates: "You must campaign in poetry! Then you can govern in
Anne Carsons new book, Men in the Off Hours,
is trying its darndest to be poetry. Its got the line breaks, and
the allusions, and the snap-fast turns of Pound. But its 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 Carsons 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. Shes
won a Lannan Literary award, a Guggenheim, and the darlingship of the
New Yorkers 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 Carsons place in
the contemporary pantheon of American poetry. Consider, for example, the
comment made in the New Republic that Carsons 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 Knoxs
response to that criticism. He argued in the New York Review of Books
that Carsons 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 Carsons 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?"
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 Carsons 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 Plainwaters 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
theyre 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
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
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 writers
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 Alkmans 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,
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 lyrics 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 Alkmans 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,
Some history: The word prose came into English use
by way of the Latin prosus, the Vulgates paired-down simplification
of prorsus, itself the contracted form of proversus, "to
move forward," as in Ciceros 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 Carsons 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
Note a section entitled "Shame" in the original version
of the work:
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
lecture notes and looking out on snowstreaked slate roofs.
A flag shreds itself
in the icy wind.
Telephone rings. Jagged pause. Girls 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
She waits. And then, Do you care?with a torn laugh.
The same section in Men in the Off Hoursis re-titled
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. Girls 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 books 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 works 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, Carsons 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 Sophokless 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
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
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 Catulluss collected works, Carson strolls through
the ancient Roman poets best-known and most-loved work, slowly transforming,
and then unhinging, each poems presumed meaning:
On her lap one of the matted terriers.
She was combing around its genitals.
It grinned I grinned back.
Its the one she calls Little Bottleafter Deng Xiaoping.
This is by no means a faithful translation of Catulluss
famous "My Ladys 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 ladys 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 poetrys 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 hes off. Now consider Byron:
My darlings 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. Carsons 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. Its 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" arent
all that exciting. Theyre clever, and theyre fun, and theyre
another brilliant showcase of Carsons 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 Lowells
Imitations, a tiny book that reveled in literary appropriation;
or even of Christopher Marlowes translation of Ovid and Petrarchs
imaginary "Letters to Classical Authors." But the similarity Men in
the Off Hours shares with these books stops, I think, at its conceit--for
Marlowes translation, for example, is still widely considered one
of the best English versions of Ovids 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
books 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 Carsons
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 Carsons mind.
"Lost, yet still there," as she describes the sensation later in the essay.
What Carson finally discovers she loves about Woolfs 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
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.