Saturday, April 07, 2007

Anne Carson's "Glass, Irony and God"

I read Carson's long poem "The Glass Essay" again yesterday, and enjoyed it immensely for its narrative maneuvers and literary musings, although Guy Davenport, in his introduction, exaggerates when he says that it is a poem "richer than most novels nowadays." His comment either means something, in which case it is patently false since Carson's poem does not aim at novelistic detail, or it means nothing, playing it safe with that qualifier "most."

"The Glass Essay" tells two intertwined stories: the abandonment by a lover, and the suffering of a father from Alzheimer's. Presiding over the stories is the tutelary spirit of Emily Bronte, loveless, unloved.

The language of the poem is deliberately unlyrical; some may even call it prosy. Here's the opening of the section titled "Three":

Three silent women at the kitchen table.
My mother's kitchen is dark and small but out the window
there is the moor, paralyzed with ice.
It extends as far as the eye can see

over flat miles to a solid unlit white sky.
Mother and I are chewing lettuce carefully.
The kitchen wall clock emits a ragged low buzz that jumps

once a minute over the twelve.
I have Emily p. 216 propped open on the sugerbowl
but am covertly watching my mother.


Davenport defends, or advocates for, the flat language thus:

Poets distinguish themselves by the waythey see. A dull poet is one who see fashionably or blindly what he thinks poets see. The original poet sees with new eyes, or with imported vision (as with Eliot seeing like Laforgue or Pound like the Chinese). Anne Carson's eyes are original. We are not yet used to them and she may seem unpoetic, or joltingly new, like Whitman or Emily Dickinson in their day. She writes in a kind of mathematics of the emotions, with daring equations and recurring sets and subsets of images. As with Matthew Arnold, truth and observation are more important then lyric effect or coloring. If a good line happens, it happens. Anne Carson's poems are like notes made in their pristine urgency, as fresh and bright as a series of sudden remarks. But they are the remarks of a speaker who remains silent until there's something to be said, something that has been processed in the heart and brooded over in the imagination and is not to be further processed in rhyme or meter.


In his defence of Carson, Davenport adduces the authority of the modernists with their call to make it new, then he links that call to the practice of her American poetic ancestors, Whitman and Dickinson, and finally he bases that American practice on Arnoldian truth and observation. Thus Carson is both modernist and traditional, classical and romantic, American and English.

And that distinguished lineage is founded on the idea of "new eyes," which conflates the vision of the modernists with the observation of Arnold. What do Carson's new eyes see? Davenport's description is accurate: "recurring sets and subsets of images." So, in "The Glass Essay," the recurrence of the images of moor, glass (and ice), and rough surfaces like carpet or sandpaper.

But this kind of imagery is not that of the Romantics who believed an image can pierce into the true nature of things, nor is it Pound's imagism with its minimalist aesthetic. In order for images to become sets, recurring sets and equations, the poem must be long, probably narrative. It approaches the method of the novel. But what saves it from becoming an inferior novel?

Davenport extols "The Glass Essay" for its novelistic qualities and simultaneously points to its difference from the novel: Carson

is among those who are returning poetry to good strong narrative...She shifts attention from repeating stanzaic form (which came about when all poems were songs) to well-contoured blocks of phrases: analogues of paragraphs in prose. Prose will not accommodate Carson's syncopations, her terseness, her deft changes of scene.


With its linebreaks and stanzas, poetry does enable flexible and quick shifts, whether in scene, theme, or tone. Though it can be longer than a lyric, it is usually shorter than a novella, its length thus encouraging compression in the writer, and concentration in the reader.

Davenport's comparison of stanzas to paragraphs also describes my idea of stanzaic structure in my poem-in-progress, tentatively titled "The Book of the Body." In it, I use quatrains with mostly long lines. My paragraphs are chunkier and, perhaps, more centered on a topic, than Carson's. "The Glass Essay" begins thus:

I can hear little clicks inside my dream.
Night drips its silver tap
down the back.
At 4 a.m. I wake. Thinking

of the man who
left in September.
His name is Law.

My face in the bathroom mirror
has white streaks down it.
I rinse the face and return to bed.
Tomorrow I am going to visit my mother.


Her more slender stanzas give an appropriately plaintive tone to the heartbroken speaker. In my poem, I hope to make up for the loss of tentativeness with a massed music, something approaching Whitman's.

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