The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson


Sam Anderson in The New York Times Magazine:

Anne Carson was uncomfortable with the idea of a traditional profile: a journalist following her around for a few days, like a private detective, noting her outfits and mannerisms, shadowing her on errands, making lists of furniture and wall decorations and pets, quizzing her students, standing behind her holding his breath while she tried to write in her journal. Carson is a private person. She prefers to be alone. (When her husband is traveling, Carson will call and tell him, “I miss you, but I’m having a great time.”) Her book jackets have no author photo. Her back-flap biography — “Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living” — is so minimalist that it sounds like a parody of a back-flap biography. Carson told me that, years ago, she had a bad experience with the private-detective model of journalism and would prefer never to do it again. It took her publisher a couple of weeks to wear her down to the point that she would agree, even in a limited way, to participate in a profile. Carson later described those weeks as akin to water torture.

In the end, she agreed to exchange some e-mails. This felt like a significant victory.

Carson is usually referred to as a poet, but just about no one finds that label satisfying: her fans (for whom she does something more than poetry), her critics (for whom she does something less than poetry) or herself. She often labels her work in conspicuously nonpoetic terms. Her book “The Beauty of the Husband” is subtitled “A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos.” Her book “Decreation” is subtitled “Poetry, Essays, Opera.” Carson gives the impression — on the page, at readings — of someone from another world, either extraterrestrial or ancient, for whom our modern earthly categories are too artificial and simplistic to contain anything like the real truth she is determined to communicate. For two decades her work has moved — phrase by phrase, line by line, project by improbable project — in directions that a human brain would never naturally move. The approach has won her awards (MacArthur, Guggenheim, Lannan) and accolades and an electric reputation in the literary world.

In her day job, Carson, who is 62, is a professor of erratic subjects (ancient Greek, attention, artistic collaboration) at various universities around North America, where she appears for a semester at a time as — as she often puts it — “a visiting [whatever].” (Even when she says this out loud, she makes the bracket sign with her hands.) This, I think, is the best catchall description of Carson. Wherever she goes, whatever she does, she is always a “visiting [whatever].”