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"An exquisite meditation on love and loss that reads with the emotional depth--and with the ongoing resonance--of a great novel." --Elle
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading and discussion of the work of Anne Carson, whom Michael Ondaatje praised as "the most exciting poet writing in English today." Carson is a winner of the prestigious MacArthur fellowship, and has been the recipient of much admiration in the literary world. She is credited with the invention of an entirely new kind of poetry, fusing free verse with prose passages, using pastiche to startling effect, combining searing emotion with austere intellect. Interspersing her own words with quotes and references to sources that range from classical Greek literature, St. Augustine, the Bible, and the Tao to Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka, and Marcel Proust, Carson constructs an astonishing art that is able to arouse, like nothing else in recent years, new emotional and intellectual energies in her readers. As one reviewer commented, "There's good reason that Carson's reputation has soared to a level equal to that of the half-dozen most admired contemporary American poets. . . . She has . . . a vast habitat, to every bit of which she brings powerful perception and a freshness as startling as a loud knock at the door" (Calvin Bedient, "Celebrating Imperfection," a review of Men in the Off Hours. The New York Times Book Review, 5/14/00).
In this powerful and moving portrait of a doomed marriage, Carson introduces the tango as a poetic form and revisits John Keats's claim that "beauty is truth, truth beauty," in a moving and often wryly amusing exploration of how people become the victims of desires they can't control.
1. The poem is dedicated to Keats, "for his general surrender to beauty." In his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats concludes that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Clearly the speaker of The Beauty of the Husband knows a lot more than that, but she is not saved by her knowledge from the fatal beauty of her first love. The irony is that the beautiful husband is a liar, and his lies destroy the marriage. The speaker states, "Poets (be generous) prefer to conceal the truth beneath strata of irony/ because this is the look of the truth: layered and elusive" [p. 37]. How is Carson using irony in this poem?
2. Carson has appended a subtitle to this work; she calls it "a fictional essay in 29 tangos." What effect does the word "fictional" have? Is it a warning that readers are not to take this as an autobiographical story? Does it make a difference, in terms of emotional impact and reading pleasure, whether The Beauty of the Husband is true or not? Daphne Merkin has suggested that "a story line in any conventional sense is not what fuels Carson's writing--or what she cares about, except as it may enable her to ask the questions that interest her: to what avail are Parmenides and 'the true lies of poetry' when set against the 'welter of disorder and pain' that 'is our life'?" ("Last Tango." A review of The Beauty of the Husband. The New York Times Book Review, 9/30/01). How does The Beauty of the Husband read as a story? Does it share certain elements with fiction?
3. The wife in the poem says, "How do people/ get power over one another?" [p. 38], and later, "Why did nature give me over to this creature--don't call it my choice, / I was ventured: / by some pure gravity of existence itself,/ conspiracy of being!" [p. 49]. She also asks a related question: "What does not wanting to desire mean?" [p. 75]. These are crucial philosophic questions for the poem, and for the whole ideal of human self-determination. Does Carson suggest that people are helpless when in the grip of desire? Carson has written a book about the Greek concept of Eros; does she suggest that in fact a power like the god Eros still exists and can conspire to give one person over to another?
4. The wife states that her husband was "loyal to nothing," and yet she is "not ashamed to say I loved him for his beauty. / As I would again / if he came near" [p. 9]. This is essentially a romantic and aesthetic approach to life. What role, then, does the rational mind play in this drama?
For discussion of the work of Anne Carson:
1. In "Essay on What I Think About Most" Carson writes that she admires Alkman's poem because of "the impression it gives / of blurting out the truth in spite of itself" [p. 34]. Does the plain declarative style of Carson's verse give the same impression? She further states that Alkman's simplicity "is a fake / Alkman is not simple at all, / he is a master contriver" [Men in the Off Hours, pp. 34-35]. Might the same be said of Carson herself? What is simple about her work? What aspects of her work are complex, difficult, even impossible to comprehend? Are her contrivances part of an effort to alienate, or rather to seduce, the reader?
2. How does the work of Anne Carson change a reader's expectations about poetry--about what poetry is, what poetry does, the emotional and intellectual effects of poetry upon a reader? Is she asking us--or forcing us--to reevaluate our aesthetic criteria?
3. In a strongly positive review, Calvin Bedient makes a comment on Carson's work that might be read as a qualification: "Her spare, short-sentence style is built for speed. Her generalizations flare, then go out. Nothing struggles up into a vision, a large hold on things. The poems are self-consuming" (Calvin Bedient, "Celebrating Imperfection," a review of Men in the Off Hours. The New York Times Book Review, 5/14/00). Poets working in more traditional forms, like the sonnet for instance, have tended to create poems that work through a process of thought and arrive at a new conclusion or perspective; they offer the reader what Robert Frost called "a momentary stay against confusion." How does Carson's work differ from more traditional forms of poetry? Is it troubling or is it liberating that she doesn't seem bound to conclusions, to consoling gestures toward the reader?
4. The biographical note for The Beauty of the Husband offers only the statement, "Anne Carson lives in Canada." While it is a general rule in poetry that the speaker of any given poem is not necessarily the author and is often an invented persona, does Carson's work lead you to certain assumptions about the facts of her life, her habits, her intellectual world, her losses, her griefs? Does her work have a deliberately confessional aspect--like that of Robert Lowell or Anne Sexton--or is it difficult to tell with Carson what has actually been experienced and what has been imagined? What issues, experiences, and concerns are repeated throughout her work?
Saint Augustine, Confessions; Samuel Beckett, Krapp's Last Tape and Endgame; Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones; Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights; Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony; Catullus, The Poems of Catullus; Bei Dao, At the Sky's Edge; Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems; Ivanhoe and Van Norden (eds.), Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy; Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories; John Keats, Otho the Great: A Tragedy in Five Acts; Gail Levin, The Paintings of Edward Hopper; Mimnermus, The Fragments of Mimnermus; Adrienne Rich, "Vesuvius at Home" in On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978; Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge; Gertrude Stein, Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein>/b> and How to Write; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War; Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching. See also Tango, a film by Carlos Saura (1999), and Anne Carson pages on Knopf's Poetry Web site.
Anne Carson was born in Canada in 1950. In addition to the works addressed in this guide, she has written Economy of the Unlost, Eros the Bittersweet and Glass, Irony and God. She has also produced translations of Sappho (If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, forthcoming in 2002) and Electra of Sophocles. A 2000 MacArthur fellow, she is a professor of classics at McGill University.