Anne Carson has been acclaimed by her peers as the most imaginative poet writing today. In a recent profile, The New York Times Magazine paid tribute to her amazing ability to combine the classical and the modern, the mundane and the surreal, in a body of work that is sure to endure.
In Men in the Off Hours, Carson offers further proof of her tantalizing gifts. Reinventing figures as diverse as Oedipus, Emily Dickinson, and Audubon, Carson sets up startling juxtapositions: Lazarus among video paraphernalia, Virginia Woolf and Thucydides discussing war, Edward Hopper paintings illuminated by St. Augustine. And in a final prose poem, she meditates movingly on the recent death of her mother. With its quiet, acute spirituality and its fearless wit and sensuality, Men in the Off Hours shows us a fiercely individual poet at her best.
About the Author
ANNE CARSON was born in Canada and has been a professor of Classics for over thirty years. Her awards and honors include the Lannan Award, the Pushcart Prize, the Griffin Trust Award for Excellence in Poetry, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations.
Read an Excerpt
TV Men: Lazarus
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY: VOICEOVER
Yes I admit a degree of unease about my motives in making this documentary.
Mere prurience of a kind that is all too common nowadays in public catastrophes. I was listening
to a peace negotiator for the Balkans talk about his vocation on the radio the other day.
"We drove down through this wasteland and I didn't know much about the area but I was
fascinated by the horrors of it. I had never seen a thing like this.
I videotaped it.
Then sent a 13-page memo to the UN with my suggestions."
This person was a member
of the International Rescue Committee,
not a man of TV.
But you can see how the pull is irresistible. The pull to handle horrors and to have a theory of them.
But now I see my assistant producer waving her arms at me to get on with the script.
The name Lazarus is an abbreviated form of Hebrew 'El'azar,
meaning "God has helped."
I have long been interested in those whom God has helped.
It seems often to be the case,
e.g. with saints or martyrs,
that God helps them to far more suffering than they would have without God's help. But then you get
someone like Lazarus, a man of no particular importance,
on whom God bestows the ultimate benevolence, without explanation, then abandons him again to his nonentity.
We are left wondering, Why Lazarus?
My theory is
God wants us to wonder this.
After all, if there were some quality that Lazarus possessed,
some criterion of excellence
by which he was chosen to be called back from death,
then we would all start competing to achieve this.
God's gift is simply random, well for one thing it makes a more interesting TV show. God's choice can be seen emerging from the dark side of reason
like a new planet. No use being historical about this planet,
it is just an imitation.
As Lazarus is an imitation of Christ. As TV is an imitation of
Lazarus. As you and I are an imitation of
TV. Already you notice that although I am merely a director of photography,
I have grasped certain fundamental notions first advanced by Plato,
e.g. that our reality is just a TV set
inside a TV set inside a TV set, with nobody watching but Sokrates,
who changed the channel in 399 B.C. But my bond with Lazarus goes deeper, indeed nausea overtakes me when faced with
the prospect of something simply beginning all over again.
Each time I have to raise my slate and say
"Take 12!" or "Take 13!" and then "Take 14!"
I cannot restrain a shudder.
Repetition is horrible. Poor Lazarus cannot have known he was an imitation Christ,
but who can doubt he realized, soon after being ripped out of his warm little bed in the ground,
his own epoch of repetition just beginning.
Lazarus Take 2!
As a bit of salt falls back down the funnel. Or maybe my pity is misplaced. Some people think Lazarus lucky,
like Samuel Beckett who calls him "Happy Larry" or Rilke who speaks of that moment in a game when "the pure too-little flips over into the empty too-much."
Well I am now explaining why my documentary
focuses entirely on this moment, the flip-over moment.
Before and after don't interest me.
You won't be seeing any clips from home videos of Lazarus in short pants racing his sisters up a hill.
No footage of Mary and Martha side by side on the sofa discussing how they manage at home with a dead one sitting down to dinner. No panel of experts debating who was really the victim here.
Our sequence begins and ends with that moment of complete innocence and sport
when Lazarus licks the first drop of afterlife off the nipple of his own old death.
I put tiny microphones all over the ground to pick up the magic of the vermin in his ten fingers and I stand back to wait for the miracle.
Reading Group Guide
"One of the most innovative poets writing today." Seattle Weekly
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).
1. As Carson writes in "Ordinary Time," "How people tell time is an intimate and local fact about them" [p. 3]. What are the essential differences between the ways Woolf and Thucydides write about time? What is Carson saying about how reality is perceived differently by men and women?
2. Why is "Father's Old Blue Cardigan" one of the collection's most powerful and effective poems? Is it more accessible than many of Carson's poems? Carson ends the poem with an extended simile that begins with the words "as a small child." What does the simile reveal about the father's condition? How does it work in the context of the poem?
3. It has been suggested that "this gift for surprisethe ability to fling together the strangest ideas, phrases and words and make them resonant and memorableis at the center of Carson's genius (Kate Moses, reviewing Men in the Off Hours on Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/books/review/2000/04/05/carson/index.html). What is the effect of Carson's habit of yoking together images and characters from ancient and contemporary cultures, like St. Augustine and Edward Hopper, or Thucydides and Virginia Woolf? What is the effect of the series she calls "TV Men" which includes, Hector of Homer's Iliad being filmed in Death Valley and Lazarus being interviewed for a documentary about the experience of coming back to life?
4. Carson offers insight into her own creative process with the poem called "Essay on What I Think About Most": "what we are engaged in when we do poetry is error,/ the willful creation of error, / the deliberate break and complication of mistakes/ out of which may arise / unexpectedness" [p. 35]. Why is it necessary to "sidestep fear, anxiety, shame, remorse,/ and all the other silly emotions associated with making mistakes" [p. 35]? What is the relationship between a poet's private mind and the fact that published poetry is, among other things, a public performance?
5. In Carson's final essay about her mother's death, she writes, "Death lines every moment of ordinary time," and "Crossouts sustain me now" [p. 166]. Why do words crossed out of a manuscriptdirections not takenremind Carson of death? Why does she dedicate the final words, crossed out of Virginia Woolf's manuscript for Women and Fiction (an early version of A Room of One's Own) to her mother?
6. How does "Dirt and Desire"an eye-opening discussion of classical Greek ideas about women and female sexualityrelate to Carson's thoughts on the differences between men and women that are expressed in the poems?
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 poetryabout what poetry is, what poetry does, the emotional and intellectual effects of poetry upon a reader? Is she asking usor forcing usto 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 aspectlike that of Robert Lowell or Anne Sextonor 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?