The Beauty of the Husband

THE BEAUTY OF THE HUSBAND
By Anne Carson

When Boswell asked Johnson to define poetry he received the uncharacteristically unhelpful response that “it is much easier to say what it is not.” Over two hundred years later we still can’t do any better. In the twentieth century free verse rendered rhyme and conventional notions of meter obsolete. The vogue for “prose poems” blurred the line that used to divide prose from verse. One of the simplest definitions of poetry ever offered – writing that doesn’t make it all the way to the right-hand side of the page – was no longer of any use.

It is not surprising then that Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband does not announce itself as poetry at all, but rather “a fictional essay in 29 tangos.” The fiction part is a woman’s story of her husband’s lies and adulteries. The essay is a development of Keats’s ideas that beauty is truth. A tango is described on the dustjacket as something, like a marriage, “you have to dance to the end.”

The reader immediately has the sense of being asked to solve a riddle.

The example of Keats is a big clue. Each of the tangos is introduced by a quotation from Keats, though most of them are from obscure sources and a few remain impenetrable (for example: “She] {Ha?} She D”). It seems, however, as though the pronouncement of Keats’s Grecian urn, “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” is being treated ironically. For the woman in Carson’s fiction, the beauty of the husband is a lie.

His words are entirely false. His letters are picked apart. His speech is strained through a sieve. And it is found that he has lied “about everything.”

But his skill at artifice also has the poet’s “look of truth” – ironic, layered, elusive. And so the book is obsessed with analysis. Everything we read – passages from Aristotle, the husband’s love letters, lines out of Homer – is material for exegesis. Words are constantly being worried for their meaning. At one point even Fowler’s English Usage gets consulted.

In other words, The Beauty of the Husband really is an essay, but only in the limited sense of an academic exercise. How to read the husband is an analogy for how to read a poem. It is an essay about an essay, and a fiction of self-absorption. The husband folds the poem in upon himself after his wife realizes that she contains the beauty she saw in him.

This excessive inwardness is a hallmark of academic poetry, which is a label The Beauty of the Husband does nothing to avoid. It is difficult, sometimes to the point of being alienating, detached from any of the feeling that might have brought its case study to life, and self-consciously intellectual. As with every scholarly effort, there are endnotes explaining the learned allusions. Poetry is energy and joy. The Beauty of the Husband is just the form.

It is also, for a writer of Carson’s reputation, surprisingly uncertain in tone. A theory of poetry that holds that poetic truth is concealed beneath “strata of irony,” that it is a “two-faced proposition,/ allowing its operator to say one thing and mean another,” becomes annoying in practice. Poets have always written about poetry, but seldom with less confidence.

Poetry is not as popular as it once was, which has had the result of making it introspective and unsure of itself. It is a problem that goes deeper than the increasingly fluid definitions of what poetry is. Calling this book a fictional essay written in tangos may be a significant evasion. When the wife asks herself whether her husband was a poet she can only answer “Yes and no.”

And Anne Carson?

Notes:
Review first published March 3, 2001.

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