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.

Americana

AMERICANA, AND OTHER POEMS
By John Updike

Not all poetry is difficult. One of the biggest trends in contemporary poetry, for example, has been the rise of anecdotal poetry that speaks in plain language about everyday occurrences. It usually presents a slice of life rounded off with a metaphor (this is poetry, after all) that comes in at the end like a punch line. We might call it observational poetry, composed in the spirit of a Seinfeld monologue, but usually not as funny.

The first poem in John Updike’s new collection, Americana, is sub-titled “Poem Begun on Thursday, October 14, 1993, at O’Hare Airport, Terminal 3, around Six O’Clock P.M.” Yes, this is the world of the quotidian. All of the poems in the first section of the book are connected in some way with air travel, but the poetry only gets off the ground in a scattering of images, like the sky above New York City resembling “the unfilled spaces of a crossword puzzle.” In addition, there are some surprisingly angry and misanthropic riffs on topics such as overhead racks (“Like slats of a chicken coop/ overrunning with dung”) and foreign passengers who look like they might be terrorists. You don’t have to listen hard to hear Seinfeld’s voice in the background: “What is it with overhead racks? Don’t you just hate them? And who are these foreigners anyway? Where are they from?”

To be fair, John Updike has been doing this kind of thing for a lot longer than Jerry Seinfeld. His novels have always had an eye for the mundane details of modern life and a sense that these little things really mean a lot. But in his poetry the narrowness of this focus becomes magnified to an unnerving and unpleasant degree. We see Updike scratching a skin cancer on his hand in “One Tough Keratosis” and getting nicked on the finger by the page of a book in “A Wound Posthumously Inflicted.” We may well wonder if a poet so engrossed by picking a scab and getting a paper cut isn’t wasting our time.

One might also get the impression that Updike is more comfortable writing in prose. While he makes extensive use of the notoriously difficult sonnet form throughout this collection, his casual voice has little music in it.

Take the following example: “How many of us still remember when Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror hung at the turning of the stairs in the pre-expansion Museum of Modern Art?” Few people if they were asked this question would think they were hearing poetry, but in fact this is the beginning of the poem “Before the Mirror.” It appears on the page as:

How many of us still remember
when Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror hung
at the turning of the stairs in the pre-
expansion Museum of Modern Art?

Finally, something has to be said about the promotional blurb on the dustjacket, which tells us that Americana contains “sixty-two poems, three of them of considerable length.” According to my calculations, the three longest poems in the collection are six, five and three pages. In other words, for a poem to be of “considerable length” it now only has to be three pages long.

With its narrowing focus on personal trivialities and strict obedience to Poe’s dictum that a long poem is a contradiction in terms, one has the sense that poetry isn’t dying so much as it is shrinking away to nothing. Is the dried scab of Updike’s keratosis, once it has finally fallen from his hand, meant to be a symbol of the fate of poetry? We may wonder:

     Fighting down
an urge to slip it in my jacket pocket
to save among my other souvenirs,
or else to pop it in my mouth and give
those cells another chance, I dropped it to
the dirty taxi floor, to join Manhattan’s
unfathomable trafficking of dust.

Neither a relic nor a souvenir, certainly no longer part of an oral tradition, poetry has simply become an unnecessary part of ourselves.

Notes:
Review first published June 2, 2001.