Challenging the bounds of poetry


Title: Glass, Irony & God

By: Anne Carson

If the function of the poet is to push the limits of language, then few poets writing today do it as splendidly as Anne Carson. In her verse novels (Autobiography of Red, The Beauty of the Husband) and her collections of essays and verse (Men in the Off Hours, Plainwater) Carson consistently challenges the bounds of what we call poetry, blending the classical with the modern, the surreal with the mundane, creating a tough-minded oeuvre of rigorous yet revelatory power.

Nothing exemplifies the range of Carson’s style as well as her book Glass, Irony and God. It begins with ‘The Glass Essay’ a long poem of shattering force that combines the narrator’s experience of heartbreak with her musings on the life and work of Emily Bronte. Carson blends vivid imagery with elegant erudition, slipping in the occasional touch of the everyday; but her real gift is for palimpsest, for describing (in her words) “that other day running underneath this one…like a glass slide under a drop of blood”.

‘The Glass Essay’ is followed by ‘The Truth About God’ a collection of pithy, ironic poems about God and religion that I can only compare to Ted Hughes’ Crow. We then get ‘TV Men’, featuring portraits of Hector and Socrates located in the age of television; ‘The Fall of Rome: A Traveler’s Guide’, which portrays tourism in an inner landscape of nightmare and insecurity; and perhaps most memorably of all, ‘Book of Isaiah’, a visionary / revisionary take on Old Testament myth that can only be described as lyrical mysticism with attitude. Finally (for so bravura a performance surely deserves an encore) Carson gives us ‘The Gender of Sound’ – a feminist essay that looks at the way patriarchy suppresses female expression by portraying high-pitched or shrill voices as silly, hysterical or plain evil.  As poetry collections go, it’s hard to think of one that’s more varied and more incendiary.