Introduction for Anne Carson reading, Sarah Lawrence College


It’s my great pleasure to welcome Anne Carson to Sarah Lawrence tonight. As you’ll hear, she belongs to a tradition this college has a good deal of respect for, that of the subverter of convention--including the convention of poetry reading introductions, at which the introducer recites all the books the poet has ever written and all the awards she’s ever won. To honor the subversive I’ll start with Anne Carson’s revision of this convention, which appears on every book of hers I’ve ever seen, with characteristic brevity and wit: Anne Carson lives in Canada.

In the late 1980s I worked reading poetry for Ben Sonnenberg at the old Grand Street magazine; he has multiple sclerosis, so I’d often stand beside him in the office that was a room of his apartment on Riverside Drive and turn manuscript pages, as we looked at the poems that had made the first cut. I’ll always remember coming across a manuscript that began with an Introduction: “Towns are the illusion that things hang together somehow,” it said, “my pear, your winter. I am a scholar of towns, let God commend that. To explain what I do is simple enough. A scholar is someone who takes a position.” I remember Ben and I looking at each other. We were reading Anne Carson’s “The Life of Towns,” getting stunned by degrees, as another poet intent on ecstasy might put it--noting the particularity of the voice on the page, its precision, its sensuality, its playfulness, its strangeness--its residence in the meeting place between a poet’s stumbling after mystery and the clarity of a scholar’s mind. After the introduction--”Now move along,” it ends--came “Apostle Town”: “After your death. It was windy every day. Every day. Opposed us like a wall. We went. Shouting sideways at one another. Along the road it was useless. The spaces between. Us got hard they are. Empty spaces and yet they. Are solid and black. And grievous as gaps. Between the teeth. Of an old woman you. Knew years ago. When she was. Beautiful the nerves pouring around in her like palace fire.”

I’ve been reading Anne Carson’s poetry for about fifteen years now, and that vividness I first noticed, part technical skill and invention and part a soul at the white heat, has not waned. I could stand here quoting gratefully for a long time--but let me just focus a minute on one poem, called “Book of Isaiah.” As you’ll remember, ‘God’ is the 21st word in the introduction to “The Life of Towns,” and it’s the 14th word in “Book of Isaiah”; it used to be a quite usual subject for poets, God, in the singular or the plural. So as a subverter of convention, a breaker-out of theprison of it, Anne Carson in the time of John Donne might have written about labor relations or the emptiness of monarchs or how potatoes grew--but luckily for us, she’s here. It’s not so usual for a contemporary poet to write about God--let alone to write in conversation with God, which could be as regular as writing about bees or weather or childhood experiences, as with Anne Carson it is. This is not necessarily what most people would call ‘religious’--in “Book of Isaiah,” she writes: “Religion calls the pressure piety and the smashed thing a sacrifice to God./Prophets question these names.”

Richard Bernstein in the New York Times has talked about “the way her verse pierces the mind with a laserlike light”; someone at Booklist called her “audacious, funny, poised, and extraordinarily smart.” The judges for the Griffin Poetry Prize cited “her quizzical, stricken moral sense”; Susan Sontag has called her “a daring, learned, unsettling writer.”

New pain! said Isaiah, she wrote. New contract! said God.

For us, that rare, precious gift of New Words. Please welcome AC.