The past is always intensely present for poet, novelist and classicist Anne Carson
Anne Carson, a Canadian writer of growing international repute and a favourite of American intellectuals such as Susan Sontag and Harold Bloom, has said that she thinks of writing as “mining by smell.” Taste – the evocative taste of a bite-sized cake called a madeleine – allowed Marcel Proust to mine his memories. Is scent the way to mine some insights into Carson?
When the Montreal author comes to Toronto to do a fundraising reading for the Abelard School, we meet at the grand old mansion that houses the school, just north of Carson’s alma mater, the University of Toronto. Alas, the ethereal, reserved Carson seems to wear no perfume. Whatever the scent of her Carson-ness might be, it is lost amid this building’s odour of old wood polish.
But perhaps, like the protective scentlessness of a fawn, elusiveness is Carson’s essence. Although she has won many top prizes and honours in the United States a MacArthur “genius” grant; a Lannan Literary Award; a Guggenheim fellowship and her latest poetry collection, Men in the Off Hours (Knopf, 2000), was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, she is little known in her native Canada. Nor is she interested in providing autobiographical detail.
We know only that she was born in 1950 to a banker’s family and raised in various Ontario towns, from Timmins to Port Hope; attended U of T; married and then divorced; has no children; is a professor of classics at McGill University. Oh, yes, and we have Carson’s strong yet delicate writing: passionately learned, playfully coded. Just how autobiographical is her new fictional essay, The Beauty of the Husband (Knopf), in which a wife with a classical education quotes Homer even as she watches her husband leave for other women (“often turning to look back”)? Yet there is no one more direct at communicating the sorrow hidden at the heart of love.
The study of classics was not obvious at first for Carson (BA 1974 St. Michael’s, MA 1975, PhD 1981). She enrolled at the university in 1968, then changed her mind. The next year she found a job, and then tried graphic arts (“designing cereal boxes,” she says) at Toronto’s Humber College. Then she settled on the subject of Greek poetry and ultimately earned a PhD at U of T.
“Classics is kind of like a cult,” Carson observes with the mysterious smile of an initiate. Those who seek it out consciously set themselves apart, joining a community where people learn not in order to change the world but to preserve it; where the chatter of contemporary trend-spotters fades beside the power and relevance of ancient voices.
It’s a world where passionate erudition is honoured, a world of professors such as the opera-loving, myth-quoting Emmet Robbins. “I met Emmet in my first year,” says Carson. “He is the most civilized man I have ever known.” Professor Robbins has been her constant, the teacher and mentor who became a friend, and because he heads the Abelard School board, she is doing the fundraising reading for him.
There were other professors she recalls vividly, including Father James Sheridan, who smelled of Irish pipe tobacco. “So far as I can recall, Father Sheridan taught us Plato’s Apology by walking up and down and telling us stories about Ireland.” Revealing a flash of how her poet’s mind apprehends things, Carson adds, “Father Sheridan had a thickness of being; he let learning fall out of the folds of his cassock.”
By the early 1970s, right after the shootings at Kent State University in Ohio and the computer riot at Sir George Williams (now Concordia) in Montreal, studying Latin and Greek was almost counter-revolutionary. Like Carson’s fictional Geryon, the protagonist of her first novel, Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse (Geryon is winged, red-coloured and gay), classicists were freaks. Carson recalls how Leonard Woodbury, her thesis adviser, polarized his classes merely by wearing a waistcoat and tie – a red flag before the bulls of campus radicalism. What goaded them even more was Woodbury’s rigour and retrograde standards of excellence.
Although much of campus life seems to have been irrelevant to Carson, she was quickened by other aspects. Her Proustian madeleine may be the old Greek lexicon in the St. Michael’s library, where she went every night to do her homework; it smelled, she says, of ancient celery.
Carson did some of her MA at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and taught at Princeton for six years in the 1980s. But she still believes that U of T’s classics program remains one of the best anywhere. “Classics gives you complexity: the Greeks and Romans are so exemplary and so screwed up,” smiles Carson. She talks like one who is on intimate terms with them – particularly Sappho, the poetess of Lesbos, and Stesichoros, whose fragmented works concerning Herakles and Geryon inspired Autobiography of Red (Knopf, 1998). “I struggle in the dark with my Greeks. It’s a wrestling match.”
They aren’t the only folk who inhabit Carson’s wondrous mind. Men in the Off Hours invaded the minds of not only Sappho but also Leo Tolstoy and Emily Dickinson; The Beauty of the Husband, her “novel in 29 tangos,” combines quotes from John Keats, accounts of Emperor Hirohito’s first radio speech and Nahum Tates rewrite of King Lear in 1681.
Whatever she does, as a classicist, the past is always intensely present for Anne Carson. Even walking around her old campus, she says, “There are so many footprints on these streets, I’m surprised they’re not really there.”
Val Ross (BA 1972 UC) is a Toronto writer and editor.