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The Acid Tongue
The Potts calling the Carson black

Selected By Cyril Wong

“Robert Potts deplores a poetic injustice at the T S Eliot Prize” is the subtitle that fronts an article by Potts in the Guardian in January. In one calculated sweep, it attacks not only the T S Eliot Prize and its supposed lack of foresight, but Anne Carson’s poetry, the manner in which she reads in public, and anybody who could possibly love her work. Other than that, Potts spends many paragraphs on Geoffrey Hill – a “truly major English poet” – and his latest book, Speech! Speech!.

Potts begins and ends by undermining the respect the T S Eliot Prize has garnered, relating the award to “a patient's mistaken self-diagnosis” for attempting to signify the state of health of poetry in England. Giving Carson the Prize for her latest – The Beauty of the Husband, about the collapse of a marriage described mostly from the wife’s perspective – was an unforgivable mistake in literary terms. This is the main gist of the article that follows. Here, I will quote him in full:

Carson subtitles her book “a fictional essay in 29 tangos”, though her publishers (and, indeed, the judges) seem to think that it is a poem. If so, then it is mostly a "prose poem", with the emphasis on the first of those terms. The one overt use of poetry, when Carson's narrator shares with us some of her younger self's "elegiac couplets", suggests that Carson is deliberately anti-poetic - since she is a classics professor, she must be aware that lines like "The Wind at Night carrying it all over the Sky like Quartets / or Dido surviving between Lightning Sets" are not elegiac couplets, but doggerel. Even so, one suspects that Carson's avoidance of metre stems partly from inability, although generous reviewers have suggested that her "form" in this book (very long lines and very short lines) mimics the rhythm of the tango. In its prosaic delivery, the sequence relies heavily on tone; and that tone, though frequently arresting or amusing, is irritatingly uneven.

Even Carson herself is not spared. Potts claims that she reads “in a near-monotone, as if Lilith from Frasier were using Stephen Hawking's voice-synthesiser.”

Even I begin to suspect my own propensities to admire Carson’s book when I read the following section of Pott’s merciless criticism:

What differentiates the [book’s] self-pitying account of marital unhappiness from a slice of confessional-style realism is an occasional (and occasionally clichéd) lyricism, some fashionable philosophising, and an almost artless grafting-on of academic materials... the book fails as poetry, simply because it shows either crashing inability or an unbecoming contempt for the medium. Its materials - the narrative, its details and a dry wit are engaging enough - would have made for a compelling short story.

Following that, Potts goes on an encomiastic exposition of the sublime in Geoffrey Hill’s book, with plenty of glowing adjectives such as “exemplary,” “sophisticated,” “passionate,” and even “unfashionably extensive” in Hill’s classical and intellectual allusions. Potts is disappointed that other poets find Hill “too difficult.” But he defends Hill by relating him to Eliot, no less, whose work was also once “considered dismayingly difficult.” Hill is further compared to Pound, Auden, Empson, even Shakespeare and Milton as fellow “difficult” poets, whom we have become more than willing to appreciate despite the level of difficulty in understanding aspects of their work.

In the end, Carson is left small and inconsequential in the light of such company. It may be noteworthy to emphasise that the poets who Potts admires are all male. Is his criticism fair? A possible symptom of phallocentricism? Is The Beauty of the Husband really as easy a read as Potts claims, compared to Hill? I would suggest you read Carson’s book and decide for yourself. Also, check out Hsien Min’s review of this prize-winning book in the October 2001 issue of QLRS.

Did Anne Carson deserve the T S Eliot Prize? Drip acid in the Forum!

'The Acid Tongue' is a column that celebrates acerbic reviewing. Mail us if you know of any examples.

QLRS Vol. 1 No. 3 Apr 2002


About Cyril Wong
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  Related Links

View the Potts article here
External link to the Guardian.

Other writers respond to Potts's attack
External link to the Guardian.

Information on the TS Eliot Prize
External link.

Toh Hsien Min reviews The Beauty of the Husband
Link to Oct 2001 issue.

Anne Carson biography
External link to the MacArthur Foundation.


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