It's not often that one person can lay claim to a Lannan Literary Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Grant, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and the T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize – and alongside these accolades spearhead a successful professorial and writing life. Yet Anne Carson, currently a professor of classics and comparative literature at the University of Michigan and a Fall 2007 Anna-Maria Kellen Fellow at the American Academy, may do so.
Over the course of her 20-year literary career, Carson's characteristic melding of forms – fiction, epitaphs, love poems, verse-essays, commemorative prose, translation, criticism, and interpretive analysis – has provided the writer ever greater versatility. Yet this, along with her numerous translations of Greek and Latin classical texts, has done little to exhaust her desire for art's ever-widening circles of expressive power. "I know that I have to make things," she once told Publisher's Weekly, "And it's a convenient form we have in our culture, the book, in which you can make stuff… But I've never felt that it exhausts any idea I've had."
Carson's yearning for further forays into uncharted literary territory, specifically using classical forms, began in her Ontario high school, when a Latin instructor offered her entry into the world and language of ancient Greece with extracurricular tutoring over lunch hours. Thereafter, Carson enrolled at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto, departing the university twice, having become disconcerted with the constraints of academia. Defecting to the world of commercial art, Carson returned again to the University of Toronto, where she completed a B.A. in 1974 and a M.A. in 1975. After a year in Scotland studying for a degree in Classics from the University of St. Andrews, she returned to her native Toronto for her Ph.D. in 1981.
In 1987 the international poetry scene welcomed Carson's long poem "Kinds of Water," published in Grand Street. The work subsequently appeared in The Best American Poetry of 1990 and put Carson's name on the tips of many a literary tongue, including that of Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, and Alice Munroe, all of whom praised the author's simultaneous inventiveness and basis in classical literature. Thereafter, "in the small world of people who keep up with contemporary poetry," wrote Daphne Merkin in the New York Times Book Review, "Anne Carson has been cutting a large swath, inciting both envy and admiration." For Merkin, Carson's trajectory was "unclassifiable, even by today's motley, genre-bending standards. Was she writing poetry? Prose? Prose poems? Fiction? Nonfiction?"
No matter. Carson's books, regardless of genre, began with Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay, published by Princeton University Press in 1986; the work established Carson's voice and reputation for stylizing in the manner of Greek literature. Thereafter, several books followed in rapid succession throughout the 1990s: Short Talks (1992), Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (1995), Glass, Irony, and God (1995), Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse (1998), and Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan (1999).
Of these, it was Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse that brought the author wide attention in periodicals throughout the US and Canada. Recasting the story of Herakles in the present, the book sees two teenage boys-a sensitive, thoughtful Gerydon and a roughneck Herakles – enter an affair that is unequally matched: where Gerydon overwhelmingly adores, Herakles endlessly recoils, leading to the ultimate break-up of the tryst – and to The Nation's literary critic calling Carson the "philosopher of heartbreak."
As in Autobiography, the theme of love lost would return in Carson's 2001 book, The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in Twenty-nine Tangoes, about a middle-aged woman facing a now loveless marriage. The New York Times Book Review wrote that the book navigates "the waywardness of lust and the disaffection of the heart as seen through a marital breakup." The resonance of Beauty of the Husband, led to Carson's receiving a MacArthur grant-a $500,000 prize distributed over five years.
Anne Carson's work spans the world of what Germans would call Belletristik. Her project at the American Academy this fall will be a new translation of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound, an author who is, she says, "perhaps the hardest of the Greek tragedians to convey to a modern audience, due to the wildly original enterprise of his language combined with an extreme archaic brutality of thought." Her audience lays in wait.
While Carson's oevre has proven expansive and encompassing, and her accolades match the power of her literary promise, the author's humility about her private life is noteworthy for its groundedness: she rarely gives interviews, shuns literary celebrity, and prefers her biography to read, simply, "Anne Carson lives in Canada."
This, while humble, is not entirely surprising from a woman who told Publisher's Weekly shortly after receiving the MacArthur prize that recognized her beautifully restless output, "I never did think of myself as a writer."