What does it Mean?

Alive That Time

by Anne Carson

In fact Odysseus would have been here long before now
but it seemed to his mind more profitable
to go to many lands acquiring stuff.
For Odysseus knows profit over and above mortal men
nor could anyone else alive rival him at this.
(Odyssey, 19.282-6)

It´s a panel on something improbable (Godard
and Homer?) in a fluorescent salon of some
city ´ s Palais de Congress.

your overcrafted paper sinks to cool applause you watch the
back of Margaret
Drabble´s head
let loose hooves and Styx and stories of supper
to lope the room. Applause is warm.
Q & A is daft.
A Washington journalist asks and answers everything.
Out side in the hall you recognize Z
still in mid-sentence since 1986,
urging you to contact N ? that noon, that heat, that crazy
weekend you flew with N to Miami to ID her father´s body
(Coral) midday (Gables) silence
wadded tight around the bungalow you were both
afraid to enter ?
now president of a posh college in the Mid-west.
N´s favourite fact about her father, whenever he
won at the races he would buy a diamond on the way home.
It feels alive, you go there.
Drabble dinner at a costly bistro in the old town makes
smilebones hurt.
You leave abruptly, can´t find your hat in the cloakroom,
lift a Boralino cap, looks striking on you, glad for it all
the way back to the hotel.
Cold wind, theft itself, there.

The above poem was published in the London Review of Books on 8 February 2007 and was chosen at random to reflect published and acclaimed modern poetry (there is a mass of accessible unpublished and unacclaimed poetry out there, but , well, it´s who you know???).

Love the visual look of it, but what does this poem mean? Anne Carson is smart woman, an essayist, critic, novelist, philologist, librettist, fluent in ancient Greek and Latin, and a Professor of Classics, Comparative Literature and English at the University of Michigan.

Time was when poets communicated feeling and beauty to their readers, interpreting the world around them with felicitous phrases and clever images. Despite the fact that the writer was a master of the language and a regular user of a huge vocabulary, you knew what he or she was getting it. It was within your knowledge and experience, and all the more clever for often having been written in rhymed couplets. Sometimes the poem told a story, sometimes it talked about love, sometimes about landscapes. But usually it was comprehensible to the literate and educated with a tolerable facility with the English language.

Now, it seems, poetry is an in-group activity, where modern poets speak to modern poets, dropping in-group references and clever allusions recognized only be their (academic) peers. As the numbers of academics has risen and their subjects taught have been sliced, diced and often reduced to obscure specialisms, so the language has become more obscure and exclusive, the snobbery and introversion more rampant.

What have we here? The reference to Odysseus reminds us that the author is a classicist. Margaret Drabble ´s head is a marker for the literary circles in which the writer moves and lectures. Here is someone who has arrived, even if her lecture has bored the politely applauding audience. We know that she has money, because the bistro is costly. The borsolino hat impresses us that "we" are sophisticated, know Italy, probably speak Italian and can recognize an expensive hat that is worth purloining. Unfortunately, we also know that the poet, having shared a deeply personal and harrowing experience with N, doesn´t maintain her friendships and hasn´t kept up with the president of a posh college in the Midwest, but trots around the world presenting turgid and obscure papers from her tenured academic perch. To the extent that the writer reveals herself somewhat, it is mildly interesting. But the character, the theft and the name-dropping are less than attractive. Why should we be interested in this person who is so wrapped up in No.1? There´s a pop song entitled, It´s All About Me. Yes, that is the difference! Me, me, me! But I prefer the pop song. At least all you have to do is read the title to get what the author is trying to say. The tendency to assume that obscurity hides deep meaning has to be resisted.

Of course, there is an outside possibility that maybe the author is letting the cat out of the bag about a disagreeable colleague, who is a name-dropper, gives unappreciated lectures, is pas sympatique, and who steals other peoples hats. Now that is interesting! In which case I am quite wrong and unreservedly apologize for picking on this splendid lady poet!

May 2007