What Poets Can Learn From Anne Carson: Poetry Stripped down

Tango number nineteen in Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, “A conversation between equals in which nothing is more difficult to achieve in this world habeas corpus’d as (Keats says) we are out of all wonder curiosity and fear,” is composed completely in dialogue. It is not only solely dialogue, but lacks indicators of who is speaking. Without “he said/she said” to guide the reader, Carson relies on the characters’ history and their distinct voices to keep the reader on track.

The poem is set up with each person’s statement on its own line. This makes for a very fast-paced tempo, especially since many of the lines consist of one word. The poem begins:

I know.

I can see why you would think that.

Go on.

Faithless lecherous child.


Including explanations of who is speaking when would significantly reduce the tension that is set up so immediately. Because this conversation has been preceded by eighteen other poems, we know from context that the first line is spoken by the wife. We know the husband’s history of adultery and his smug nature concerning it. We also know that the wife has been cast in victimhood. The bold opening line both accuses the husband of cowardess, and can also be seen as the wife accusing herself and mustering courage to conduct the rest of the confrontation. Writing, “ ‘Coward’ the wife begins,” or the like, would remove the second possible meaning. Carson writes the husband in this opening as the image of indifference. But the next line notes a shift in the conversation in which he becomes more vulnerable. It begins with the wife again.

What can I say.

But please.

Destroyer liar sadist fake.

Please what.

Save me.

Who else do you say that to.

No one.

No one he says.

Have courage.

You fool.

Oh my love.


Carson doesn’t even slow the pace with question marks at the end of questions. She keeps it stripped down to the words only. As the speedy speech continues, we begin to lose track of who is speaking. In the middle section, the part quoted above and about a dozen lines following, this works to the poem’s advantage. Lines like “Stop.” “Are you mad.” “You live a counterfeit life.” could be accusations pointed at either party, or can be the person speaking to him/herself. Carson doesn’t let it stay uncertain for too long, though. Around the thirty-fifth line she begins to bring in clues to get the reader back on track.

These are my trophies my campaigns my honors I lay them before

The women.

The lying.

The shame.

There is no shame.

The shame I feel.

There is no shame except in retreat.

And I never retreat.

I guess not.

Be my ally.

What are we talking about now.


Here, Carson supplies indicators of who is speaking based on context and analogy choices. Bringing back in specific reference to other women grounds the conversation. Carson, too, begins to insert war language into the husband’s speech. We know from previous poems that he spends a lot of time studying and reenacting wars and battles with his friends, and his uses of terms like “retreat,” “ally,” and “fog of war” (which comes in a few lines later) give him a voice of his own. Near the end of the poem, he says “God has no place in war and the folly of it well one has only to persevere in folly and the world will soon call it success.” His language becomes grandiose and archaic. The wife responds in her own distinct voice, simpler and more frenzied, “No it’s not going to clear up is it or make sense or come out into the open somewhere this welter of disorder and pain is our life.” These are the longest sentences the two utter, bringing the conversation to its breaking point.

Carson constructs a poem in which the reader is eavesdropping on an argument. Periods ending each line supply the only punctuation. This makes a harsh tone, makes it easy to imagine the two yelling at each other, the sharpness in their voices. With seamless incorporation of context and individuality, she informs the reader with no expository language whatsoever, eliminating the problem of “telling” too much or writing to a “you” who in reality already knows what the speaker is telling him or her. Carson has brought an entire relationship and its history into a conversation, relying on the two subjects to stand for themselves.

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