Friday, January 13, 2012

Anne Carson's Red - Part One

Reading the Anne Carson Interview in Paris Review No. 171, Fall 2004 this last weekend, I was moved to wonder, as I had in the past, just why her work has received so much favorable attention, and why so many people who should know better have been praising her work, and lionizing her as the feminist's answer to John Ashbery.

Perhaps it is her grounding in classical Greek literature. Tradition-bound critics and poets invariably admire writing which bears the stamp of classical literary tropes, even if (or when) it may be so unlike its putative models that it's unrecognizable in that context as literature at all. Classical fall-back is always the salve for anxiety about the new, especially when the work is so resistant to comprehension or explanation that even its Author is at a loss to account for it. Leavened with liberal doses of straight "translation" doesn't hurt either, particularly when it's of Euripides, Aeschylus, or Sappho.

What is it about Canadians that makes them so bland--so vanilla and inert and obtuse? I've always liked Roderick Haig-Brown (though he was born in Great Britain), but I can't think of any other Canadians who do it for me. I tried to like Margaret Atwood's poetry. No luck. I don't think of Leonard Cohen as a poet, but a song-writer who strayed out of his metier. I once heard Michael Ondaatje read a couple of interesting poems. Wiki lists about 650 names, but I've only heard of about eight of them. This is going to irritate lots of people, but it's a fact that most American readers are completely unaware of the vast majority of Canadian poets. We seem separated by an invisible wall at the border. When I've traveled to Canada, I've sensed a strong undercurrent of distrust, even of contempt, for America and Americans. I would like to believe that that's a misapprehension based on bad publicity, our confused foreign policy, or what the world thinks of us based on the art we export abroad. But I think it's also a symptom of a huge inferiority complex, which is almost racial in its intensity. Canadians have a "clean" country, things have a superficial sense of order, there's a kind of cottage industry of presumptuous propriety which they do nothing to conceal. "We're superior," they seem to be saying, "and if you don't like it, that's tough." The evidence for this supposed superiority being their refusal to succumb to the chaotic tendencies and excesses of their big blustery neighbor to the south. Or perhaps it's a lingering vanity that having once been part of the British Commonwealth, they're a tad more sophisticated than us obstreperous Colonials.

Carson makes a case for herself as a maladjusted teen and young adult. She describes herself as a cold fish, sexually ambiguous--perhaps even a-sexual--who developed an obsession for the Greek language while still in middle school. Like many of her contemporary academics, she's spent much of her adult life teaching in America. And her American audience--the audience for her work--seems better suited to the kind of writing she's published in her life--than her native country-folk. She's in that sense more "American" than Canadian, though those aspects of her character which are revealed in her work, seem more deeply Canadian.

Occasionally, one encounters the work of a writer whose impulse to abstraction and discontinuity is so primordial that one is left without any kind of mooring or guidepost even to attempt to describe it. The first fact to comprehend about Carson's work is that nearly all of it is based on Greek models, or tropes. Her fascination with the Greek language has led her to a lifelong attempt to understand ancient Greek civilization--its ways of thinking, its imagery, its worldview and religious iconography. All of these she imagines for herself in an eccentric way, freely incorporating details (both real and imagined) from her life, as well as surrealistic events and imagery, in such a way as to produce hybrid prose cribs as of some larger formal structure. The inadequacy of these fragments and disorganized sequences is excused with the claim that she neither has the interest nor the skill to make them more organized than they are, and that this disorganization embodies a vision of a sort of archeological incunabula, as if we could read her as we read Sappho, with a full knowledge of her incompleteness and fragmentary status. In addition, her defensive position with respect to feminist projections of history and meaning leads her into many peculiar gendered thematic dilemmas.

Adopting classical models is a very traditional choice. Writers have been translating and "adapting" Greek dramatic works and poems for centuries. Robinson Jeffers spent a good deal of his career either re-writing Greek drama, or trying to write new kinds of poetic-dramatic works based on vaguely contemporary subject-matter. Countless writers try their hand at adapting Homer--Christopher Logue comes to mind. Pope did the whole of the Iliad, and a major part of the Odyssey. But Carson, in her own work, is quite at odds with any literal use of Greek literature. In her own work, Greek literature is like a fantasy world, which bears aresemblance to accepted historical research and surmise, but which exists primarily to furnish her with a context and a pretext for the presentation of very abstract and difficult speculative meta-fictions. Again, none of this is new territory. John Gardner, for instance, used classical literary prototypes in his fictions. But Carson's employment of it is different in that she feels no obligation to historical accuracy or to artistic truth: Her post-modern license permits her to excuse any kind of excess, as if the difficulty and confusion her work projects were self-evidently finished and perfect. This notion of disjunct artifice has become tiresomely familiar to readers of post-Modern verse--as if the casual failure to make sense were somehow a victory over power and fate. It certainly may be a victory over common sense, when critics who should know better praise work which they can't interpret, either because its referents are so obscure that the work becomes opaque, or because they simply can't figure it out. Put up a persiflage of disconnected event, obscure reference, and clever disorganization, and you have the makings of a post-Modernist blockbuster.

Ah, time's ravages!

Here are two recent Carson poems from The New Yorker, of all places.



Insatiable April, trees in place,
in their scraped-out place,
their standing.
Standing way.
Their red branch areas,
green shoot areas (shock),
river, that one.
I surprised a goose and she hissed.
I walk and walk with cold hands.
Back at the house it is filled with longing,
nothing to carry longing away.
I look back over my life.
I try to find analogies.
There are none.
I have longed for people before, I have loved people before.
Not like this.
It was not this.

Give me a world, you have taken the world I was.


Actually not. Feigned leap into--
river glimpsed through bare
[some noun] for how thought breaks up around you not here
your clothes not wet in this deep mirror--
what Holderlin calls die tageszeichen, signs scored into the soul by the god of each day
your answer scars, I still don't know--
years from now, these
notations in the address book, this frantic hand.

Alembic: The presentation of a series of notations which are the notes towards a possible poem, in its half-finished state, dull repetitions, unspecified emotional dilemmas, with incomplete gaps where words or phrases would later be supplied--these are cute tricks which do nothing either to demonstrate the wit or thought of the writer, or to move her beyond curiosity. The lacunae and brief parsings do nothing to further our appreciation of the emotion.

Ode to the Sublime by Monica Vitti

I want everything

Everything is a naked thought that strikes.

A foghorn sounding through fog makes the fog seem to
be everything.

Quail eggs eaten from the hand in fog make everything

My husband shrugs when I say so, my husband shrugs at

The lakes where his factory has poisoned everything are as
beautiful as Bruegel.

I keep my shop, in order that I may sell everything there, empty
but I leave the light on.

Everything might spill.

Do you know that in the deepest part of the sea everything goes
transparent? asks my husband's friend

Corrado and I say Do you know how afraid I am?

Everything requires attention, I never relax my neck even when
kissing Corrado.

Kant says "everything" exists only in our mind, attended by a
motion of pleasure and

pain that throws itself back and forth in me when I lay on
Corrado's bed fighting with

everything with Corrado watching from across the room then he
came to the bed and

mounted me and this made no different except now I had to
fight everything through Corrado, which I did

"undaunted" (so Kant) on his freezing bed in its midnight glare.

What will you take? I ask Corrado who is leaving for Patagonia
and when he says 2 or 3

valises I say if I had to go away I would take with me everything
I see.

To this Corrado says nothing which is not I think the opposite of

Doesn't seem right is what my husband would say, he says this
about everything--

especially since I came out of the clinic, a clinic for people who
want everything, everything I see

everything I taste everything I touch everyday even the
ashtrays and at

the clinic I had only one question What shall I do with my eyes?

The first thing to remark is the complete lack of a formal control over materials. The progression of lines is completely lacking in rhetorical tension. The poem's structure is that of a soliloquy begun with a non-sequitur, and then sustained without rests. There is no music in the phrasing, and no suggestion of a relationship between the ostensible speaker, the poet, and the possible implications the dramatic situation proposes. Though the lines are centered, there seems no urgent purpose to its having been set this way, except perhaps to de-emphasize the lack of a formal setting.

Ostensibly, it's an adaptation of the film Red Desert [1964, which Michelangelo Atonioni wrote and directed], a classic art-house film from the heyday of the Italian New Wave. Carson's appropriation of the quasi-feminist content of the woman's mental instability, sexual vulnerability and blank animation is completely typical and opportunistic. In other words, there is nothing she brings to an interpretation of the film's bare outline that is not already in it. Adapting situations from other works is a routine technique. Traditional historical tropes pervade Western literature over the last 2000 years. The point has never been the mere evocation of the familiar emotion or situation of the model, but to capture it in something like a heightened state of dramatic intensity, or to offer new points of view about them. Carson writes her poem as if the recapitulation of the plot constituted an amazing feat, the whole business of the poem.

The story of the anxiety and disorientation of a fragile woman protagonist allows the film-maker (and Carson) the freedom to conceive of her as a victim, a personification which has reached the stage of cliché in our present cultural dialogue. It is well beyond cliché--it is a dumb idea. But writers like Carson have to get their ducks lined up. You could pick Joan of Arc, or Susan B. Anthony, or Florence Nightingale, but the important thing is the persecution of women. There have been, and there will be more, works based on the persecution of women, in literature. One looks forward to them. But the choice to adapt themes like this, without the merest effort to process the model beyond a simple report, or crib, is completely typical of Carson. One is left with the feeling of waiting for another shoe to drop. "Ode to the Sublime"?"I want everything." Well, what an astonishing idea. Do run-on sentences really qualify as an example of the elevation of style which Longinus posits as one of the sources of sublimity in language?

Carson may have arrived too late on the scene to benefit from the excesses of the Language School's approach to literary form. One might theorize that her work is an unconscious example of the decay of rhetoric arising from the corruption of spirit. But claiming territory by fiat isn't enough. Are these the daydreams of a translator who literally thinks in cribs? Nabokov constructed a "novel" out of the translation of a narrative poem and appended exegetical appurtenances [Pale Fire, 1962]. Lately we've been treated to the hybrid fiction as a cross-bred historical-academic fairy tale; there was French Lieutenant's Woman [1969], and then A.S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance [1990]--each balancing past and present linked dramatic situations played off against each other. These are each a carefully constructed fictions, in which reality and fantasy, dancing animatedly side by side, are kept separate and distinct. But Carson's post-Modern objects are not lenses placed between us and another time, clarifying our sense of our own reality, or making more vivid our knowledge of a distant situation. Hers are deliberate distortions (arising from obscure or fragmentary sources), designed to celebrate the failure of comprehension, and glorying in the ability to twist accounts into jealously selfish and fake preferred versions, the better to suit her unique set of prejudices and PC views. One possible exercise of this tendency would be to re-imagine primitive mythical prototypes, but that would throw the burden (and the responsibility) for interest and authenticity squarely on the author's shoulders, which Carson would be unlikely to want; established myths lend an air of genuine license to her animadversions, despite the fact that she pays them not the least duty of respect. For her, ancient Greek myths are a means to an end, an intention which is appropriated for the expedience of fake authority.

Scholars mourn the loss of ancient texts, and speculate about the meaning and purpose of surviving fragments. Our interest in such residual evidence does not, however, suggest that the resulting dilemma constitutes an aesthetic principle in itself. Carson's texts often rely on mysterious, fragmentary content, and broken-off assertions and incomplete situations, perhaps believing that these might be seen as metaphorical revisions, or as metaphors for a mental state of disarray. This is like trying to justify a crime by insisting on a lack of responsibility or awareness on the part of the perpetrator. We may understand that the failure of a writer to accomplish more than a fragmentary hodge-podge of statements could in itself be evidence of an inability to do better, but any writer's attempt to convince us that this failure is interesting and valuable because of its shortcomings, is simply a pathetic pleading. The notion of implying an abnormal psychological component to the voice of a poem or story is among the most tired, discredited ideas in Modernist and post-Modernist literature, since it is wholly gratuitous to the case.

[The text here breaks off in favor of an interview, which is continued in the next day's blog entry.]


Conrad DiDiodato said...

"What is it about Canadians that makes them so bland--so vanilla and inert and obtuse?"

I think I have the answer, Curtis: it's the Literacy by Bureaucracy system under which people write and publish. Ours is a 'nanny state' in which entitlement trumps quality and real innovativeness. Carson like Karen Houle, Christian Bok, Frank Davey, etc etc and the rest of the academic-poets can't really look beyond a few catch-phrases culled from their own specialities. Without their lecture notes--and generous Canada Council grants!-- they'd have nothing to say.

The last time anything interesting happened in literary Canada (the Simon Fraser 'Tish' movement) the Americans were largely responsible for it. I too find mainstream Canadian writers a generally lethargic and uninteresting bunch who don't have the stomach for real literary discussion. It's why about 95% of my own online correspondences are with the Americans. I can't think of a single Canadian writer who's commanded the same respect and audience appeal as, e.g. Ron Silliman. Not one.

Good post, Curtis: your honesty's refreshing. I'd almost hope for reactions from the Canadians but, well--as you say--they just seem too bland for it.

Hugh Kenner said...

Eight Is Enough: The Incomplete Situation of Lower North American Literature

Chapter 1: John McPhee
Chapter 2: Joyce Carol Oates
Chapter 3: Patti Smith
Chapter 4: Paul Auster
Chapter 5: Four Others Best Left to the Incurious Reader's Imagination

Bob Arnold / Longhouse said...

Cheers Curtis,

and three cheers to at least a Canadian baker's dozen: bill bissett, Daphne Marlatt, Michael Ondaatje, George Stanley (visitor), Fred Wah, George Bowering, Tom Wayman, Robin Blaser, Nicole Brossard, Irving Layton, bpNichol, John Newlove, Al Purdy

all's well, Bob

Anonymous said...

"most American readers are completely unaware of the vast majority of Canadian poets"

Top 5 NYT best sellers as of today:

PRIVATE: #1 SUSPECT, by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
THE HELP, by Kathryn Stockett
11/22/63, by Stephen King

And we are to take the "awareness" of American readers as some kind of guide to literary value? Give me a break....

Nevertheless you are right about Carson. She's an anemic bore and not at all representative of the best in Canadian poetry. The answer to Ashbery? As if Ashbery could inspire an answer....

Curtis Faville said...

Dear Bob & Joseph:

Of course my remark had nothing in it of specific praise or repudiation. Merely a confession of ignorance, not just for me, but for my countrymen.

I once cosidered emigrating, but thought better of it. Are clean sidewalks worth 60 inches of rain? Wrong question.

bpNichol's someone I've thought to look up, but whose books we rarely see down here. In the 1970's, a few Coach House books turned up, but nothing these days.

I definitely did not see what was supposed to be so hot about Atwood--never have.

If you think this post was bad, read the next one--I'll lose readers by the bushell-full, if I ever had readers in the first place. Oh well, have to get these things off one's chest.

Did I forget to mention Robertson Davies? Crucial omission!