Saturday, January 14, 2012

Carson's Red - A Self-Interview: The Poet as Charlatan

[What follows is the second part of a discussion on Anne Carson's "verse novel"Autobiography of Red. William Logan wrote this in a brief review from 2005: "Anne Carson . . . has for the past decade been the acceptable face of the avant garde. In Autobiography of Red . . . her poems promised that post-modernism might be a new dispensation, that if you stole, borrowed and begged enough, something interesting might come. Her love of the classics gave a gravitas to poetic experiments that otherwise would have been trivial."1 Ordinarily, I'm not likely to find myself on the same side of any argument as Logan, but in this instance, to my surprise, I do. It is in the form of a self-interview, a form which enables me to talk informally, dropping some of the formality of address which straight expository prose requires.]

Question: You've decided to continue this discussion with an interview?

Answer: Yes.

Question: But an interview can't be conducted with oneself . . .

Answer: Actually, there is precedent. Capote did it in Music For Chameleons.2 I found those self-interviews he did in that book quite diverting. Lots of interviews of literary figures end up being edited by the subject, so the answers can be scripted. That's not a bad thing. A dialogue is an interesting form in that it allows for directness, extemporaneous illumination. It also sets up a tension between what is expected, and what is divulged, between the indignation of surprise and objection, and the audacity of unplanned-for revelation. Things can quickly get out of hand in a dialogue, or a discussion, and that's the creative element at work. I beg the reader's indulgence.

Question: So the subject is Anne Carson, and what your reactions to her work are--or more specifically, her book Autobiography of Red [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998].

Answer: Yes. Though it will naturally be disputed, I always keep an open mind about what I expect from any writer's work, and have no prejudices against any faction, though I'm quickly thrown onto my guard whenever I recognize someone "using" their ethnic background or sexual identity or national affiliation or difficult childhood as a form of special pleading. But even then, transcendence is possible--look at Sylvia Plath, or Larry Eigner, who overcame mental illness and infernal tendencies on the one hand, and severe physical limitations on the other, to create great art. But the work has to be good enough in itself to accomplish this. That's what great art is, a victory over limitation of any kind. The very means of expression is itself often a kind of limitation.

Question: That seems like a long answer to a simple question. What does it have to do with Anne Carson's poetry?

Answer: Let me respond by offering a theory of literature. Let's call it the Art of Embarrassment. Imagine that in all art there is a dialogue, the dialogue between the artist, or creator, and his audience, or the person to whom the work is addressed. Imagine that there is a membrane between them, a kind of sensitized surface. Any artist reveals something about him/herself whenever he/she creates something. I would offer that the highest form of any art can be measured by the degree to which any artist reveals something about themselves. This divulging may be disguised as a fiction, or presented as bald autobiography. In literature, poetry is usually more direct than fiction, though the masks and formalities employed may be just as obviously methods to distance oneself from implication, to disguise disclosures. I don't mean embarrassment in the purely negative sense: The word embarrassment doesn't necessarily imply pain or loss; there is the embarrassment of riches, for instance. Rich people can be much more embarrassed about others discovering their true net worth, than they might be by the discovery of some personal fault. But embarrassment of riches can have a positive spin as well, a fullness or expansion of possibility or good luck; having too much advantage. Sylvia Plath, for instance, achieved most when she was revealing the worst side of her character, the side which reveled in gore, hatred, ghoulishness, vanity, infernal obsession. In other words, embarrassment was the key to her inspiration, she was best when she was revealing what was most private, most culpable, most awful. Her engagement with her art was on the grand scale, confronting the evil and terribleness of the human soul as she experienced it first-hand. That was her subject, and she mastered it. A brilliant artist, though terrifying to watch. Taking things to an absolute limit, right to the precipice. That kind of daredevil engagement is also potentially the most embarrassing, risking looking stupid, risking failure.

Question: Wow, that's a little eccentric! I don't know that that theory could be applied to Shakespeare, or Milton, or Blake.

Answer: Probably not. The greatest technicians of the art can seem to rise above the merely personal. In drama--which is what you have with Shakespeare and Milton--there's the context of representation. Personifications are represented as characters in a narrative action. But even with artists like these, there's a daring which carries their art to a higher level through the intensity of their focus. The writing in Shakespeare can accommodate the most extreme conditions and situations, and that's when it (the writing) attains to the sublime. Most of the best writers have minds--or a linguistic facility--which enables them to portray their preoccupations and obsessions with a familiarity which is well beyond most people's aptitudes. But what I mean by embarrassment is a quality of ultimate nakedness, in which one is concealing nothing, of holding nothing back. There's another school of thought which tells us that there are polite limits to art, and it's perfectly possible to function within such limits and still make very persuasive artifacts. I'm thinking of Marianne Moore, perhaps one of the most mannered artists who ever lived, but still capable of astonishing disclosures, though these are usually intellectual ones, grudging and petulant; with her, the pressure of her privacy is so great, that even the smallest disclosure is powerfully dramatic.3 Hemingway said that what makes art powerful is what is not directly stated, but only implied by what is said or shown--like an iceberg which is three-quarters under the surface of the water. Hemingway thought it was that hidden three-quarters portion which made what we do know and are allowed to see of something, potentially powerful and meaningful. It's a fascinating analytical proposal, and may not be true. Do artists deliberately withhold large parts of what they're feeling and thinking about something when they set out to evoke a sharp, moving response in the reader, viewer or listener? Or is it something they unconsciously do, without even meaning to? Conscious art is a principle of Western tradition, that we have a rational basis for any work. But since the advent of the consideration of the unconscious mind about a century ago, we tend to give greater and greater weight to the unintended directives of the hidden parts of our creative power.

Question: This sounds evasive. What does it have to do with Anne Carson, and her poem?

Answer: I guess I'm trying to set a frame of reference for what I'm going to say about her work. Because I'm pre-conceiving the kinds of objections that are likely to be raised, and I want to head those off at the pass, so to speak. I read a very diverting review of Carson's book Decreation by William Logan, who disdains "avant garde" "experimental poetry" and wants us to regard what Carson does as trivial and misguided, though well-intentioned and committed. I don't share most of Logan's pieties regarding the sort of proper, prim, decorous verse which he values--I don't, for instance, regard Alexander Pope as among the grandest poets of our language. But I'm skeptical and combative enough to share his frustration with half-baked experimentalism, especially when it's offered up as the best of what it is, and is as credulously defended and praised as Carson's has been over the last decade and a half. I read a good bit of expedient opportunism and critical indulgence into that welcoming reception. Someone wants awfully badly to believe in the possibility of a great experimental woman writer.

Question: My, that all sounds quite negative. Is this going to be some big put-down of women poets? It sounds mysogynistic and bitter.

Answer: I think if H.L. Mencken were alive today, he would be so much better at addressing the kind of cozy political correctness which governs the arenas of debate in our time. You have to train yourself to dissect and dismember preposterous pieties--what we would call deconstructing them, today--in order to maintain your ground in any discussion. Any woman writer who pretends to literary accomplishment must be cautious not to kid herself that what she's doing is effective or important simply because of her sexual nature. If there's a lack of a tradition upon which to fall back on, then the establishment of such a tradition isn't going to be accomplished in a couple of decades of effort; it's going to take centuries. There's Sappho and Anne Bradstreet and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore and H.D. and Elizabeth Bishop and Rae Armantrout; but the tradition is weak. Part of the problem is obviously that women were prevented from pursuing art, and that prohibition was ethically corrupt, over centuries of lost opportunity. There's an elegy in that that is greater than some of our most tragic cultural verdicts. But it also means that there's a lot of work yet to do, and women are the ones who must do it. But at this point in time, in our milieu of cultural guilt and accusation and defiance and resentment, there's a clear danger of desperate insistence, that what women are doing right now is apt to be as good or as liberated or as impressive as we wish that it might be--as good as the best of what men have been continuously attempting for 2500 years. The mere fact of the apparent permission now given to women does not in itself guarantee that their efforts will attain the heights of the best literature in history on very short notice. In fact, it's quite likely that a sense of light-headed release will result in more false starts and misguided efforts than would otherwise occur. Women today feel a special sense of mission, but there's no reason to imagine that that sense of calling is more likely to produce masterpieces than we would expect of any civilization, at any time. Geniuses don't grow on trees, and great books of poetry are uncommon in any time.

Question: What I guess we're talking about here is standards, and that the standards we would apply to male writers over the history of literature, should be as rigorously applied to women writers and artists today, as they have been to men. That's easy enough to understand, but you need to be more specific. Is Anne Carson a good experimental writer, or not?

Answer: The simplest answer to your question is "no," but in order to earn the right to make that pronouncement, one has to go through a series of steps. The best place to begin is with a description of the poem in question. Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse is ostensibly a narrative poem, but it could on no account be fairly be described as "verse" in the traditional sense. Formally, the poem as such is nothing more than a series of stepped, sequentially broken up sentences (and many run-on sentences), distributed into numbered (and titled) sections, and differentiated only by italic variation in type-face. As far as narrative setting and continuity are concerned, the "story" has little or no coherence, consisting as it does of glimpses of non-chronological "scenes" strung together with a weak underlying structural development. It's ostensibly the story of a boy named Geryon, who grows up in a single parent household (Mom), and has a long relationship with a slightly older man named Herakles. Autobiography of Red reinvents the story of a legend of Hercules--in which Hercules kills Geryon, a red-winged monster, stealing his red cattle--into a contemporary setting in which Geryon is a boy living somewhere in North America (probably Canada), enters into a homoerotic relationship with Herakles. Some years later, the two meet in South America, where Geryon and Herakles and the older man's current boyfriend Ancash become embroiled in a love triangle. The "novel" opens with a parodic "essay" on the ancient poet Stesichoros, from whose poetic fragments the story is derived, and ends with an "interview" with Stesichoros. The story really has nothing at all to do with ancient Greece, but is simply a peculiar fantasy-narrative with the characters taking the names of the referenced Greek poem. If this all sounds like an improbable bad literary joke, you'd not be far off the mark.

The initial framing device purports to be a kind of post-Modern adaptation of a narrative poem by the 7th Century BC Greek poet Stesichorus (or Stesichoros), the Geryoneis, which relates an episode from myth of the theft by Heracles of Geryon's cattle, with related fragments. Nearly all of Stesichoros's works were lost in antiquity, so most of what is known or deduced about him and his work is second- or third-hand, and thus conjectural, adding intrigue to any attempt to infer or interpret the meaning of anything he may have written or thought. Most of anything we think we know about writers and events of this period would not constitute what we regard as verifiable fact, thus anyone choosing to base secondary adaptations upon them has pretty much a free hand. In other words, as a trained classical scholar, Carson knows that her putative audience not only is unlikely to know anything much about the work of Stesichoros--or about Greek literature generally, for that matter--and that there is so little known about him and his work, that she can always claim artistic license for any inaccuracies or indulgent exaggerations she might choose to employ. Rather than setting out to create either an imaginative recreation of ancient Greek culture and society--what could be more boring?--or a persuasive modern reinterpretation of the purported model work itself, she gives the mythical names to otherwise mythically or historically uninflected modern characters, to create a nonsense tale sprinkled with plot non sequiturs, surrealist metaphors, in a lazy, dreamy, petulant outline which bears about as much validity to human drama (or ancient literature) as a Walt Disney cartoon does to Homer. But of course, nothing would please Carson more than to be taken as the ironic, camp creator of a bad Disneyland. She revels in it.

Autobiography of Red refers to the central character, Geryon, a boy born with wings, whose whole body is scarlet-colored (maybe this is a metaphor for some kind of weird skin disease?). That this fact goes unremarked by the narrator, and everyone else in the story, doesn't even qualify as a bad joke. That Geryon is mentally unstable, with huge funds of uncontrolled frustration and anger, and is as well (what else?) Gay to boot, what might we make of the other absurdities in the story? There's the putative fiction of a white North American male with mental problems growing up in a dysfunctional household (he's apparently "raped" by his older brother) and becoming a photographer, while maintaining an on-again, off-again relationship with an older man named Herakles (presumably a homo-sexual relationship), while on the other hand, there's a trivialized parallel analogue of a classical archetype, which seems like nothing more than an expedient framing device to give interest to an otherwise dreary, half-realized short (Gay coming-of-age) story.

Question: You say that the work can't be considered a poem in the traditional sense. If not a poem, then how would you describe its form?

Answer: Giving examples would be easy, since the writing is consistently slack, and formally disorganized. It's simply a sequence of sentences strung together without any syllabic or metrical regularity whatsoever. These aren't "line breaks"--they're simply sentences broken up randomly into alternating longer and shorter lines. There is no attempt at musical phrasing or dramatic measure. The joke of course is that a post-Modern "free verse" structure doesn't have a structure; but unlike the Modernists, there is also no attempt to derive a structural form out of the materials themselves, either as colloquial speech, or rhetorically inspired enunciation. Carson seems not to be "in" her language at all, which reads in places like a crib, and in others like the outline notes to a probable narrative. The poem is simply descriptive on the lowest possible level. In other words, formally it's completely flat, actually less inspired than the most ordinary kind of prose; so, one would deduce that the method is deliberate. Here's an example, chosen at random from page 54--


As in childhood we live sweeping close to the sky and now, what dawn is this.


Herakles lies like a piece of torn silk in the heat of the blue saying,

Geryon please. The break in his voice

made Geryon think for some reason of going into a barn

first thing in the morning

when sunlight strikes a bale of raw hay still wet from the night.

Put your mouth on it Geryon please.

Geryon did. It tasted sweet enough. I am learning a lot this year of my life,

thought Geryon. It tasted very young.

Geryon felt clear and powerful--not some wounded angel after all

but a magnetic person like Matisse

or Charlie Parker! Afterwards they lay kissing for a long time then

played gorillas. Got hungry.

Soon they were sitting in a booth at the Bus Depot waiting for food.

They had started to practice

their song ("Joy to the World") when Herakles pulled Geryon's head

into his lap and began grooming

for nits. Gorilla grunts mingled with breakfast sounds in the busy room.

The waitress arrived

holding two plates of eggs. Geryon gazed up at her from under Herakles' arm.

Newlyweds? she said.

My first impulse, reading stuff like this, is to imagine an audience of half-baked adolescent poet wannabes, rather like Bevis & Butthead, giggling agitatedly like nervous hyenas--imagining, in their ignorance, and straining after social correctness, that what they're hearing constitutes some new kind of camp humor, irreverent and witty. The story, naturally, has nothing to do with barnyards or bus-stops or gorillas or jazz or modern art. It obviously does have to do with Carson's fantasy about Gay public affectation; the irrelevant details are just window-dressing. It rarely works for me, though it might appeal to those for whom all literature is a kind of put-on, which is best appreciated in a state of sarcastic inebriation. If Carson believes that the suspension of disbelief can only occur under a condition of deadpan humor, then she probably thinks Autobiography of Red is a masterpiece of understatement.


Water! Out from between two crouching masses of the world the word leapt.


It was raining on his face. He forgot for a moment that he was a brokenheart

then he remembered. Sick lurch

downward to Geryon trapped in his own bad apple. Each morning a shock

to return to the cut soul.

Pulling himself onto the edge of the bed he stared at the dull amplitude of rain.

Buckets of water sloshed from sky

to roof to eave to windowsill. He watched it hit his feet and puddle on the floor.

He could hear bits of human voice

streaming down the drainpipe--I believe in being gracious--

He slammed the window shut.

Below in the living room everything was motionless. Drapes closed, chairs asleep.

Huge wads of silence stuffed the air.

He was staring around for the dog then realized they hadn't had a dog for years. Clock

in the kitchen said quarter to six.

He stood looking at it, willing himself not to blink until the big hand bumped over

to the next minute. Years passed

as his eyes ran water and a thousand ideas jumped his brain--If the world

ends now I am free and

If the world ends now no one will see my autobiography--finally it bumped.

He had a flash of Herakles' sleeping house

and put that away. Got out the coffee can, turned on the tap and started to cry.

Outside the natural world was enjoying

a moment of total strength. Wind rushed over the ground like a sea and battered up

into the corners of the buildings,

garbage cans went dashing down the alley after their souls.

Giant ribs of rain shifted

open on a flash of light and cracked together again, making the kitchen clock

bump crazily. Somewhere a door slammed.

Leaves tore past the window. Weak as a fly Geryon crouched against the sink

with his fist in his mouth

and his wings trailing over the drainboard. Ran lashing the kitchen window

sent another phrase

of Herakles' chasing across his mind. A photograph is just a bunch of light

hitting a plate. Geryon wiped his face

with his wings and went out to the living room to look for the camera.

When he stepped onto the back porch

rain was funnelling down off the roof in a morning as dark as night.

He had the camera wrapped

in a sweatshirt. The photograph is titled "If He Sleep He Shall Do Well."

It shows a fly floating in a pail of water--

drowned but with a strange agitation of light around its wings. Geryon used

a fifteen-minute exposure.

When he first opened the shutter the fly seemed to be still alive.

"Cut soul" "amplitude of rain" "human voice streaming down the drainpipe" "huge wads of silence" "jumped his brain" "garbage cans dashing down the alley for their souls" "ribs of rain" "a morning as dark as night" "strange agitation of light around its wings"--not only is this uninspired writing, it doesn't contribute to any overall unified effect. When Carson makes a metaphor, or a simile, it's as if she had simply pulled an extraneous verbal tag from a notebook she had kept. It is not a criticism of the best of her similes to suggest that her use of them is nearly always inappropriate. "New moon floating white as a rib at the edge of the sky" for instance, is original, and not bad, but this is followed by "from far down the freeway came a sound of fishhooks scraping the bottom of the world." These are thrown almost randomly into a sex initiation scene between Geryon and Herakles. It's as if Carson didn't understand the relationship between metaphorical evocation, and the subject of a given scene--she just thinks up the strangest, most bizarre comparison she can, apparently imagining that this makes the writing powerful and memorable. But it doesn't; it just sounds goofy.

If you thought that the post-Modern poem could challenge your sense of what inspired contemporary writing is supposed to sound like, you might consider looking elsewhere. One way of thinking about longer post-Modern poems is to imagine that they neither defend, nor attack the notion of narrative coherence, but create alternative universes of time and space, more suited to the way that people actually feel about the dislocations which have occurred in our sense of the universe, man and the immediate environment, over the last century and a half. Science fiction has explored such imaginative realms, and straight experimental fiction has done so as well. There are no absolutes in the world of art, and hardly anyone today would demand of Joyce's Ulysses, or Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, that they "make more sense" to the ordinary reader than they do. But any work of art's permission is established by the level of its achievement, not some limply ironic, half-silly, Dada-ist joke. You can make funny, crazy, comic prose-poems of the kind Franz Kafka, or Russell Edson or Mark Strand do, but to make full-length serial-narrative "poems" is quite another thing. Kenneth Koch was a master at that sort of writing (Ko, Or a Season on Earth), and he even pushed the notion of nonsensical variation over the edge with When the Sun Tries to Go On. But Carson isn't being a clown, or a maker of coquettishly bizarre translations (i.e. Zukofsky's Catullus). She's serious. She expects her poem to be treated and considered right alongside Eliot and Pound and Ashbery, as an example of clever, modish invention.

Question: Isn't what you're saying is that the poem's form doesn't adhere to any of the previously made models of what a "verse novel" could be? I mean, why can't a novel be written in a form which, for want of a better term, we could call verse? An expanded definition of "verse" could certainly be imagined for what Carson has done here, wouldn't you say?

Answer: I'm not what is known as a "formalist" in my taste; which is a way of saying that if I recognize a familiar, named, form, such as a sonnet, I immediately get suspicious. The first sonnet written in history was a moment of discovery, and the variations on the sonnet form were interesting elaborations (in the right hands). And certain forms may have a "universal" feel which is almost impossible to separate from our happy familiarity with them. But new forms are much more compelling. A William Carlos Williams poem is almost always made out of the materials of the rhetoric of its phrases and grammar, which makes his work feel so fresh and direct. But you can't go back and replicate his innovations, because they're one-of-a-kind objects--you end up trying to codify his style. We're convinced by the force of something made--whether it convinces you that what it is saying is necessary, and worthwhile, and interesting. If it's nothing but nonsense, it may delight us with its silliness, or its healthy sense of lightheadedness, but we instinctually recognize that as secondary entertainment. I'm not talking of great comedy, as in Shakespeare. I'm speaking of poems that push irony all the way over into put-on. When a reader (or an audience) gets the feeling it's being kidded, it wants the kidding to have some end in mind. A writer who thinks that a weakness in construction, or bad jokes, or poker-faced absurdities piled one upon the other, will be excused by some reference to classical literature, or by some atmosphere of camp irony, ultimately is wasting our time.

There's a school of thought which goes like this: If you speak in the accents of your time, you don't even need to think about how whether what you're saying is moving, or effective, or even clear, because no matter what you think to say, it will reflect your learning, your sensibility, your peculiar individual way of expressing yourself. In other words, anyone can write, even illiterates--they can speak it, even without writing it down. And there's no way to judge the validity of anything they do, because it's all precious creativity, on every level. The conversation of a lower class person, say, in the London of 1845, or of a soldier in the Roman provinces of 275 AD, or of a teenager in the Harlem of 2011, will all have interest. We could even call what they say, as the way they might think to say it, a kind of art (or artlessness, if you prefer, if artlessness is what you like best about entertainment). Which is another way of saying that you don't even need to be educated, because everyone is educated all the time. It's just the structural organization of their knowledge which differs from context to context. So that in the context of Anne Carson's world, half-understood concepts of what an ancient Greek poet mighthave written are a preoccupation. But we all have preoccupations. Having them doesn't make them the stuff of art, because art is about what we do with subject matter--works of art aren't daydreams written down by half-educated fools. If Anne Carson were a housewife, instead of a Canadian academic, her efforts in Autobiography of Red would have about as much interest to us as her knowledge of Stesichoros does to us. My point isn't that the housewife thinks less interestingly, or that Anne Carson isn't intelligent, or shrewd, or well-educated. It's that she's deluded herself into thinking that making a work as flaccid and negligently numb asAutobiography of Red is somehow a triumph over chaos, or an interesting version of a vague daydream she has had. Particularly since her daydreams (and most of the details she fills them with) are, as daydreams go, fairly dull.

Let's take an example. Antoine de St.-Exupery was a professional pilot, at a time in the history of aviation when airplanes were very risky machines. Tens of thousands--probably millions--of people have flown airplanes, but very, very few write about it, or write about it effectively. It takes imagination, and special knowledge and desire, to bring it off. He was one of the few who was able to do this. His experience informed his accounts, and he brought his keen perception of the drama of that enterprise directly into his work. On the evidence of Autobiography of Red, Carson possesses very little of any of these qualities. Aside from the special knowledge of Greek literature and custom, which is her claim to our attention, but which in my view counts for almost nothing in this case, despite the pretense of the mythical naming, this work feels completely unnecessary, as if she couldn't think of anything better to write about than the wan plight of a confused adolescent homosexual. St.-Exupery cares explicitly about the experience he wishes to convey, and there's a pressure in that intention which is communicated in the telling. His knowledge of his subject is intimate, immediate, and vivid. It isn't a series of bad dreams, or absurd theatrical dumb-shows. It doesn't appropriate a classical framework to bring a borrowed sense of authority to an otherwise quotidian soap-opera plot. You wonder, from the manner of presentation, whether or not Carson even realizes how puerile her effort is.

Question: You sound not only dismissive, but positively hostile!

Answer: That's a fair judgment.

Question: But why?

Answer: Because fakes and pretenders and charlatans are offensive people. They are counterfeits. They offer us something, offer it for our purchase, and they're either unaware of the false nature of their product, or they're aware of it and attempt to pass it off as genuine, with a straight face. In poker, this is known as bluffing. It's especially troublesome when women do it, because they demand, and expect, extra latitude because of their sex, and because of their right to sexual reparations. Actually, the politesse of gallantry is in direct contradiction to the historical claim of persecution, but no matter. The woman has no shame. She can ride the pale horse off into the sunset, sneering and giggling all the way.

Question: This all sounds sexist and bigoted.

Answer: None of it would matter except for the vanity and the promotion. Obscure failures have a certain dignity. You dreamed of success and fame, but it eluded you, because you didn't have the right stuff. But the promotion of the king's new invisible outfit is another matter altogether. In our present environment, our culture longs for female heroines. Almost anyone will do. Toni Morrison. Maya Angelou. Jorie Graham. Elizabeth Alexander. Margaret Atwood. Louise Gluck. Lisa Jarnot. Adrienne Rich. Lorine Niedecker. Alice Notley. Sharon Olds. Mary Oliver. Kay Ryan. Anne Waldman. But how many of these women can write with the power of Sylvia Plath?

In any given generation of writers, there may be no more than a handful--say, half a dozen, in any genre, whose work merits more than a passing glance. What happened to the thousands of poets who wrote and published work between 1900 and 1950? Their efforts are forgotten, not because they were the wrong color, or the wrong sex, or grew up in the wrong neighborhood, or lacked degrees from reputable institutions of learning. No, they were forgotten because their work didn't endure. There are writers who labor in obscurity and are later discovered, and then there are writers who are famous and celebrated in their time, but whose work on closer inspection proves unworthy. Anne Carson is almost certainly one of these, whose work follows a certain fashion, the sort of writer whom one reads, perhaps, 30 years later, with amusement and rueful dismay.

Multi-cultural textual relativism won't explain away the competing brands of mediocrity which our forgiving, politically correct culture excuses on behalf of our wishful thinking. We can'twish heroines and geniuses into existence. They have to be there, they have to do it, and ambition and good campaigning and a great press agent won't get it done. We can't cheer and laud our lady poets on to greatness; they have to do the work themselves.

Question: If Anne Carson's work is as bad as you say it is, what could account for her reputation?

Answer: I hesitate to frame it in this way, but I'm afraid she's the child of the misguided academic tastes of the last quarter century. Poetry, which once belonged to its publics, and to a lesser degree, to the publishing industry in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, now belongs to the academic establishment. When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley in the 1960's, the English department largely abhorred and ignored contemporary literature. As far as they were concerned, literature had ended with Henry James and W.B. Yeats. Modernism--Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, Williams, Stevens, Moore--these were strange peacocks too dangerous to contemplate. But in the succeeding decades, all that changed. A revolution took place across the spectrum of the liberal arts establishment, and by the end of the 1980's, a complete change had occurred. Modernism, which had been ignored for so long, became "the tradition" and post-Modernism became the in-think [sic]. The application of "scientific" principles to literature became the vogue, and most of the traditional curriculum was shouldered aside to make room for the previously excluded/suppressed constituencies: women, those of color, third worlders, and those whose work didn't otherwise belong to "The Tradition" with which we had been inculcated during my antiquated tenure. Were Maya Angelou and David Henderson and Gary Soto and Lawson Fusao Inada and Charles Bukowski as good as Dryden and Browning and Marianne Moore? That question didn't so much matter. What was important was that anyone who belonged to the old systematic establishment of male white dominance was now passé, and needed to be put in their place. British and French and German philosophical theory was imported to lend weight and authority to the in-think. Traditional writers hadn't been sufficiently self-conscious of their own unjust privileges. How could you be important if you weren't aware of your own ethnic and cultural limitations? or your insufficiently guilty conscience?

Carson sprang out of the Classics department at the University of Toronto. She found it tough going in the English department--Milton threw her for a loop and she dropped out for a while. She eventually ended up in ancient languages--pretty dry stuff. But she eventually figured out how to marry that interest with her own confused contemporary world view, and sad personal psychology. She might have been content to confine herself to updated translations of the classic Greek and Latin warhorses. Christopher Logue had a nice little cottage-franchise going with Homer's Iliad. But the zeitgeist was ripe for her particular brand of carpet-bagging, and what better back door entrée to swank notoriety than Sapphic adaptation? I don't know what it is about Canadian academics in American universities--they seem to get a free pass.

The fact that there is no valid relationship between what is known about Stesichoros's poem, and Carson's bizarre reverie, is not vindicated by anything original she offers by way of style, narrative interest, or content. An ironic nonsense fairy tale is not an expedient for pretending that a speculative fiction shadowed by an unreconstructed fragment from antiquity is somehow more interesting than a straight novella (or true verse novel) would be. If Carson wanted to write a long short story about a freak who grows up to become a Gay photographer, that might require of her greater skills than she's capable of; Autobiography in Red might be the only way she could tell it, but rather than an intriguing straight fiction (in the manner of Updike's The Centaur, or John Gardner's mythical analogues), we get a lazy outline of disorganized scenes, written in slack (occasionally coarse) vernacular. You get the uncomfortable feeling that Carson thinks this is somehow a superior alternative to whatever other structural options she might have chosen to make her case; that it's the clearest way to showcase what talent she does possess. What is the point of employing an historical frame if the narrative bears no relation to its putative model? In other words, what does her use of an ancient text, known only in fragmentary relation, tell us about Greek literature or civilization? Calling a contemporary American or Canadian boy Geryon (or his lover Herakles) grates on your nerves every time it pops up, because the pretense is empty--there's no interesting echo that banks off of some previously established (even if obscure) classical template--it's just annoyingly cute--like someone calling their child Sinbad or Rasputin.

But we ordinarily don't give prizes and grants and awards and praise for half-hearted attempts which end in failure. Carson's received a Lannan, a Guggenheim, and a MacArthur. Can theNobel be in the offing? On the evidence of this "novel in verse" someone is fooling someone, and the empress has seduced not just the whole court, her entourage, the servants, but theordinary legumes as well.

Why is it that we should impute some ingenious poetic ingenuity to the application of classic ancient myth to a dreary story of adolescent coming-of-age?--indeed an ancient myth for which nearly all the details are missing! Maybe Carson fantasizes her work as some fragile fragmentary papyri surviving into a remote future, and that its wildly disjunctive and disorganized template will prove as fascinating to it, as her imagination of ancient Greek verse seems to be to her. Rather than mastering a form, in Autobiography of Red, she relies on extemporaneous short-hand diversions, without formal control, order, or definition. Rather than seeing these failures for what they are, several critics have interpreted the resulting mess as the work of genius. What this means is that the very shortcomings which would constitute a fair criticism of her efforts, can be used, ironically, by some, as a basis for her deliberate, successful intentions. I would argue that this is the symptom of a malaise in our current aesthetically bankrupt humanist milieu--but that's a question for another time.

Question: In an immediate sense, what then is it that you feel when you confront a book like Carson's Red?

Answer: Well, I feel two thinks distinctly. First, I feel indignation--indignation that meretricious art is accepted as authentic creative work, when it isn't. Autobiography of Redis a preposterous fake. Which leads to a second reaction--that its "success" indicates a general lowering of standards. When people like Carson, or Jorie Graham, are able to pass off liberal doses of semi-automatic, or pretentiously camp fantasy, offered as coherent experimental efforts, everyone loses, especially those young writers coming up, looking to significant models for direction or tips. When I was first trying to write, the work of Olson and Zukofsky and Burroughs was just coming to be known and appreciated. Maximus, "A" andNaked Lunch were difficult, formally challenging works, but they repaid the interest and study one might put into them, and they weren't proposed, executed and sold on the strength of the inflated currency of a bankrupt aesthetic. They weren't supposed to be good because they were bad (i.e., simple-minded, formally bland and confused, and relentlessly insincere). They were just more diligently attentive and perspicacious than the second-rate crud that passed for "literature" in contemporary periodicals and publishing houses. Olson and Zukofsky and Burroughs had done their homework, and had something compelling and original to offer. One of the commonplaces of experimental writing is that whoever aspires to successful innovation has to have mastered--at least in principle--all the kinds of stylistic and formal variation--or at least have a familiarity with them--in order to render them all passé or irrelevant with a daring new example. In other words, you have to "know everything" first before presuming to improve in any meaningful way on the past. Simply being different because you're a new body born 30-50 years ago isn't, in and of itself, a qualification for the task. We may all be unique, but that uniqueness doesn't, by itself, produce innovative literary artifacts. Or, it's possible to be unique, but not luminous, if I may use that term. Every young rap artist who gets up on the podium and begins spewing out expletives may be unique, but it's a uniqueness that is pedestrian. It's like thinking that simply making a poem that rhymes, which Eddie Guest and Robert Service do, makes the work important and worthy. It's like reading bad literature as a kind of social engineering: "Oh, how wonderful that this poor ghetto boy who was formed in violence and deprivation and a complete lack of disciplined study, can even speak, much less make rhyme!" It's like nuns going off to the Congo and dressing leprosy wounds.

What you have with Carson and Graham, is work that aspires to experimentation as a career strategy--as if this could be accomplished in the same way one exploits any other kind of professional hierarchy. Carson and Graham aren't innovators, they're copyists or imitators, who, realizing that the contemporary premium is upon being considered experimental innovators, have set their sights on becoming such. But the sad fact is they're practical-minded, level-headed women who've never had an original thought in their lives. So it becomes about pretending, and getting oneself talked about as if one were a strange, new, ingenious innovator, without ever having written anything truly innovative at all. I suppose it may even be possible for intellectuals, like Carson or Graham, to convince themselves that their oddball concoctions really do constitute a revelation of form and content. In the world of art, there are no obdurate benchmarks of value; each work stands apart, and it has become one of the touchstones of modern criticism (esp. that devoted to "diversity" & "relativity" of value), that any work, judged on the basis of its own internal "logic" may indeed be an expression of unique genius. Darger is as great as Pollock--they just came from different places.

Contrary to expectation, having said that doesn't make me a formalist. In fact, I admire innovation much more than brilliant imitation. But sophomoric mimicry doesn't rise to the level of fraud that I see in Carson (and in Graham). These are mature, seasoned scholars and writers. They've been around the block a time or two. But when, as as serious writer, you sit down at the desk, alone, there's no one there to help you. Either you are inspired, or you aren't. It can't be faked. It isn't a matter of good intentions, or of trying harder, or of clever borrowing, or of tinkering with chance combinations or free association.

We try to separate the expression of taste from an objective standard of value. Different kinds of methodologies may be employed for different purposes, and experimental works of art may be proposed to challenge what is meant by coherent organization, or novel combinations of means. The problem with a work like Carson's Autobiography of Red, is that its personae are completely confused--separating these different voices in the text wouldn't have any use. The author's omniscient "I am thinking" is not separated from any character's "thinking" and the descriptive narration is not separated from the nightmare visions of the characters. Allowing the reader to imagine (or assume) that the plot could be a fantasy-invention of one of the delusional characters is a cynical cop-out, familiar to readers of fantasy-genre fiction--and yet this is exactly what's left, when you take away the stupid classical "frame" and the puerile teenage daydreams which constitute the "action" of the story. The "novel" is episodic, because there's no connection between the events as presented to us--they're neither convincingly chronological, nor thematically arranged: They could be reshuffled in any order, because there is no hierarchy of disclosure, nothing builds, it just accretes.

Rather than wanting to make clear one aspect from another, Carson counts on the blurring of these distinctions--in other words, she invites and welcomes this kind of expedient, unearned abstraction into the work, as if that were evidence of some high level of sensibility. Rather than showing control and insight, there is a confession of irresponsible play, like throwing chess pieces at the ceiling and imagining that how they fall onto the floor might tell us something about how to play the game of kings. It isn't just that this is easy to do; it's the cheek of presuming that someone will find this deliberately disruptive mischief interesting; or, even that, not finding it interesting, might actually be taken as a proof of its value!

Question: So is it the form or the subject matter you most object to? Or is that distinction of little use here . . . ?

Answer: I think both are problematic here. Carson says in an interview: "In surfaces, perfection is less interesting. For instance, a page with a poem on it is less attractive than a page with a poem on it and some tea stains. Because the tea stains add a bit of history. It’s a historical attitude. After all, texts of ancient Greeks come to us in wreckage and I admire that, the combination of layers of time that you have when looking at a papyrus that was produced in the third century BC and then copied and then wrapped around a mummy for a couple hundred years and then discovered and put in a museum and pieced together by nine different gentlemen and put back in the museum and brought out again and photographed and put in a book. All those layers add up to more and more life. You can approximate that in your own life. Stains on clothing." What she's telling us here is that the decay or fragmentation brought about unintentionally by the messiness of time produces something which is inherently more "interesting" than a mere scaffolding of formal intention. Intention versus the accidental vestiges of a ruined original. So what she sets about to do, is to recreate a deliberately flawed construct which will have some of the "interest"--or "the combination of layers of time" which she thinks is so fascinating about ancient texts. She's imagining a perfect text which is then manipulated into a fake fragmentary state of incompleteness, and calling that a brilliant work of "decreation" [her word]. Is decreation actually an interesting way of constructing texts? Is it possible to go backwards into imaginary time to make imagined reconstructions of some actual pre-existing text, which has been lost to posterity, and create a makeshift alternative version with a new setting and new characters?

Question: If we wanted to grant her the right to perform such experiments on fragmentary ancient texts . . . I mean, don't all translators perform this same function of imaginary recreation when they create new poems out of other ancient language texts? Aren't all translators imagining Sappho and Catullus and then making up poems that sound to them as if these poets might have written them? Isn't it just about dramatic voice writing? And isn't Carson just making up new characters to fill in the lost faces of the dramatic personae?

Answer: The point isn't that translations are inherently flawed, or that our only task is to "re-imagine" a fragmentary original in the language of our own time. Carson has translated Sappho, and performed the same kind of re-imagining that all translators must do. But in her own original work, she sidesteps the whole problem of invention and originality by building bogus structures (from classical literature) upon which to hang a few dangling diadems of her own. And it's a failure not just of intention, but of performance. She realized at some point that re-doing classical Greek theatre pieces would have little interest. (Robinson Jeffers believed that he could simply carry Euripides and Sophocles into a contemporary setting and the result would be as relevant as Dreiser and Steinbeck, that rhetoric and high-minded austere diction would carry the day, raising us up and over two thousand years of wasted aspiration and travail to the simple verities of 50 BC.) So she thought: post-Modern permission would enable her to use ancient texts--even substantially non-existent (or non-surviving) ones (for which there are only pieces and reports and rumors)--and simply parse together a kind of confused deck of possible scenes and statements; and her defense would be that she was trying out a new kind of "form." But in order to construct convincing new forms, you have to have a clear vision of what the new form might be. Her fake "verse" sections don't constitute anything like a controlled, compelling form--they're simply outline notes with sentence fragments and run-ons.

Gertrude Stein's primary weakness as a writer is that she has virtually no formal interest beyond the quality of her language. She doesn't think formally, so there is no narrative in her work beyond the percolating correspondences of her phrases and sentences. Nouns and verbs and eventualities and consequences are rendered completely irrelevant. Indeed, it might be true to say that there are no "things" in her work at all, just words and qualities and "senses" of things and feelings. But Anne Carson isn't a stylistic innovator. Her language--certainly the language of Autobiography of Red--is plain and unadorned. It has no force, and that (writing effectively) is obviously not something of which she appears capable (on the evidence of her published work), or it's something she decided to ignore completely--in which sense she is really not Modern at all, since the innovations of Modernism and Post-Modernism seem to have no interest to her. She basically has the mind of a shut-in who watches daytime soaps. I'm not being harsh or cutting here in the least. If you set out deliberately to make a story where the language is completely uninspired--is, that is to say, as flat as today's TV reality show, but based on "classical themes" and tropes, her work is very much what you would end up with.AOR is no more a novel than Stein's Ida: A Novel is a novel, so maybe I'm begging the question.

It isn't enough merely to make the claim that Greek and Roman poetry possesses a musical quality that doesn't "come through" directly into English, and then to use that as a buttress for a flat prose text demarcated into the supposed "lines" of a "verse novel." That would make great prose stylists, like William Maxwell, or Eudora Welty, into "poets" when that clearly is not the case. Cribs are not poems, and a story text broken up into varying line lengths isn't poetry just because you say it is. An inability to make a convincing musical line can't be legitimated by a claim of prosaic simplicity, which is what makes Autobiography of Red such a camp put-on. Carson's mystical notions of her own misapprehensions aside, no academic has a right to use dullness and a lack of wit and imagination as a proof of ingenious application. If you're going to break your prose text--a prose text that is musically uninspired and flat--into measured lines (though Carson's "measure" is pretty sloppy at best)--you'd better have some underlying motivation behind that choice, other than simply thinking that chopping up prose constitutes "verse." If "verse" is nothing more than the "setting" of lines of certain (varying or equivalent) lengths, without regard for syllables, musical rhythms, rhyme, or rhetorical correspondences, then what you're writing is not poetry, no matter what you call it.

Question: Must a writer always be responsible for every aspect of the reception of her text? Writing is a condition of the transformation of time.

Answer: It's like a mixture of passivity and alienation. Carson makes a point of describing her character--" I think that’s why sometimes I am spooky to people. Because this glare is mixed with an infantile charm that disarms, so they have to deal with both"--as if she were a strange phenomenon, the way people have been imagining Sylvia Plath for half a century. That mysterious aura is seen as an advantage in the interpretation of art--like Poe or Bram Stoker--a demonic side of one's nature. But, again, simply wanting to have this quality, and readingyour audience's confusion or mystification as the evidence of the existence of this demonic quality in oneself is cheap opportunism and self-delusion. People are so blown away by my weird poetry! Woo. Carson might wish to think of her work as papyri wrapped around a mummy for three thousand years, but she's at the wrong end of the process. Her work in the present isn't an ancient artifact, any more than a new Toyota coming off the tail end of the production line. Attempting to create an aura of meaning and importance to your work by referencing and framing from ancient texts is gratuitously selfish and vain. Pound believed that previously neglected traditions could reinvigorate contemporary literature, and he set about trying to carry that notion into his present by translating and imitating the effects he saw in those traditions (i.e., ancient Chinese or Renaissance Italian). That's a legitimate attempt at resuscitation. We respond to the power of his recreations. But this isn't what Carson is attempting to do in AOR. She wants to capitalize on the value of ancient literature by framing her narrative in the context of ancient mythical archetypes, without making any evident attempt to explain what the relationship between the ancient and the modern is. You can't have it both ways: Your work can't be a retelling unless it's a retelling. You can't change everything about a narrative and "keep" its original meaning. You can't shift plots and epochs and roles, the way Hollywood producers and writers do, and retain anything like the significance of an original conception. A cinematic version of an archetype story rarely makes any sense of its putative original, because the devices of successful movie-making follow different priorities. Carson's work tells us nothing--or nothing useful--about a distant Greek poet whose work is mostly lost. You don't have the feeling that the Greek poet (Stesichoros) would have any comprehension of what Carson is about, and even if he did, he'd regard it as trivial. What Carson admires about the Greek conceptions of life and feeling are locked inside history, but she thinks she can augment them and install them inside imagined contemporary individuals who share none of the qualities of their namesakes. It's a kind of cheating that will get you through the process, but it doesn't make interesting reading. It's fakery.

It's a little like my creating a narrative by calling my hero Oedipus, the CEO of a computer corporation who likes to drive racecars and shag lady boxers, who doesn't kill off his Mother but loses his eyesight in a crash after he realizes he's slept with his illegitimate sister. The part of the chorus could be played by a ragtag group of baying paparazzi. Doing so wouldn't be a comic burlesque, just an irritating soap opera along the lines of Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins. Any energy derived from naming the hero Oedipus and calling him that in a contemporary setting would just be bogus.

Question: Couldn't we think of her work the way we do about, for instance, Armand Schwerner's Tablets, about the imaginative "recreation" of a fragmentary fictional ancient text complete with footnotes and indecipherable passages?

Answer: Yes I'm sure that's precisely how Carson imagines her work to be seen, as the "filled-in" portion of lost, imagined, originals. But her "verse novel" isn't an effort in recreation, or a parody of an academic holographic specimen. It's an attempt to be seen as making something utterly clever and ingenious, a new invention.

Part of the confusion in this leap of faith inherent in Carson's AOR is the sense of sexual confusion which permeates most of her work. Some of the time she sounds just like a garden variety feminist, the rest of the time she seems to be emulating the male archetype of power and privilege. The authorial voice has a neutral quality in it that neither respects verisimilitude nor appears to comprehend it. Her projection of her confusion onto the characters in AORseems to me to have literally no bearing on the Greek model, it's just a personal hang-up she has that she obsesses over, and expects the reader to accept as an omniscient given. At one point, Carson says "then there’s been what people call a paradigm shift, which means now you can’t do anything wrong" which means, apparently, to Carson, that she can have anything she publishes be accepted as something unique and genuine, that that permission has entitled her to gloss over the issue of persuasive or convincing formal statement, and that simply writing anything down can suffice as a personal masterpiece. To me, this isn't a matter merely of personal taste, or changing fashion.

So the story of Geryon is the story of Carson's interior psychological daydream in which she wanders around in a state of confused grace, by turns infuriated, embarrassed, crushed, resentful, unresponsive, with a sort of rote determination not to perform the expected. In that sense "autobiography" is an apt title for what this work is, an analogous nightmare of Carson's dream of becoming a sexually ambiguous, conflicted artist. It doesn't even seem to matter much to the story she tells, whether Geryon is already a good photographer, or may become one at some point in the future--what matters is his sense of being monster, of being in a state of displacement, or exile from sanity, from the context of the normal--what happens in the outward lives of the characters is just window-dressing. She says "no matter what the thought would be if it were fully worked out, it wouldn’t be as good as the suggestion of a thought that the space gives you." Those are the words (sentiments) of someone who has so little respect for the truth that she believes her fantasy of someone else's lost work is superior to a presumed unknown model. She thinks she can write Sappho better than Sappho, or that her imagination of Sappho is better than yours, because she's so confused about her own psyche--as if that confusion were a badge of honor.

Question: There's this random quality of your rambling on about her that seems like a harangue, as if you were dumping your frustrations out as a purging . . . "

Answer: Actually, randomness is very much to the point. Carson says: "I'm happy to do things by accident . . . what's interesting to me is once the accident has happened, once I happen to have Simonides and Paul Celan on my desk together . . . it could be Simonides and celery, it doesn't matter . . . it matters in so far as I'm going to make a work of art out of it. It seems totally arbitrary on the one hand and on the other, totally careful about who I am as a thinker." The serene confidence of self-delusion! as if self-delusion were an aesthetic strategy! Walnuts and Proust! Metal filings and Wittgenstein! It's all good, it's all in, we don't have to worry, God will find a way, we'll all become loved and famous and wealthy and droll. The Greek idea of fate--that we are all just playthings of the gods--might lend Carson some credence for her aesthetic choices, as if one could pretend that she has merely taken dictation from the oracle(s) of her ambitious nature and then confused them with her shopping and to-do lists. Or perhaps the emperor got bad advice. The excuses are more interesting than the original sins.

[to be continued]


1. Quoted from Our Savage Art, Poetry and the Civil Tongue, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
2. Capote, Truman. Music for Chameleons. New York: Random House, 1980. What Capote showed was the opportunity to treat one's own opinions as a dialectic in which one could, as the saying goes, hold two opposing views without losing control of one's identity (going mad).
3. The irony, of course, might be that Moore had so little going on in her life that she had almost nothing to hide. Her complicated sexuality, however, doesn't seem to have been ordinary at all, to judge by the pressure of its subtle presence in her work.

1 comment:

Sunny West said...

Fascinating dialogue!