Autobiography of Red (Magill’s Literary Annual 1991-2005)
In the brief period between the publication of Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (1995) and the milestone book Glass, Irony, and God, with its centerpiece “The Glass Essay” (1995), Anne Carson reached an uncommon level of critical appreciation. With this reputation in tow, each succeeding new work will be held up to high expectations, with comparisons to other writers (such as Ann Lauterbach, Medbh McGuckian, and Henri Michaux) as well as backward glances to her own earlier efforts. This position forces artists to push the boundaries of past glories; to move up from such a precarious perch, creative minds must use the themes and techniques that built their reputations while expanding their scope and substance.
If such comparisons within a fairly young canon cannot be avoided, it is helpful to trace the steps that led up to a new artistic contribution to that canon. Throughout Plainwater and Glass, Irony, and God, Carson’s themes and techniques merged her classical scholarship and innovative experiments with structure. This far-reaching fusion gave her the distinctive voice of individuality steeped in academia and deeply fought personal soul seeking. Poems such as “The Glass Essay” reached and challenged readers on a variety of levels, because Carson successfully interwove three elements: personal reflections on identity, references to literary influences, and visions of the nature of poetry. Her use of visuals in “The Glass Essay” clearly prefigured similar techniques in Autobiography of Red, in which much of her style is based on line structure and layout for the eye while using colors, light, and dark juxtapositions as her scaffolding for images and metaphors.
This complexity has made her work as interesting to the poetic technician as to the reader, and such virtuosity has led to high praise in critical commentaries. But Carson’s sometimes top- heavy gamesmanship and use of obscure, esoteric allusions have proved distracting and defeating, notably when she is not writing from her personal experience. These faults will trouble some readers of Autobiography of Red, as they troubled readers of Carson’s previous four books.
This fifth exercise in the avant-garde is challenging, inviting comparisons with two of her cited mentors, Homer and Gertrude Stein. From Homer, Carson takes a mythos of personalities and reworks ancient narratives into a postmodern parable. From Stein, she derives a playful wordplay, a deceptively simple tone that helps make her complexity readable.
Carson is far more than a synthesizer of influences. More important, she is a synthesizer of techniques, perhaps the most interesting creator of new images in the modern poetic scene, and a pioneer in the usage of white space on the printed page.
Autobiography of Red is not an autobiography of her protagonist, Geryon, the mythological winged monster who lives in a red world of red shadows tending red cattle trapped “in a bad apple.” Nor is she retelling the story of Geryon as originally spun by Greek poet Stesichorus, whose epic had the red monster killed by Herakles in the fulfillment of one of his mythological labors. Rather, Geryon lives in a modern world, is molested as a child, and is betrayed in a love affair with Herakles. Layered onto this plot diversion, echoing “The Glass Essay,” the narrative is partially about the writing of Geryon’s autobiography of artistic discovery. At its deepest level, the book is about the search for understandable meaning in a world of words, words so complex and ambiguous that Geryon must find expression and focus without them. Geryon’s search for this discovery, as in all epics, forces him to move from childhood to mature uncertainty, from one confusion to another. This trope parallels the search for identity in “The Glass Essay”; again, it is a masterful weaving of major ideas appropriate to Carson’s newly expanded novel-length scope.
At the beginning of the poetic...
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Autobiography of Red (Magill Book Reviews)
Since 1995, Anne Carson has developed a reputation for poetic innovation in substance and structure merging classicism with experimentation. This complexity has made her work as interesting for the poetic technician as the lay reader, and such virtuosity has lead to high praise in critical commentaries. Yet Carson’s sometimes top-heavy gamesmanship and use of obscure allusions prove distracting, notably when she is not writing from her personal experience. Such criticism of her previous books will again trouble some readers of AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF RED: A NOVEL IN VERSE.
This novel in verse is not an autobiography of her protagonist, the red monster Geryon, nor is it a retelling of the original Greek epic by Stesichoros. Instead, Geryon lives in a modern world, is molested as a child, and is betrayed in a love affair. The narrative is partially about the writing of Geryon’s autobiography of artistic discovery. At its deepest level, the book is about the search for understandable meaning. Employing visual metaphors, as Geryon grows from childhood to college student to worker, he learns the coldness of words. This interplay makes AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF RED the sort of text teachers love to explicate in the classroom. However, Carson’s use of non-metrical prose and lines more poetic for the eye than the ear may annoy readers who want easy definitions of genres to label their artists. Carson’s classicism tends to make this work occasionally over the top. Top heavy insertions of scientific data both slow the pace and seem metrically out of place, and her whimsical footnotes and appendices seem to be more frames than helpful illumination.
In the main, Carson is not as remote as Ezra Pound’s uses of world culture, but non-academics may be unhappily distracted by her esoteric allusions. Yet, a work with as many layers and poetic explorations as this modern epic, AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF RED should appeal to a wide range of readers for precisely that reason.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIV, April, 1998, p. 1294.
Library Journal. CXXIII, May 15, 1998, p. 88.
Los Angeles Times. May 8, 1998, p. E4.
The Nation. CCLXVI, June 1, 1998, p. 32.
The New Republic. CCXVIII, May 18, 1998, p. 37.
The New York Review of Books. XLV, November 9, 1998, p. 57.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, May 3, 1998, p. 23.
Poetry. CLXXIII, December, 1998, p. 181.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, March 30, 1998, p. 70.
Review of Contemporary Fiction. XVIII, Fall, 1998, p. 233.
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Anne Carson was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, to Robert John Carson and Margaret Katharine Ryerson Carson. She became intrigued by the classics while in high school. She studied the Greek language in her last year of high school and continued her classical studies at the University of Toronto, where she earned a B.A. in 1974, an M.A. in 1975, and a Ph.D. in 1980. The University of St. Andrews, located in Fife, Scotland, awarded her a diploma in classics in 1976. Carson taught at the University of Calgary from 1979 to 1980. In 1980 she began her tenure at Princeton University. Carson remained at Princeton until 1987. While there, she published Eros the Bittersweet. This critical study on romantic love and lust in Greek poetry was praised for its original vision and intellectual rigor.
Carson taught at Emory University in Atlanta from 1987 to 1988. In 1988 she became professor of classics at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Carson was named the John MacNaughton Professor of Classics at McGill University in 2000. In addition to holding teaching posts at such prestigious United States universities as Princeton and Emory, she has taught at the University of Michigan (1999), the University of California at Berkeley (2000), and the California College of Arts and Crafts (2001) in Oakland. She published her first poetry collection, Short Talks, in 1992. This chapbook was made up of a group of prose poems. In 1995 Carson published both Plainwater and...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
In interviews, Anne Carson has been extremely reticent about her private life. The few details she has let slip, mostly in her poems, suggest why: frequent moves in childhood, a father who developed Alzheimer’s, a brother with a serious drug addiction, an early marriage that ended in divorce, and much loneliness. She has, however, talked about the influence of religion in her earliest years. Raised by middle-class parents in Toronto and other towns in the province of Ontario, she was a devout Roman Catholic as a child. She was fascinated by stories of saints and pilgrims and by the imagery associated with cults of the saints. She became an ardent reader and thought deeply about words.
In high school, Carson began to study ancient Greek, guided by her Latin teacher. After graduating, she entered St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto, where she found the student revolution in full swing. She dropped out periodically but always continued her education elsewhere, sometimes at an art school, sometimes in another city. She married and for a while used the surname Giacomelli. Nevertheless, she persisted in her study of Greek and completed a bachelor of arts in classics at the University of Toronto in 1974. Guided by Emmet Robbins, the “beloved teacher” to whom she later dedicated a volume of translations, she then earned both a master’s degree (1975) and a doctorate (1981) in classics.
Carson wrote her doctoral thesis on love lyrics in ancient Greek. Its...
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