Anne Carson Analysis
Anne Carson was hardly the first to blur genres. Some of her “short talks” recall the stories of Virginia Woolf, the parables of Franz Kafka, or the sayings of Gertrude Stein, who are indeed among her favorite authors. There is even a tradition of classicists, from Friedrich Nietzsche onward, who have brought the insights of their scholarship to original writing, including Norman O. Brown and Peter Kingsley, and a similar tradition of poets such as Ezra Pound and H. D., who have insisted on bringing the translator or commentator into their work.
Carson’s special fascination is with fragments—lines of ancient poetry that survive only in quotations and testimonials by other ancient writers. She especially likes those fragments that, like those she has translated from Stesichoros, contain the germ of whole stories and lie open to a range of interpretations.
Critics have responded differently to Carson’s poetic technique. Some have found it amazingly refreshing, while others have contended that she hides behind myth and allusion or uses them to isolate herself from both her readers and the personal pain out of which many of her best poems seem to have emerged.
Plainwater, subtitled “Essays and Poetry,” opens with a series of poems inspired by fragments from an ancient poet, to which are added “interviews” with the poet. The volume ends with a long prose piece on “The Anthropology of Water” (the human significance of water), which is subdivided into three parts. The celebrated “Kinds of Water” is about the pilgrim road to Compostella, with a personal introduction; “Just for the Thrill: An Essay on the Difference Between Men and Women” is a parallel study of camping in North America; “Swimming” is a brief essay that acts as a kind of memoir of Carson’s older brother, as if he were the author as well as the swimmer. “Short Talks” could be characterized as a series of prose poems, but also as a series of essays. Selections have been reprinted in anthologies of American poetry and short stories. The lyrics gathered in “The Life of Towns” offer three dozen different lines of perspective on the phenomenon of a collective character. Those in “Canicula di Anna” (literally, “the dog days of Anna”) have fifty-three carefully imagined moments in the life of a woman in sixteenth century Italy.
Carson’s most sustained effort at creating new poetry out of old is Autobiography of Red, her “autobiography” of a sixth century b.c.e. poet. Although the name Stesichoros means “chorus master” and suggests that he wrote festival songs before the birth of Greek drama, the autobiography concentrates on the fragments that survive from his epic poem on the mythological figure of Geryon, Medusa’s grandson who herded red cattle on a red island at the world’s edge. In addition to...
(The entire section is 731 words.)