‘Much is misnomer in our present way of grasping the world’: Anne Carson’s immersion in myth

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter in a book


Writing about myth commonly entails working towards some kind of definition, towards a mode of description capacious enough to do justice to what is notoriously a troublesome category. Carson’s approach is different, as befits a poet renowned for her subversion of generic categories. The quote from Red Doc˃ in my title points towards three concepts crucial for understanding the role myth plays in her work: language, time and the possibilities and limits of representing experience. This chapter examines the interrelation between these themes, particularly as they play out in the poems Autobiography of Red (1998) and Red Doc˃ (2013), as well as in the theatre piece Norma Jeane Baker of Troy (2019).
Carson is steeped in the myth and literature of the ancient world, to the extent that she seems effortlessly to locate there the counterparts of the modern phenomena which interest her (see, for example, her comments on Odysseus as the original ‘sell out’ in her lecture on ‘Corners’ at CUNY in 2018). But far from leading her to idealize the past, this familiarity affords her the freedom to move between different temporal registers and to juxtapose and overlay ideas and characters drawn from diverse sources without undue regard for historical propriety. Her creative dynamic is resolutely modern, even when she points her readers towards a specific text from antiquity, but it is a modernity which is infiltrated by the sensibilities of the past, by the nuances of ancient etymologies and by the remnants of earlier struggles to stake out the territory of the human. Carson’s is a notion of myth as a story with significance beyond its immediate context and her poetic practice suggests that it is precisely this capacity of a traditional tale to convey meaning using new forms, figures and situations that guarantees its mythic status.
In the case of Autobiography of Red and its sequel, one of the least interesting interpretative manouevres is a limited analysis of the use that Carson makes of Stesichorus; this is not the same as saying, of course, that her use of the Stesichorean fragments is uninteresting. The fragmentary, the partial, the elusive capacity of language to do justice to the multi-sensory experience of even a moment of our transitory existence, all these aspects of the imperfectability of language are long-standing sources of fascination to Carson. Comparing the surviving fragments of this most difficult of ancient authors to the deceptively easy-going narrative of her inaccurately described ‘novel in verse’, is an example of what is frequently described in reviews as her ‘whimsy’, her ‘provocation’, her ‘liberty-taking’ with canonical texts. In the hands of a more impoverished poet, the equation of Helen of Troy with the equally iconic Marilyn Monroe might seem merely arch or simplistic; this chapter investigates how Carson uses her expertise to challenge the presumed knowledge of her readers and how her longer perspective upsets the equilibrium of the status quo.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAnne Carson/Antiquity
EditorsLaura Jansen
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
Publication statusIn preparation - 2020

Structured keywords

  • Institute of Greece, Rome, and the Classical Tradition


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