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The poetic in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red

Ioan Marc Jones

Despite critics and booksellers regularly classifying her as a poet, Anne Carson rejects the term. “I don’t think I’ve ever thought of myself as doing poetry, frankly. But I like to make things.”1 [1] In 1992, Carson ‘made’ Short Talks, a work that includes lyric sermons, riddles, fabricated encounters, and made-up interviews. Carson presents her 2010 work, Nox, as an accordion-style book-in-a-box that reveals fanned fragments of poetry, photography, translation, memoir, and scrapbooking. Her 2016 work, Float, explores fiction and playwrighting, poetry and criticism, in a selection of chapbooks that ostensibly float inside a plastic container. Most of Carson’s work, with the exception of her translations2 [2] and Eros the Bittersweet, does not fit neatly into one particular genre.

Autobiography of Red (‘AoR’), arguably Carson’s most popular and celebrated work, again avoids simplistic association with genre. AoR is not, despite its title, an autobiography. It appears in different sections of bookshops: Waterstones usually opts for poetry, for example, while the online store of AoR’s publisher, Penguin, suggests literary fiction. Critics sometimes describe AoR as an epic poem, a term increasingly used to characterise longer publications heavily reliant on elements of the poetic.3 [3] AoR is indeed difficult to categorise, but the work encapsulates many of the experimental and poetic tenets that run through Carson’s oeuvre. The following examination of AoR will therefore show that, while Carson may not consider herself a poet, she demonstrates a clear and constant allegiance to the poetic.

The 47 chapters, or stanzas, in AoR conform to Aristotelian ideals of plot: Carson presents a clear beginning (Geryon’s upbringing (I – VII)), middle (Geryon’s budding romance with Herakles (VII – XXV)), and end (Geryon’s reunion with Herakles (XXV – XLVII)). Each section, told by an omniscient third-person narrator, builds on the previous section, working separately to unite the overall plot, providing what Aristotle calls a ‘complete action’.4 [4] Following the Aristotelian ideal, events in AoR surprise the reader despite the clear lineage of cause and effect. Relatively uncommon in poetry but common in fiction, events in AoR are explicitly plot-driven, determined by preceding chapters or stanzas, but are nonetheless surprising to the reader.

Carson uses poetic devices to grab the reader’s attention in AoR and practices unique line variation to emphasise fictional plot points. Carson’s line variation often depends on the emphasis provided by the short line. Mary Oliver argues that short lines in poetry summon the reader’s attention, indicating something which is out of the ordinary.5 [5] Consider, for example, the way Carson presents the following conversation between Ancash and Geryon, which paves the way towards AoR’s climactic conclusion:



There is one thing I want from you.

Tell me.

Want to see those wings6 [6]

Carson’s short lines highlight that which is out of the ordinary. She uses the poetic to draw the reader’s attention to the key fictional plot points.

Plot serves to define character in fiction and the characters tend to control the plot – or, as Henry James argues, characters act as ‘wheels on the coach’ driving the plot forward.7 [7] Carson uses an innovative poetic form to enhance characterisation. She does so by using line variation – the interdependence of short and long metre – and enjambment. Consider the following:

My world is very slow right now, Herakles was saying. His grandmother

sat at the picnic table

eating toast and discussing death. She told her brother who was conscious

to the end but could not speak.8 [8]

The use of long lines followed by short lines supports the characterisation of the grandmother by allowing the startling aspects of her character to follow the ostensibly innocuous. Carson here is highlighting what Aristotle calls the ‘inconsistent consistencies’ in the grandmother’s character through the use of enjambment.9 [9] She breaks the line to allow the reader to pause at the point of the perceived stereotype (the characteristic consistency) and uses the following line to negate the stereotype (the characteristic inconsistency). The grandmother proceeds to tell Geryon and Herakles that her brother was ‘conscious’. The line ending seems innocent until the reader realises the homonymic use of ‘conscious’ succeeding the unexpected shift. The enjambment draws the reader to the important, unexpected features of the grandmother’s character. Carson is using the poetic to elevate aspects of the fictional.

Carson creates a unique fictional setting in AoR, too. As with other contemporary works of poetry set in specific places, such as Liz Berry’s Black Country and Alice Oswald’s Dart, AoR tends to create a sense of place rather than relying on the purely geographic. Carson uses poetic devices to build the sense of place. She uses personification, for example, to enhance the fictional setting. Consider the following, in which Geryon is standing beside his mother:

They did not

turn on the light but stood quiet and watched the night come washing up

towards them. Saw

it arrive, touch, move past them and it was gone. Her ash glowed in the dark.10 [10]

The night ‘touches’ and ‘moves past’ Geryon and his mother. ‘Her ash’ could refer to the mother’s presumed cigarette, but it could also refer to the personified night. The line works both as an act of imagery – reference to the glow of the cigarette – and as an unexpected personified metaphor, the interpretation of which depends on the way the reader contextualises the passage. The personification and the imagery, regardless of interpretation, accentuate the importance of darkness in the setting and elevate the reader’s visceral place within the scene.

Carson again demonstrates her allegiance to the poetic by using imagery to enhance the fictional setting. She appeals directly to her readers’ senses. Consider, for example, how the reader hears the following passage:

An uncertain music

like a water pipe starting and stopping. Many layers of traffic. A crackle of garbage

burning. Dry howls of dogs. Sounds

entered Geryon small at first but gradually filling his mind.11 [11]

By appealing directly to the senses, the imagery makes the reader feel part of the ‘uncertain music’ of the setting. It is loud at first, then convoluted, and ultimately unbearable. The setting is described using metaphor, simile, and unexpected terminology: dry howls, layers of traffic, the onomatopoeic crackle. It imbues a sense of discomfort, which the reader feels as the imagistic language permeates the auditory perception. This works to situate the reader in the setting, to allow the reader to hear the streets of Lima alongside Geryon.

The line breaks in AoR’s dialogue are similarly infused with the poetic. Unlike in traditional fiction, the dialogue in AoR is not necessarily divided dependent on the moment the character begins to speak, but rather the line break relies on emphasis. Carson affords characters prolonged speech using long lines – or, as James Fenton claims, she provides her characters with greater ‘opportunity’12 [12] – and uses short lines to highlight the significance of certain statements. Consider the following conversation, where Geryon and Ancash tussle over Herakles:

So what’s it like – Ancash stopped. He began again. So what’s it like fucking him now?

Degrading, said Geryon.13 [13]

The long line suspends the question, drawing the reader’s attention to Ancash’s uncertainty, while the short line adds substance to Geryon’s answer. Carson uses different line length to highlight the emotion in the dialogue. The long line intensifies Ancash’s apprehension, which in the context of the plot is warranted, and the short line shows the paradoxical self-assurance of Geryon’s self-doubt. The juxtaposition provided by the prosody emphasises the conflict between the two characters and the conflict in the dialogue, in turn, enhances the prosody. The poetic intensifies the dialogue, the dialogue adds meaning to the poetic.

Carson uses the poetic in AoR to highlight key plot points, enhance characterisation, explore and develop particular settings, and pinpoint key moments of dialogue. AoR follows a trend that has run through Carson’s illustrious career. It is a cross-genre work – exploring and unpacking elements of autobiography, classics, translation, and fiction – but it is fused together and enhanced by the poetic. AoR is the work that best embodies Carson’s experimental style and demonstrates many of the techniques that she has perfected. Carson might not consider herself a poet, but, as we have seen with particular reference to AoR, the unique and inviolable beauty of her work very much depends on an unwavering allegiance to the poetic.

1. [14] Peter Streckfus, ‘Collaborating on Decreation: An Interview with Anne Carson’ in Joshua Marie Wilkinson (ed.), Anne Carson: Ecstatic Lyre, Michigan, University of Michigan Press, 2015, p 221.

2. [15] Carson is a classicist and has translated work by Euripides, Sophocles and Sappho, among others.

3. [16] Robert Robertson’s recent publication, The Long Take, was on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, despite the author’s regular, and often angry, insistence that is was an ‘epic poem’.

4. [17] See Aristotle, Poetics, London, Penguin Classic, 1996, Part IX.

5. [18] Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook, New York, Harcourt, 1994, p 40.

6. [19] Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red, London, Jonathan Cape, 1998, p 145.

7. [20] Henry James, ‘Preface’, Portrait of a Lady, London, Everyman’s Library, 1991, p 26.

8. [21] Carson, AoR, p 49.

9. [22] Aristotle, Poetics, p 24.

10. [23] Carson, AoR, p 91.

11. [24] Carson, AoR, p 121.

12. [25] James Fenton, An Introduction to English Poetry, London, Penguin, 2003, p 56.

13. [26] Carson, AoR, p 144.

Ioan Marc Jones [27] has studied a Masters of Creative Writing at the University of Oxford and a Masters in Critical Theory at the University of London. Ioan’s work has appeared in The Independent, Little Atoms, openDemocracy, New England Review, the Essay Review and others.