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Department of English

Introduction of Anne Carson

By Paula Rabinowitz, Professor of English

Okay so it goes like this:

For years Maria Damon’s been saying we should bring Anne Carson—for years it doesn’t happen—who knows why? Suddenly one day it’s the end of your term as English chair, you’ve got the money in the form of the Joseph Warren Beach Lecture Endowment, you’ve got the event, its 50th anniversary, you’ve got a project recovering the lectures for a series of chapbooks from the UMN press funded in part by the Delmas Foundation—a foundation devoted to the classics, you get wonderful Terri Sutton to track down Anne Carson, you get a response that she’s working with her partner Robert Currie and could come along with some dancers—he starts emailing—and under the particular weirdness of being chair, which means not reading emails very closely, you don’t really register the name—back and forth until one day you look a bit more closely—think—Robert as in Bob; Currie as in Currie—“Is that you, Bob?” you scribble. Yes, indeed, a friend from decades ago in Ann Arbor—of course, Carson taught at Michigan and Currie always hung out with all the interesting and cool women in town. Moreover Anne Carson is performing with dancers from Merce Cunningham’s company. You’ve been a fan since the 1960s when you hung out Downtown with your grade school friend, a sound artist, who went on to collaborate with Merce—his studio in Westbeth meant you saw him in the elevator when you went to visit your mother who lived there for a quarter of a century, you just saw him recently at Dia Beacon twice this year—where you bumped into Currie. It’s an honor that this year of his death at 91, his dancers Rashaun Mitchell and Marcie Munnerlyn are here on stage too—they will be doing more of Event, which they performed at Dia Beacon, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York later in the month in homage to that 20th-century genius: unlikely coincidences, across time and space—that’s Merce’s legacy—and across language and time, that’s the work of Anne Carson. As we used to say in So Cal in the 1960s, it’s so cosmic. And Anne Carson tells us in Economy of the Unlost, “The Greek word KOSMOS can denote many kinds of order—planetary, governmental, social, sartorial, linguistic—as if all the different strands of human and natural complication in the world were woven out of one texture, extending over both space and time.”

This definition she provides might serve as a fitting description of her entire oeuvre, as poet, translator, essayist, critic and philosopher. Her retrieval of fragments from fifth and sixth century BC Greek poets, philosophers, playwrights, and historians reconfigured as contemporary meditations in verse and prose, as explorations on the peculiar limits of desire—an erotics that bends the body into contortions of pain and ecstasy, on memory, the illusive mode by which we fail to ever hold onto the past even as it never leaves off haunting us, on community and the vain but essential efforts of humans to form a social contract, and on place in which joint actions—sometimes mutually beneficial, more often destructive and dangerous—can occur: This is the stuff of Anne Carson’s unique tracings of the past onto our all too pathetic present-time flesh.

In Eros: The Bittersweet we find a philosophical inquiry, in the form of a series of prose poems, on love as a bodily and linguistic passion—in all senses of the word. In the amazing verse novel Autobiography of Red, human love, in fact the body in which and through which it is expressed, becomes monstrous—but the monster in us all is precisely what makes us human, all too human, reeking with wants that make us behave as any silly teenager. In Carson’s recasting of Stesichoros’ account (by a poet, she notes who “came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein”), Geryon’s inadequacies put Herakles to shame—it’s the losers who merit attention. In Economy of the Unlost, Carson read Simonides of Keos through Paul Celan’s struggle to remake a language stolen from him, a mother tongue destroyed with his mother yet reinscribed through him as “intimate alienation.” In If Not Winter, translating fragments of Sappho’s writings, stuffed within sarcophagi as shredded packing materials, revivifies poetry which transmogrifies into a bizarre form of preservation that opens her to reanimation. In all of these efforts at retrieval and exposure, of sifting through the detritus of language as the means to bodily expression, Anne Carson finds the core of poetics, the poets’ struggle to make, as she says, “the profoundest of poetic experiences: that of NOT seeing what IS there.”

Anne Carson’s voice is like no other writing in English today—she’s the closest we have to our poetic mothers of linguistic invention—Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein. Who else could compose this riddle of footnote, one concerning Simonides’ efforts at total recall: “It may seem unsound to cite Cicero and Theokritos, who are after all harking back from centuries later to an icon of Simonides’ life and times derived entirely from literature and literary gossip. But this icon is our subject. Simonides began it." OKAY, SO FAR, BUT HERE’S THE KICKER: "Tolstoy really did die waiting for a train”? I’m still puzzling this one; but I don’t feel so bad, as Carson herself admits to puzzling over some of Simonides’ riddles. The Greeks, we find from Carson, are strange—but not strange enough—their distance from us in time is matched by our own uneasiness with presence and memory and money and sex and God, with desire and with the incompetent but luscious language that entraps and enthralls us, tying us together brutally and yet always leaving some loophole to escape from its wretched snare. Greeks R Us.

Anne Carson was born in Toronto, Ontario, and, like many of us, frustrated with the compulsory courses required to complete an undergraduate liberal arts degree—in particular the study of Milton—she dropped out after the first year. She returned to university a year later, but dropped out again after the second year. Carson attended commercial art school for one year. Ultimately, she returned to the University of Toronto, where she completed her Bachelor's degree in 1974. She went on to receive her master's (1975) and doctoral (1981) degrees in Classics from the University of Toronto. She has taught classics at Princeton, Montreal’s McGill University, and University of Michigan. She is currently Distinguished Poet-in-Residence at New York University.

Anne Carson has won a Lannan Award (1996), Pushcart Prize (1997), Guggenheim Fellowship (1998), MacArthur Fellowship (2000), and Griffin Prize (2001). She was named a member of the Order of Canada in August, 2005.

Her many books include:
* Eros the Bittersweet (1986) Princeton University Press
* Glass, Irony, and God (1992) New Directions Publishing Company
* Plainwater (1995) Knopf
* Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse (1998) Knopf
* Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan (1999) Princeton University Press
* Men in the Off Hours (2001) Knopf
* Electra (translation) (2001) Oxford
* The Beauty of the Husband (2002) Knopf
* If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (2002) Knopf
* Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (2005) Knopf
* Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides (translation) (2006) New York Review Books Classics

And just this year the astonishing retrofitting of An Oresteia: Agamemnon by Aiskhylos; Elektra by Sophokles; Orestes by Euripides with Faber & Faber.

I cannot thank enough the wonderful legacy of the Beach lectureship, a lectureship designed to celebrate the kind of writer and thinker Joseph Warren Beach was—one who, in inventing American literature as a subject of study, also crossed genres and styles (it turns out he started out as a Classics major). It is fitting that this lecture in his honor will be performed by someone like Anne Carson time travelling from sixth century BC Greece to New York’s City Hall for her recent marriage celebrated in a New Yorker poem. A post-academic scholar of the highest order—someone who thinks, and thinks hard, about every word uttered, every fragment shed off the collective skin of language. We’re lucky to be with Anne Carson and her collaborators. Thank you Beaches and Freiers and IAS and the Chair’s Initiative Fund for giving us this afternoon.

October 18, 2009
Coffman Theater

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