At the end of March there was a puff piece about Anne Carson in the NY Times, occasioned by a staged reading of her translation of, I think, Euripides’ Hekabe.1 One short passage attracted my attention:
For all this, Ms. Carson said, she is not a poet. ‘Homer’s a poet,’ she said. ‘I would say I make things.’
This could pass as modesty, if Aristotle had never been done into English. Why? In his treatise on poetry, our favorite peripatetic refers to poetic composition with the word ποίησις from the verb ποιέω, which is commonly translated as ‘to make, create or produce’. From this vantage, Carson’s seeming distinction between poetic composition and ‘making things’ sounds false, or at least preciously sly. I must admit, though, that the bleak light it casts on the character and future of ‘the poet’ is amusing, for she obliquely implies that a ‘poet’ is perfected, completed, dead,2 though the making of things – the poiesis – continues. Is the NYTimes journalist meant to grasp this? If not, then for whom is such cleverness displayed? On whom is the joke perpetrated? Call it wit, call it arrogance, I call it unnecessary. But only a pedant would say every utterance must be dictated by ἀνάγκη.
Perhaps I would be willing to forgive this sort of opacity if I actually liked her poems, but I find I must agree with one reviewer (of The Autobiography of Red) who finds that ‘in spite of its surface of high intellectualism, it is an easy read, the same sort of psychological baring that one finds in much confessional poetry, the “literary” equivalent of a beach towel novel.’ To complain about the facility of her poetry immediately after lamenting the ‘difficulty’ of her manner might seem the sign of an addled mind, if both complaints did not spring from the same source: irritation with (an apparent) lack of substance beneath the surface cleverness. But mere generalizations won’t forward my point – best to look at a poem.3
(to be continued)4
- Dinitia Smith, ‘A Passion for the Classics and, Well, Passion’, 27 March 2004; one has to pay to access it online, which is why there is no link.
- Or, depending on how you feel about the historicity of Homer, non-existant.
- I would call it a text, but that word annoys me; please consider the word ‘poem’ to be a shorthand for ‘words arranged on a page in a decidedly un-proselike fashion’. Also, I apologize for using the words ‘poetry’ and ‘verse’ interchangeably.
- Or not.