Anne Carson’s poetry breathes life and renewed interest into the obscure and the forgettable. Chances are you’ve already read her without even knowing it: If you used Tumblr during the platform’s peak, Carson’s translation of Sappho’s fragments, If Not, Winter, was a recurring staple of the poetry and literature communities. Despite her being a scholar of the esoteric herself (she was a professor of Classics at McGill University and the University of Michigan until recently), her work is considered a gateway drug for people attempting to get into ancient Greek literature, apart from its own laudable, unique merits.
This past weekend, Carson reprised three lectures on aesthetics over two days at the Brooklyn Public Library, tickets for which had been sold out weeks prior. Carson is an unlikely pop cultural figure for (former) edgy Tumblr teens, but nearly an hour before the event began there was already an adoring line of twenty-somethings gathered outside the lecture hall. As one of those formerly edgy Tumblr teens, I wanted to know what she had to say about art, to see if she would assume the lectern and declaim her manifesto on beauty, maybe even lead us through the etymology of the word “aesthetics.” Whatever she did on the stage would be revelatory in some way, I thought.
Carson is no stranger to art forms that, like the lecture, seem stuffy or endlessly prosaic upon first glance, and her solution has always been to disturb and reinvent the formal parameters of the genre. In Autobiography of Red (1998), she recasts fragments of Greek poetry on Herakles’s tenth labor of killing the monster Geryon as penance for murdering his own wife and children (a part of the myth mercifully left out of the Disney cartoon) as a love story about a moody, traumatized boy named Geryon and his infatuation for a careless, “golden” delinquent Herakles. The book itself is a pastiche of forms, which involves a (fictional) interview with a “Stesichoros” and a relatively more academic discussion on the myth of Geryon, all tied together by her gorgeous, lyrical writing.
The auditorium was jam-packed the first day of the lectures, and folding chairs were set up outside the hall for waitlisted audience members to view the live broadcast. Everyone either had a tote bag from a literary establishment of their choice, a book in hand, an attractive notebook, or a combination thereof — to project strength or erudition, I could not say. Carson began her first lecture in an austere white button-up, and changed off-stage into a blue checkered shirt for her second lecture an hour later.
Her first lecture on stillness was intellectually dazzling: She wove together Helen of Troy, Sappho, John Cage, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Willem de Kooning, Jenny Holzer, and more as she sketched an associative history of stillness as foregrounding reticence and silence. A fair chunk of the audience seemed a little lost, but nonetheless awed by her assortment of cultural referents. As refreshing as this work was, Carson dug in by disrupting this zig-zagging with a meditation on grappling with her father’s dementia in the second lecture, “Corners.” A dissection of the home as a setting for Greek tragedies was married with anecdotes about her father mapping the house in which they lived and his actions within it with Post-It notes (“turn out the lamp”) in an attempt to exert control over a world that was no longer legible to him. There was a lot more murmuring and assenting from the audience, who seemed much more comfortable when Carson actually started speaking about herself. When it comes to a sick family member, even art geniuses are at a loss.
Carson didn’t touch upon her own work as a poet and translator until the end of the third lecture, “The Chair (What Sits on It, and Why),” which took place the next day. Accompanied by Jonah Bokaer as a real-time dance interpreter, Carson spent much time explicating the cultural history of the humble chair as a normalizing presence, a “locus of attention and power.” “The chair poses an unaskable question,” she said as Bokaer performed a silent dance interlude, swiveling out and back into the periphery of (you guessed it) a chair.
Finally it was perhaps time for her to talk more concretely about herself, as her personal thoughts and writing processes were what the rapt audience had travelled to the library for. Instead, she looked at another friend’s artwork, the Canadian artist Betty Goodwin’s 1988 painting Seated Figure With Red Angle, where a person vaguely drawn and shaded in grey is sitting awkwardly on a non-descript chair, framed by several quick lines in red. Carson mused aloud about what the seated figure might have been feeling: Was she like Penelope, seated, looking at a lost beloved? Had she “forgotten to exhale, as people with dementia do”? Or was it some other story, some other chair?
And so Carson began reading her ekphrastic poem, “Seated Figure With Red Angle (1988) by Betty Goodwin,” without answering her own questions. “I had a lot of fun writing this poem,” she noted with a smile. “Nothing but conditional sentences, just the if causes … [all] 73 of them.” She duly noted signposts for the reading: “When it gets to Freud, you’re halfway there.” Carson smiled again. “This may be the first time you have associated Freud with hope.” The audience laughed. When she finished the poem, she rested her hands on Bokaer’s head as he sat still on his dancing companion, the chair, thanked her audience, and left without taking any questions.
The audience was visibly confused at the abrupt ending, after hours of listening to Carson’s erudition, only filing out of the auditorium when the lights turned back on. The sentiment in the room seemed to be a collective “huh.” Some even lingered in the wings in the hopes of seeing the poet, though their plans were foiled by well-meaning library staff, who ushered people out of the quickly closed lecture hall. The performances were over, and so was Carson’s lesson.
It wasn’t disappointing inasmuch as it was an opportunity to mull over the purpose of a lecture series like so. I had learnt something from the experience, but I couldn’t quite identify what it was; it definitely wasn’t about aesthetics, or the content of beauty, or even what goes into a good poem. But Carson’s reticence to explain anything with regards to her own work made sense in the broader context of her project. In an interview with The Paris Review, Carson talked about wanting to impart a “fragrance of understanding” for her readers in that capturing “the surface of emotional fact is useful for other people … [jolting] them into thinking, into doing their own act of understanding.” Perhaps the lectures were the best means of conveying that listening to someone you put on a pedestal explaining aesthetics to you is unhelpful, even as a distraction from engaging with art on your own. “By means of a box of matches,” Carson said, quoting her father, “you can demonstrate almost anything in the world except a box of matches.”