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“Prowling The Meanings: Anne Carson’s Doubtful Forms” and “The Traitor’s Symphony”

  • Thorp, Jennifer
Publication Date
Jan 13, 2015
Manchester eScholar
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ABSTRACT: This thesis uses four works by the contemporary Canadian poet Anne Carson (born 1950) to argue that it is in the embracing of failure and difficulty that modern poetics may negotiate formal erosion and the limits of language. The introduction addresses Carson’s divisive reputation, and uses two separate criticisms of her poetic skill to delineate her liminal position in the modern poetic landscape, and therefore demonstrate her potential as a valuable framework for discussing innovative form. Via an examination of the criticisms of Robert Potts and David Solway, I argue that Carson is neither high priestess of postmodernism nor a collagist of poorly produced forms. This illuminates two points: one, that she occupies a space outside several modern ideologies of poetic authenticity, expression and form, and two, that this position can be effectively used to interrogate those ideologies and investigate new possibilities for poetic creativity. In Chapter 1, Nox, Carson’s elegy for her brother Michael, is argued to experiment with traditional elegy form – but not in a mode that wholly follows Jahan Ramazani’s famous framing of 20th century elegy form as traumatically fractured. Nox is shown not to be merely subversive, but also interrogative of its own formal tradition, embracing the inherent contradiction within elegy: that absence could be rendered as presence, that a living, flawed language could make the dead speak. From this contradiction, I argue, Nox creates a solution: it occupies a position of formal non-forming, a return to the state of poesis, refusing to emerge as a completed poem or retreat into fragmentation but instead occupying a liminal space of continual creation. In the second chapter, this preoccupation with elegy’s paradox is shown to be part of a greater theme within Carson’s work. The failures of language in Carson are elucidated with reference to the sceptical 19th-century theorist Fritz Mauthner. Mauthner is argued to be the best theorist for the thesis’s framework because of his belief in the possibilities of language’s resurrection as a valid communicative medium. Through three texts, “By Chance The Cycladic People”, The Glass Essay and Just For The Thrill, Carson’s interrogation of this hope is shown to produce creativity from difficulty, creating monstrous form-combinations to render the silence beyond language’s limits as poetically productive. Carson’s texts, in their struggle with failure and their obsessive doubt, can be used to construct several means of negotiating the limits of form and the inherent fallibility of language. The conflict between the drive for authentic expression and the perceived failure of expressive mediums is one of the defining features of both Carson’s work and modern poetry in general. However, it is by inhabiting and challenging the fraught areas at the edge of meaning that poetry of the 21st century can, in the words of Carson’s influence Samuel Beckett, try again, fail again, fail better.SYNOPSIS: The Traitor’s Symphony is an experimental novel in three voices, set in an unspecified totalitarian state known only as the Regime at some point in the twentieth century. It follows the career of David, a young composer who rises from tortured outcast to celebrated Regime talent through scheming, moral ambiguity, and a deal with the Professor, a translator and populist radio pundit. David trades the sexual attentions of Dion, a beautiful but brain-damaged boy, for the Professor’s help in rising through the ranks of the Regime’s musical system. The voices of the Professor and his doctor wife Anne, who have just lost their newborn son, alternate with David’s as the bargain binds them together in disaster. The narrative is inspired by the lives of collaborationist composers in various 20th century states, including Dmitri Shostakovich and Carl Orff, but is not focussed on any one figure. Instead, it takes various elements of their experience - the state apparatus of approval, the minute observation of ‘doctrine’ in musical content, and the humiliation and blacklisting of composers who did not produce acceptable content - as the starting point for a narrative exploring the complex relationship between art, artists and the modern totalitarian state. Research in this area was shaped by Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise: listening to the twentieth century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) and the work of Michael Kater, most notably Composers of the Nazi era: eight portraits (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), and supplemented by archival work in the Stasimuseum and Bundesbeauftragten in Berlin. More broadly, the novel focusses on the difficulties of grief, love and survival in totalitarian environments. Its setting, the Regime, was created by combining elements of daily life under the Stalinist Terror, The Democratic Republic Of North Korea, and Nazi and Stasi Germany, drawing on sources including Anna Akhmatova’s poetry and Chol-Hwan Kang’s The Aquariums Of Pyongyang (New York: Basic Books, 2001). The Regime’s embedded paranoia, hyper-vigilance, rigorous propaganda, regulated femininity, cult-like leader worship and brutal reprisal for non-conforming citizens are constructed from these historical precedents. Each of the three voices is stylised as a poetic form, as a method of expressing the repression of the individual and the culture of fear in the Regime’s system. This formal dimension draws on modernist literature in its use of language as expression of identity, but also on Wittgensteinian doubt that true communication could ever exist between such personal webs of meaning. Both David and Anne must actively suppress their private pain, he the agony of torture and burden of being labelled a traitor, she the disorienting grief of her son’s death and the loss of her husband’s love. Their inner emotional states are reflected in the forms of their vocals: David’s fractured voice, with its distressed percussive rhythm, is the voice of a musician physically and mentally smashed, while Anne’s blank, frantic segments express the dislocation of her foreignness and the gulf that grief has created in her marriage. The Professor, in contrast, begins the novel in supreme command of language, with brief breaks into sensual chaos as the only manifestation of his hidden mourning. The vocal shifts reflect and form the narrative progression.

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