Anne Carson Red Doc

From Anne Carson’s Red Doc, from

In his National Post review of Anne Carson’s Red Doc> Michael Lista writes, “this isn’t really poetry … it’s prose.” Like Jason Guriel, whose Poetry review I’ve already touched on, Lista argues that Anne Carson’s verse formations are “arbitrary” and contain “no formal meaning.” Lista also claims that the only definite ramification of Carson’s two-inch-wide centre-justified verses is that with them the book is longer than if they were, say, four-inches wide instead.

He’s right. But this point deserves more attention than is allowed in Lista’s review. The line break in non-formal verse will never be a settled matter. Without a formal constraint to end the line, you often just sense the line break’s purpose when you experience it. Lista doesn’t see the purpose in Carson’s line breaks though. In his opinion, Red Doc> is written in “not super good prose.”

That’s an important point. Given that there is no musical or otherwise traceable purpose behind Carson’s form (she admits as much in her New York Times Magazine profile), let’s look at what we’re left with. In “Reflections on Vers Libre,” T.S. Eliot suggests verse divorced from formal restraint needs to be “held up to the standards of prose.” Lista has given his verdict in that regard, finding Carson’s language to be “styled according to fashion, not function,” and that she employs a “difficulty that makes the writer’s job easier” because it imports its magic from canonical texts instead of cultivating its own.

Here’s where a reader might wish Lista was allowed a larger word count, because proof of Carson’s stylistic short-comings would require more room. If Carson’s work can be said to possess musicality, it has always been found on the sentence-level and in the action of the syntax. Her best lines—like “murderous little world once our objects had gazes” (Men in the Off Hours) or “here we go mother on the shipless ocean” (Decreation)—have never depended on constraints, but on what Eliot called “the ethereal music” found in the “expanse of prose.” So if Red Doc> fails to excite the ear, it’s because Carson’s voice is lost in a sea she’s conquered before.

I’m not sure though, and I’m not sold on the claim that Carson’s form is totally arbitrary. As Lista points out, there are at least a few gems in Red Doc>, and I think there’s something to the presence of white space on the page, as well as to the way the squished line frames the sentence-level and syntactical play. But that’s ornamental. At some important level Carson’s work needs to be assessed using the standards of prose

That goes for a lot of poets, though, like Lisa Pasold, whose Any Bright Horse will be reviewed in Puritan XXI. Like Carson’s, Pasold’s book is listed as poetry. The challenge to the critic, then, would seem to be to judge, as it were, the apple-ness of a bowl of oranges. But that would be to overemphasize the difference between poetry and prose. As Eliot wrote, “there is only good verse, bad verse and chaos.” The same would seem to hold for poetry governed only by the formal limitations of prose. In either case, the language needs to be assessed through the proper formal lens, and Lista has identified that lens in Anne Carson’s case. But the prose lines of Red Doc> still need a closer look.


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