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Laureation address: Anne Carson

Professor Anne Carson
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters

Laureation by Dr Rebecca Sweetman
School of Classics

Monday 1 December 2014


Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Professor Anne Carson for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

In the prologue to her acclaimed verse novel Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson writes this: “What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives come from somewhere else. The word adjective (epitheton in Greek) is itself an adjective meaning ‘placed on top’, ‘added’, ‘appended’, ‘foreign’. Adjectives seem fairly innocent additions, but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being.”

It is a mark of Professor Carson’s uniqueness and importance in the world of creative literature that it is easy enough to find adjectives to describe individual aspects of her work but it is much harder to find epithets which encapsulate the special qualities of her writing in full. Indeed, to read the poetry of Anne Carson is to discover an imagination and intelligence capable of liberating language from its usual attachments. Even the nouns typically used to name what she does – writer, poet, essayist, teacher, scholar – don’t really do justice to the extent to which her work seeks to move beyond or combine traditional categories, genres and functions which are more typically kept apart. To describe anyone’s work one inevitably has to resort to adjectives and analogies, but with Anne Carson such a process is a very poor substitute for reading that work first hand.

But, as befits a laureation address I must attach Professor Carson to the world with some nouns and ‘latches of being’, even though they will seem prosaic by comparison with her own writing. First and foremost, she is an innovator and pioneer in the field of Classics and literature. She has authored over 18 books and her work has made a significant contribution to bringing Classics to a far wider audience than traditional scholars usually manage. Her work crosses boundaries, challenges convention and addles critics who try to categorise her, but at its heart it is sublime.

Anne Carson is a translator, arguably the most distinguished poet-translator of classical literature writing in English today. But as you would now expect, she is not a translator of the usual kind. While some of Professor Carson’s translations might on the surface seem to follow the traditional line of the Classicist, she always brings to them something that is all her own. Indeed, Autobiography of Red starts out as a critical analysis of the surviving fragments of a work by the archaic Greek poet Stesichoros and presents the autobiography of Geryon, a modern moody teenager in the throes of figuring out love and life with his tormentor Herakles playing with his emotions, characters based on the tenth labour of Herakles. Professor Carson worked in graphic arts for a time and her books are an artistic experience in themselves; for example, her collection Nox, an accordion fold-out book, is illustrated with letters, photos and sketches which make the experience of the poetry tactile.

Next, we come to the noun Classicist and the adjectives ‘learned’ and ‘scholarly’. Professor Carson undertook her BA and MA in Classics at the University of Toronto but wisely chose to travel to St Andrews to work with Kenneth Dover, at that time Professor of Greek and later of course Chancellor of our University. A colleague tells me that Sir Kenneth (as he became) always continued to speak fondly of Professor Carson and that they were probably kindred spirits in their desire to challenge convention.

The nouns pilgrim and prize-winner are also applicable. Perhaps Professor Carson’s time in St Andrews, a place of pilgrimage, impacted on her. She has written about pilgrims in Kinds of Water and her career has itself in some respects resembled the journey of a pilgrim. She has taught Classics and literature in Canada and the US and she has been poet, artist and writer in residence at places such as Stanford, Berkeley and NYU. Colleagues and students frequently emphasise her warmth and the value she places on being a teacher and colleague.

Professor Carson has won numerous prizes and has been awarded prestigious fellowships including the TS Eliot Prize and the MacArthur Fellowship in 2000.

One of the most evocative nouns that has been used to describe Professor Carson is ‘a philosopher of heartbreak’1. Heartbreak is about experimentation, taking risks for something that you believe will bring ultimate joy. Her work Nox is an elegy for her brother, drawing inspiration from the Roman poet Catullus who had also written an epitaph for his brother. In it, she disassembles the Catullus poem on the left hand side of the page and then on the right she re creates (another work) her brother. The work epitomises her approach to breathing life into Classics, engaging a wide readership without condescension.

To sum up, reviewers of Professor Carson’s work often note the difficulties of trying to define her. But Carson defies definition by combining her interests and scholarship in pioneering ways. She is a Classicist, a translator and a poet and she is the very best of all. She makes an art out of academia and academia out of art.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of her major contribution to Classics and poetry I invite you to confer on Professor Anne Carson the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

1The Nation Critic, Bruce Hainly on Autobiography of Red

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