This essay serves as an introduction to Anne Carson’s Euripides. It discusses Carson’s ongoing engagement with the tragedian, from Grief Lessons to her latest experimental H of H Playbook and The Trojan Women: A Comic, drawing attention to Carson’s cross-pollinating approach to Euripidean tragedy and antiquity more broadly, as well as the characteristic blending of academic and artistic styles that inform her translation poetics. The introduction includes details of the themes explored in the special issue, together with summaries of the eight ‘takes’ that make up the collection.
CB: Did you come to poetry from critical writing, to poetry from prose, or were you exploring these different forms concurrently? Were you looking for ways to wed an academic interest in ancient Greece with creative pursuits?
AC: Distinctions [between academic and creative spheres] are obscure to me. . . . People worry a lot about them, why? The boundaries between “forms” (poetic, prosaic) are invented by us. The separation of “academic” from “creative” enterprise is demonstrably false and futile. Why pretend to respect categories like these?
For the reader of Anne Carson (Canada, 1950–), her response in this interview comes as no surprise. For almost four decades since taking her degrees in Classics, Carson has combined academic and creative categories to effortless, striking effect. Her own multifaceted profile explains this trait in her oeuvre: she is a scholar, poet, translator, philosopher, painter, and essayist, roles that she performs with equally intellectual and artistic ambition. She collaborates with artists and directors, takes part in oral readings and performances, and has a long-standing record of delivering lectures worldwide to audiences both within and beyond academia. She has been the recipient of major prizes, recognitions, and fellowships, which include the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry (1996), the Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry (1998), and the MacArthur Fellowship (2000). In 2020, Carson was honored with the Princess of Asturias Award for Literature and the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. The jury for these highly prestigious awards recognized the distinctive, far-reaching character of her production, stating that this is what makes her profile poikilos, that is, “scintillat[ing] with change and ambiguity” (PEN/Nabokov), and her encounters with antiquity “thought acts” that “elucidate the complexities of the current moment in time” (Princess of Asturias).
Indeed, Carson is a breaker of boundaries. It is rare to find examples of her work in which she is exclusively academic or artistic. Even her most scholarly writings, not least Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay (1986), showcase a discursive style that clearly marks a departure from the established practices at the heart of her disciplinary training in classics, especially if one focuses on small details: the critical and, at times, irreverent tone of her footnotes and prefaces; her aleatory, often humorous mode of argumentation; her experimental use of the page and gaps.1 We also know that her cross-pollinating approach to composition and translation comes in great practical part from working simultaneously at three desks,2 and that this is one significant way in which she makes her connections with Greek and, to a lesser extent, Roman antiquity: with attention to the ancient language, texts, and ideas; by incorporating different media and materialities, including her own art; and with regular reference to points in (mostly Western) modernity.
This is the approach Carson adopts in her ongoing engagement with Euripides, six of whose plays she translated between 2006 and 2015: Herakles, Hekabe, Hippolytus, Alcestis, Iphigenia in Tauris, and The Bacchae. Already in Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides (2006), a work that received rave reviews in non-academic publications such as The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, Publishers Weekly, and The New York Sun, one can detect the presence of a creative strand. In translations that may at first appear to be exclusively targeted at university students and academic researchers, the collection features a variety of details that broaden their appeal to a larger audience: playful omissions, transliterations of onomatopoeic sounds, alternative spellings, a distinctive use of colloquial, everyday English, and unorthodox distributions of lines, of which the zigzagging choruses in her rendering of Herakles are an example.3 The fusion of scholarly criticism and artistic thought is equally apparent in the blurb and brief introduction to the collection,4 which also features an afterword in the voice of Euripides.5
In 2021, Carson added two more items to this list: H of H Playbook (hereafter H of H) and The Trojan Women: A Comic (hereafter Trojan Women), which together represent what is arguably her most groundbreaking dialogue with the ancient playwright to date. Her translations of Euripides in these new works become even more experimental, to the point that they could be regarded as “transcreations.”6 In the former, Euripides’ Herakles is now H of H, the mysterious central character returning to Thebes after his twelve labors in a translation-collage housed in playbook form. In the latter, meanwhile, the captive women of Troy take the astonishing shape of speaking animals stepping in and out of the individual frames of a graphic comic designed by New York-based artist Rosanna Bruno.7 It is no exaggeration to regard these new books as feasts for the imagination, and not just for readers of Euripides and Carson. They offer equal food for thought to readers interested in myth, drama, poetry, the graphic novel, translation and adaptation, performance, and art and design, among other themes.
Carson’s reworking of Euripides’ plays into a playbook and comic also ranks among her boldest engagements with format (discussed in Rankine and Lively in this issue), on a par with the innovative formal designs of Nox (2010) and Float (2016). H of H and Trojan Women furthermore present avant-garde transformations of the stage of ancient Greek plays and their casts. Without spoiling the content for those who have not yet read the playbook and comic, it should suffice to say that Helen takes the form of a sable fox, and that Herakles and Athena each wear an OshKosh-style overall, which is rendered a half-mythical, half-ordinary garment in a manner that speaks powerfully to Carson’s radical portrayal of the hero and goddess in Euripides as modern, twentieth-century icons. Anachronisms abound in this context (Jansen), as well as deliberate repetitions (Kosick) and soundscapes (Nooter). The cast in both translations also inhabits dramatic environments full of natural and nuclear disaster, as they experience the trauma of captivity and violence, the fear of suffering and death, and the backdrop of long wars (Jansen; Telò). For readers of Euripides, one tangible effect of Carson’s treatment is the simultaneous sense of familiarity with and remoteness from his plays, and it is this dimension of Carson’s artistry as a translator that prompts a rethinking of the relevance of Euripides’ tragedies in our own time.8 Of course, the books also shed substantial light on Carson’s modes of connectivity with ancient Greek tragedy and the modern world, her Euripidean ethos and poetics, and, last but not least, the status of her translations as receptions of Euripides in their own right.9
These themes underpinned the call for contributors to “Anne Carson’s Euripides,” an online event held on April 29, 2022, under the auspices of the University of Bristol Poetry Institute, the Program in Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Program in Poetry and Poetics at the University of Chicago. The event afforded an opportunity to discuss the recently published H of H and Trojan Women through a series of short “takes” by poets, artists, essayists, and scholars who had interests in Carson and Mediterranean antiquity but also in modern languages and literature, translation, poetry, performance, materiality, critical theory, art, design, and architecture. Each speaker turned a spotlight on one or both works, drawing attention to inflections, motifs, comparative contexts, audience diversity, formats, and practices. We explored these from a variety of scholarly and creative perspectives, most prominently chemical poetics, (self-)repetition, the interplay of art and design and graphic art and narratology, neurodiversity, comedy and the comic, chimeric processes, and soundscapes.
For this issue, we have deliberately preserved the sense of immediacy of the online format and delivery, with minimal, strategic revisions and expansions of the oral takes for their publication form. In one case, we reproduce verbatim the “viva voce” style (Giannisi). We have also included two new commissions from Zoom participants, one on H of H and narratological graphic art (Lively) and the other an essay-interview with Rosanna Bruno (Lilly). At the heart of the “live” approach was our interest in producing readings of H of H and Trojan Women that speak closely to the breaking down of categories and boundaries that one finds in Carson’s oeuvre and thought as discussed above. We combined our own academic and non-academic interests with forms of criticism that, we believe, illuminate her artistic processes and philosophy of composition more capaciously. Readers of the issue will therefore encounter a variety of essay styles. Some contributors entertain a multimedia format (“Zoom voice,” poetry, fragments, performative passages), others offer collages of personal observations and frameworks that include visual art, notes, item lists, and/or a free use of the page-space, while some essays combine scholarly and creative formatting and content. Our aim has been to adopt a critical mode that captures the level of innovation and experimentation involved in H of H and Trojan Women. More ambitiously, our goal was to situate the translations in an open field of investigation,10 one that, crucially, aligns with Carson’s own interpretative strategies. We have not aimed at full thematic coverage. Instead, we invite readers to follow specific lines of thinking that can be developed in further directions in the future and/or can reinvigorate approaches to Euripides and Carson, as well as Carson Studies.11 As for the table of contents, we were keen to let readers make multiple connections freely as they read the issue; thus, the organization of the essays does not follow any specific order except for a movement from H of H to Trojan Women, with some pieces discussing both.
“H of H and the Combustion of Thought” (Laura Jansen) explores the atmospheric and catastrophic environments that punctuate H of H: storms, ice-breaks, volcanic eruptions, and nuclear explosions that give the tragic narrative an electrifying edge. It draws attention to a “chemical” poetics at the heart of Carson’s translation technique and thinking about Euripides’ play. This mannerism, also found in Euripides’ “combustible mixture of realism and extremism” (Grief Lessons, blurb), is not exclusive to H of H. It can be detected across Carson’s oeuvre: a tendency to combust the reader’s mind in ways that become a philosophy for rereading Euripides and, more ambitiously, Carson’s own sense of the tragic.
“Repeating after Carson” (Rebecca Kosick) looks at the theme of (self-)repetition in Carson’s new works. Across her diverse body of work, Carson repeatedly returns to the objects of her preoccupation. From Lazarus—“a person who had to die twice” (Nox)—to Heracles and countless other figures, themes, and images, Carson keeps returning to rework old ground. This essay adopts a repetitive approach to thinking with Carson’s repetitions. It considers how H of H and Trojan Women can be understood as being in reiterative conversation with the poet’s source texts, earlier instances of her own work, and wider thinking on the utility of repeating ourselves. Repetition is shown to circulate throughout Carson’s writing, particularly around the unknowable divide separating the living and the dead.
“Classics by Design: H of H Playbook and The Trojan Women: A Comic in Art and Commerce” (Patrice Rankine) examines the linguistic, artistic, and typographical dimensions of Carson’s H of H and Trojan Women. It argues that graphic design and design-thinking provide a useful and unexplored theoretical framework for deciphering these books, given the often complex relationship they establish between image and words, and sometimes even between words presented in different typeface and handwriting. Carson worked in graphic design for a time, and as a poet she uses words (specifically metaphor) as her primary design tool. Language works in tandem with image and form to create broader artistic meaning.
“Blood in the Gutter: The Graphic Art of Narrative Co-poesis in H of H Playbook and The Trojan Women” (Genevieve Liveley) explores the narrative potency of the many silences and gaps, the holes and empty spaces, that punctuate H of H. It argues that the “comic” styling of this tragedy—that is, its formatting as a comic or a graphic novel analogous to Carson’s Euripides’ Trojan Women—engages reader, text, and image in a highly collaborative dynamic of narrative co-production.
“Heraclean Overhaul(s): Par-a-noia, Badiou’s Un-thought, and Neurodiversity in H of H” (Mario Telò) considers H of H as an opportunity “to push against the shaming of mental illness or neurological difference that is implicit in certain devaluations of paranoid reading” still prevailing in the critical academic field. With a focus on the playbook’s materiality, it examines Carson’s rewriting of Heracles’ tragic madness as an “imagistic site” for rethinking paranoia, especially as an “aesthetico-political radicality located on the edge of a voiding of thought (noein),” a radicality that, as Telò argues, can be aligned “with modes of non-normate cognition, with neuroqueer countersociality.”
“Comedy in Carson’s The Trojan Women: A Comic” (Ian Rae) takes the subtitle of Carson’s translation as a starting point. The subtitle, through the punning intersection of classical and modern senses of “the comic” as a genre, demands that the reader ask of her book: What is the place of comedy in a comic about one of the bleakest plays in the Western canon? In this essay, Rae shows that the comic elements of Trojan Women help to reframe the foci of Euripides’ narrative and underscore, in a bitter irony, the disastrous impact on the Greeks of the reconciliation of the gods Athena and Poseidon.
“The Trojan Women: A Chimeric Reading (Viva Voce in a Zoom Meeting)” (Phoebe Giannisi) reproduces verbatim poet-scholar Giannisi’s online take on Carson and Bruno’s play comic. The performance draws on Giannisi’s poetry and installation-video art on the ancient Greek mythical figure Chimera, a “composite being, a creature where different species meet inside one body as various bodily parts.” It interlaces commentary-poems, fragments, interviews, brief citations, and personal notes. Each “speech-part” of this chimeric essay explores scene-setting, the motif of absence, animal poetics, and linguistic expression in the comic play, while underscoring the potential of Giannisi’s approach to capture Carson and her own chimeric work. More ambitiously, the approach challenges fixed notions of how academic and creative ideas should be framed and uttered.
“Disjunctive Soundscapes in The Trojan Women and H of H” (Sarah Nooter) examines two distinct modes of sonic disjunction in Trojan Women and H of H. Trojan Women shows how noticing sounds that are dislocated from expectations exposes hard truths about reality. H of H interrogates our “regular” mode of hearing other people and implies that there is a gap in how we can know others and know ourselves. Thus, though both are graphic texts, their power and effect are nonetheless garnered also through the sounds they describe and conjure in the minds of their readers.
“Slanted Translation[s]: An Interview with Artist Rosanna Bruno” (Gina Prat Lilly) combines an essayistic format with an extensive interview with Rosanna Bruno, illustrator of Trojan Women, for which Carson provides a creative translation. It discusses the collaboration between translator and illustrator, especially the oblique manner in which they approached the tragic and devastating cosmos of Euripides’ play. The interview with Bruno follows the essay.
The editor could not have hoped for a more receptive and capable group of contributors: poets, artists, intellectuals, and academics able to combine their collective expertise to great effect. Deepest thanks is due to each of them for their unfailing enthusiasm, intellectual ambition, and timely work. The editor would also like to thank artist Rosanna Bruno for her interview with Gina Prat Lilly for this issue. The last note of gratitude is for Anne Carson, who has commented on various aspects of her translations for this issue, patiently responded to questions, and generously given titles to her artworks.
See the interview in Carson 2004 and Jansen 2021b: 3–4.
For more examples, see Wilson’s review (2006).
See Jansen in this issue.
A practice that one finds elsewhere in her translations, most notably with Mimnermus in Plainwater (1995) and Stesichorus in Autobiography of Red (1998).
See Lilly in this issue for Bruno’s profile.
Which is not the same as claiming that Euripides anticipates the social concerns of modernity and the formal strategies of modernism. See Gabriel 2021 on the German-inflected tradition of identifying Euripides as an “untimely modern.”
In this sense, we conceive of the present issue as a continuation of the themes explored in Jansen 2021a.
See Güthenke and Holmes 2018, who advocate for “[t]he ‘open field’, an embrace of the many different and singular configurations of knowledge that are coming to define the classicist in the twenty-first century” (abstract); see also pg. 63, on the importance of scholarly and creative dialogue and collaboration to embrace this model.