Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

The Contemporary Mind and the Humanistic Tradition: Anne Carson's Way of Layering Complexity in Poetry

Dr. Carla Mettling.

This paper answers these questions by examining some of the patterns of thought in the work of one poet, Anne Carson, a sort of humanist’s humanist. She is properly so-called for the reason that her work incorporates the ideas of philosophers, historians, and psychologists along with those of classical and modern literary contributors to the tradition. But it is her method of capturing these influences in a contemporary mental “structure” (there is that dangerous word) that interests us here. In a number of related works, she creates a layering of consciousness around a theme of self-realization through love, more often the pain of non-realization through failed love. Her treatment of this not unfamiliar theme is highly original. For instance, she takes well-known figures from history and literature and views them in their moments of extremity as if they were performing on live television. This creates the situation of the figure actually experiencing the historical pain while simultaneously viewing it from outside and above and being in a position to comment on it and criticize it as contemporary performance. The effect is, as Carson says of the readers of Thucydides, that one sees “lives churning forward there—each in its own time zone, its own system of measures, its own local names... This manifold will fuse into one time and system... But first we see it as hard separate facts.” This single system is, of course, her poem.
In this way, and by similar techniques of causing historical, literary, and mythological figures to operate both in their own original matrix and in the new Carson story of it, she represents the complex of multiple frames of reference piled on top of and informing one another that is a feature of the contemporary way of seeing meaning. Her work, when so understood, provides exciting new glimpses of themes that are both traditional in the humanities and entirely relevant to us today.


Dr. Carla Mettling  (United States)
Assistant Professor
English Department
University of Southern Indiana

I have a doctorate in English and the Humanities and have taught Modern British and American Literature, as well as humanities at the University of Southern Florida and now the University of Southern Indiana.

  • Anne Carson
  • Contemporary Poetry
  • Humanities and Poetry
Person as Subject
  • Carson, Anne

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)