112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Cross-Dressing: Negotiating Gender and Genre in Anne Carson’s Poetics

Diana Shaffer, Independent Scholar

The proposed paper analyzes Anne Carson’s rhetorical use of ekphrasis to problematize the traditional categories of gender and genre, rhetoric and poetics, and word and image in selected poetry and prose essays. 


            In two essays, the classical scholar and poet, Anne Carson, paints a vivid and powerful portrait of the ancient Greek concept of woman as a defiled and polluted being, as “matter out of place,” as “dirt” (Before Sexuality 158). As dirt, as the exemplar of matter out of place, the female provokes fear and anxiety in the male, resulting in the development of elaborate rituals to control female pollution, in its myriad manifestations, and prevent its infectious spread.  Carson concludes both essays with a brilliant ekphrastic display that dramatizes the ancient Athenian wedding ceremony.  According to Carson, “the ancient wedding ceremony is the one place where the theory of female pollution and the practice of pollution control can be seen to converge” (Before Sexuality 160).  However, the two ekphraseis lead the reader in divergent directions, offering the spectator multiple interpretations of the spectacle, and of the ultimate purpose of Carson’s essay.

            Though Carson identifies her discourse on female pollution as an essay, it does not conform to the boundaries of the modern literary genre. As a modern genre, the essay is defined as a short literary composition on a single subject, presenting the personal view of the author. In her specific choice of words, Carson may be exploiting the polysemantic economy of the term.  As a verb, to essay means to make an attempt at, or to subject to a test.  As a noun, it means a trial, or a testing of the value of something.  Within this expanded context of semantic meaning, we may assume that Carson is putting to the test not only her interpretation of female pollution in antiquity; but also, the innovative technique of poetic visualization by which she constructs her arguments. What is at stake, then, in her essay, is the persuasive, visual and embodiedquality of the text, not its cold, calculating logic.  If her words move the reader to feel indignation at the Greek theory of female pollution and control, then her essay has achieved its intended effect.

            In the proposed paper I argue that Carson’s rhetorical power flows from her concept of the word as a force acting on the reader, in conjunction with the practice of ekphrasis. The primary function of the ekphrasis is to create a vivid, visual image for the reader, such that the reader can see the subject in their mind’s eye.  However, the visual impact produced by the ekphrasis is not an end in itself; it has the further effect of producing an emotional impact, involving the audience in the events described. Carson uses the intense visualization of the ekphrasis to deeply involve the reader in the text and problematize the traditional categories of gender and genre, rhetoric and poetic, and word and image.