Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Welcome to Syntax Club

Inspired in part by A Public Space's read-through of War and Peace with Yiyun Li (though that project is certainly better conceived and executed than this one), I am pleased to announce a new Essay Daily limited series offering: Syntax Club!

Syntax Club is a more leisurely, laid-back space dedicated to collectively reading through works essayists might find interesting with a particular eye towards sentence-level content. Hopefully Syntax Club will let us improve the quality of our own sentences by understanding what precisely is appealing about specific moments in other works.

Starting next Tuesday, May 5th, I am going to be using some weekday spaces here at Essay Daily to do a read-through of Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, a hybrid work which combines an essay, a formally playful critical apparatus, imitations of ancient Greek poetry, and a "novel in verse" which retells a classical myth. I picked this book for Syntax Club because I am a little fond of it and because I feel that there is a kind of essayistic thought underpinning much of the work (or if not essayistic, at least of value to essayists).  Additionally, Anne Carson is precisely the type of "lyric" author many of us think of when we use terms like "lyric essay", so even though this work is technically a novel I am not particularly concerned about the genre boundaries.

I'll post quotes and some light analysis here on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. For next week I'll be covering the two sections called "Red Meat" as well as the short "Appendix" sections which precede the novel-in-verse itself. After that I will move through the novel itself, doing 1-3 sections each Tuesday through Thursday until we have finished the book (the sections are all rather short, and the book itself can easily be read entirely in a long afternoon). I encourage you to read or re-read along if you like and post your own thoughts in the comments, but don't feel obligated. Again: Syntax Club is a leisurely space.

We will focus on the following questions for this read-through:
--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?

Procedural Questions and Answers:

Who is Anne Carson?
A Canadian poet, translator, and professor of Greek/Latin. Many of her projects are "hybrid" works which somehow re-work classical or ancient materials. People generally tend to find her work highly interesting or totally insufferable; I am in the former camp, although I understand and respect the latter. I wrote about another, much more directly essayistic work of hers on here a few years back, during a somewhat sad time in my life.

What is Autobiography of Red about?
It uses a re-working of the myth of Geryon and Herakles to attempt complex ("demandingly broad", a friend of mine recently called it) thinking about adjectives, time, interiority, and a number of other things. Like I said: people find it either interesting or insufferable.

Where can I purchase Autobiography of Red?
Any independent bookstore still shipping material should be able to acquire a copy. I am fond of Antigone Books in Tucson. There exists a Kindle version, though I cannot really recommend Amazon. Also, you can find a remarkable number of things on the internet if you search for a book's full title + the letters "pdf" in Google.

What sort of content will you be posting?
Interesting quotes from the book, thoughts on how this is valuable to essayists, and breakdowns of particular sentences with an eye towards their mechanics and "craft" (forgive me that terminally vague word).

Is there anything else I should know?
Several people have told me that another of Anne Carson's works, Bakkhai (a translation of Euripides' Bacchae), treats gender in a way that is at best "confused and confusing" and at worst "hurtful to trans people". I have not read Bakkhai, nor do I plan to; this project should not be taken as a wholesale endorsement of Carson and all her works.

Why are you doing this?
I legitimately feel this book has something that might be of value to us. I have struggled to articulate what that something is, and  I hope this project will help me figure it out. I also think Carson's syntax is legitimately worth breaking down. Also, I live alone and work remotely and now find myself in dire need of something to help structure my life during these times.

Aren't the high school students you teach for a living reading this book right now?
It was on a list of 5 titles they could pick from for an independent study project.  When I taught these same students as 8th graders last year I made them read some excerpts in order to identify examples of anaphora and epistrophe--as a group my students absolutely hated the book. Truly loathed it. I feared they might leave a severed horse head on my doorstep in retaliation. Only 4 or 5 students chose to do it this year. I do not plan on telling my students about Syntax Club, and the projects they are working on have little-to-nothing in common with the approach I am taking here.

I sent you an email about an unrelated issue some time back and you have not responded. Do you hate me?
I can say with 98% certainty that I do not hate you, but I am extremely bad at communication. Please feel free to bump the email thread.

I cannot tell how serious or unserious any of this stuff you are doing right now is.
Neither can I?


Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.


  1. Hi, Will. Is there anything else we need to do to 'sign up,' or just check back on this site? Thanks again for coordinating this discussion.

    1. No need to do anything else to sign up; just check back starting next week for some posts. If you want to join in the discussion you can do that here in the comment section or over on Twitter (@EssayingDaily), where we will post links and excerpts as well. Designed to be very casual, pop in as much or as little as you like.

  2. Hi Will -- thanks for the great salvo into the text. I'm unschooled in Carson, so I'm planning on reading the assigned segment of text twice, day by day. The first read for pleasure (that dear dear dog!) and the second for sentences. I like Carson's dry delivery. She's funny! For instance when she says "Bergk says the history of a text is like a long caress" on the one hand, but makes sure on the other that it's understood this text is a big meat-mess, and "the fragment numbers tell you roughly how the pieces fell out of the box." I was thinking on my first read through is that part of her magic is that she needs the reader to willingly accept her voice, to accept her, to accept her mind and how it's working with this text. I like that so much. I also like your sentence assignments at the end. I'm doing those as I consider a work in progress. It's very interesting to think: under what conditions does my narrator need the reader to do this? And voila, there was an opportunity to get Carsonist. The imperative involvement was handily used to compress time in dialogue, and now my whole piece has shifted to a 'Carson 3P" and I LIKE IT. I also am taking this opportunity to reread a little of Briggs's "This Little Art." - Anne