Where does the claim that Short Talks began as a series of captions for paintings find support? Where does it break down?
In Short Talks, which was first published in 1992, Anne Carson confronts the reader with a series of short poems which were first intended to depict captions to a corresponding series of paintings. This approach, however, was abandoned when the readers throughout lost interest in the paintings and only paid attention to the captions. In Plainwater, first published in 1995, some of these poems reappear.
The first striking fact about the 31 poems contained in “Short Talks” as it appears in Plainwater is their length, they vary from one line (p. 31: “On Gertrude Stein About 9:30″) to 20 lines (p. 42: “On The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman”) while the majority consists roughly of about 10 lines. The poems further lack rime which could be intended to put stress on the content of the poems rather than the language. The very brief appearance of the poems in question underlines and supports the image of the author walking through an exhibition of paintings, works of art, or, more abstract, feelings and thoughts, while cogitating one piece at a time, paying full attention to the thoughts and feelings, connotations and associativities that this particular item provokes, but in the end leaving the scenery to proceed to the next item in line. Another supportive argument for the theory of the poems being intended as captions is the choice of the title scheme, all titles begin with the preposition “On”, followed either by the title of a painting (p. 37: “On the Mona Lisa”) or by an expression or topic the author might have associated with a particular piece of art (p. 31: “On Trout”). In this case, the phrase “piece of art” also implies the artistic work of thought and idea.
Carson’s language is unique, her style of expressing emotions (p. 41, “On the Youth at Night”: “Terrific lava shone on his soul.”) and her metaphors (p. 43, “On Orchids”: “We live by tunneling for we are people buried alive.”) underline the sensual and deep sensations that can be evoked when losing yourself in devotion to paintings, music or comparable works of the human intellect. Therefore, the caption theory seems probable.
The reader is witness to the inner monologue of an imaginary character (p. 39, “On Rain”: “It was blacker than olives the night I left.”), sometimes possibly of the author (p. 37, “On Walking Backwards”: “My mother forbid us to walk backwards.”) and sometimes it stays completely out of focus where the origin of the thoughts lies (p. 31: “On Disappointments in Music”). This stylistic device enables the reader to take part in the imaginative and creative process that lies behind the poems, to identify with the individual who took the chance to express ideas regarding the variety of paintings, to think, rethink and maybe even think on where the author stopped.
Furthermore, the occasional mentioning of philosophers’ or artists’ names (p. 30, “On Chromoluminism”: “Seurat – the old dazzler – has painted that place.”; p. 31: “On Gertrude Stein About 9:30″; p. 31, “On Disappointments in Music”: “Prokofiev was ill …”; p. 32: “On Ovid”; p. 32: “On Parmenides”; p. 34, “On the Rules of Perspective”: “These are the views of Braque.”; p. 35, “On Rectification”: “Kafka liked to have his watch an hour and a half fast.”; p. 36, “On Sleep Stones”: “Camille Claudel lived the last thirty years of her life in an asylum …”; p. 37, “On Waterproofing”: “Franz Kafka was Jewish.”; p. 38, “On the End”: “Rembrandt wakens you …”; p. 38: “On Sylvia Plath”; p. 40, “On Charlotte”: “Miss Bronte & Miss Emily & Miss Anne used to put away their sewing …”; p. 42, “On The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman”: “One wonders if Elsje ever saw Rembrandt’s painting, …”; p. 43, “On Orchids”: “… , writes Emily Dickinson in a letter …”; p. 43, “On Penal Servitude”: “Dostoevski went in …”; p. 43: “On Hölderlin”s World Night Wound’) stresses the image of diverse individual artistic pieces, but it also depicts one of the central possible arguments against the caption theory. When taking a closer look at the range of the names on record, we can count four distinct painters, but 12 artists of a different creative section (11 philosophers and writers, one composer). This leads to the conclusion that either the author has intentionally or subconsciously made a large associative link between a painting and other artistic fields or the caption theory is no longer valid for the loosely connected context of painting and caption.
The most hindering factor in finding a final solution and, thus, a final answer to the question whether the caption theory is probable or not is simply the absence of the original paintings. The objective of liberating the poems from their visual counterparts is intelligible, yet it leaves the reader not the option to take a look at the paintings as well or decide to blank them out when necessary; one could argue that the reader’s freedom is restricted for the sake of the purity of literature.
For interpreting Carson’s feelings, thoughts, connotations and viewpoints, for following her train of thought, for sympathizing with the ideas that obviously struck her while viewing certain paintings and for finding a deeper appreciation by seeking Carson’s link between canvas, mind and word the display of the corresponding paintings would certainly be helpful, but for enjoying ‘Short Talks’ it is rather irrelevant. Assuming Carson’s ability to build bridges across all boundaries of genre, style or variety, in the end it remains quite certain that the caption theory still finds support even in the present text format which lacks the original paintings. The overall feel and look (in a broader sense) of her collected poems tells us so.
 Carson, Anne. Plainwater. 1995. New York: Vintage Books. First Vintage Contemporary Edition, March 2000. “Short Talks“, 27-46
 Carson, Anne. Plainwater. 1995. New York: Vintage Books. First Vintage Contemporary Edition, March 2000