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Frame-Shifting and Creative Adaptation: Anne Carson’s Sublime

Steven Maye (UBC)

Friday, May 18th
Buchanan B213

Drawing on Fillmore’s frame semantics (1982), Coulson introduced the notion of “frameshifting,” where the reader or listener of a discourse happens upon something that fails to make sense and will thus “search working memory for something that can be reinterpreted,” eventually settling on a new frame that resolves this semantic crux (2001: 56‒57). The notion of frame-shifting allows us to discuss the effects of a variety of literary genres that require dynamic interpretation, including certain jokes and textual ambiguities. However, literary works also enjoy a certain independence from the contextual limitations of colloquial discourse; while many genres (and the joke is one example) set up a frame – often by means of narrative – in order to guide a reader’s response, others evoke the process of framing without cueing a dominant frame. This is particularly evident in the case of contemporary poetry, which often allows for a measure of creativity on the part of the reader. Indeed, in this case, we might construe the act of poetic composition as the creation of ambiguity through an incomplete process of frame-shifting, where certain frame-invoking cues that are inherent in the subject matter are troubled or suppressed while others are brought into play.

My paper will illustrate this idea using works by the poet and classicist Anne Carson — especially her “Ode to the Sublime by Monica Vitti.” This work takes as its starting point Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Red Desert, and thus constitutes itself as a shift across media, from film to print. But her poem also involves a shift between genres: a narrative film is transformed into a non-narrative (lyric) poem. By paraphrasing particular scenes and reducing their dependence on narrative, Carson effectively removes certain frames that allow for their interpretation as the film is viewed. For example, in one scene Vitti, her husband, and a group of acquaintances lounge in a fog-shrouded cabin by a pier, and one of the members produces a quail egg, offering it to the others as a kind of aphrodisiac. In Carson’s poem, the narrative context drops out – including the precise setting and the social nature of the occasion – and the scene is rendered as a single declarative sentence: “Quail eggs eaten from the hand in fog make everything aphrodisiac” (2005: 65). Carson’s “adaptation” of the film thus involves a process of unframing, which opens additional interpretative possibilities. Moreover, her work plays upon the ambiguity within the remaining frames by making repeated use of the pronoun ‘everything,’ which draws attention to the limitations of these verbal descriptions; and the referent of this pronoun must be (re)negotiated in every sentence in which it appears. (What, for instance, might be the “everything” that is made aphrodisiac?) Finally, by engaging the process of framing quite directly, Carson’s poem comes to function as an example of what Richardson has termed the “neural sublime” in that it “yields up a disturbing but compulsive glimpse into the ordinarily secret workings of the brain” (Richardson 2010: 25).


Antonioni, Michelangelo. 1964. Red Desert. Criterion.

Carson, Anne. 2005. Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera. New York: Knopf.

Coulson, Seana. 2001. Semantic Leaps: Frame-Shifting and Conceptual Blending in Meaning Construction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fillmore, Charles J. 1982. Frame Semantics. Linguistics in the Mourning Calm, Linguistic Society of Korea (ed.). Soeul: Hanshin, 111–137.

Richardson, Alan. 2010. The Neural Sublime: Cognitive Theories and Romantic Texts. Baltimore
MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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