Was the Dunciad the first English poem to include its own annotations? Dunno. Annotating someone else’s poem is a dicy thing, and is usually a collective endeavor. George Butterick’s Guide to the Maximus Poems, a revision of his doctoral dissertation, is an exception – ie, mostly GB’s own work – but far more representative is Carroll Terrell’s Companion to the Cantos, which organizes and ploughs in decades of glosses published in Paideuma and elsewhere. Here’s what I said about Louis Zukofsky and annotation exactly a year ago at the Columbia/Barnard centenary celebration:
…the extent to which Zukofsky’s poetry relies on allusion and quotation – is indeed largely constituted of quotations – makes obvious the need for a guide to “A” along the lines of Carroll F. Terrell’s Companion to the Cantos, George Butterick’s Guide to the Maximus Poems – or the various sets of annotations available for Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. A very large number of “A”’s quotations and allusions have already been noted and “sourced,” but they have been done so in widely scattered books, articles, and notes. Someone with a deep knowledge of the poem and its secondary literature needs to produce a central gathering place for such annotations, so that younger commentators will not find themselves over and again repeating the work of those who have come before them. Such a “companion to ‘A’” could be web-based rather than printed, flexible and accretive, open to ongoing contributions from those working on the poem. This kind of annotation will not read the poem for us, any more than Terrell’s compilation reads The Cantos for us, but it would I believe open the poem to more fruitful and (especially) more informed commentary, from a variety of theoretical and poetic stances. We read “A” as in a glass, darkly; to see it in relation to the sources from which Zukofsky quarried much of its verbal material will only make it clearer in its fructive complexity.I still think that’s fair. And my call has been answered (as I had no right to expect, being myself the laziest creature this side of Oblomov): Jeff Twitchell-Waas, the Singapore-based scholar of Prynne, Zukofsky, and other obliquities, has assembled a dazzling database of LZ annotations. (This, you dissertation-laborers out there, is what you’ve been waiting for!) Jeff’s “Z-site” is more than just a line-by-line guide to “A” and other poems, but includes complete bibliographies both of LZ’s own works and of the secondary literature. There’s something here, I think, for every serious LZ reader. The opening of a new era in Zukofsky scholarship. In person the Zuk would have shuddered and professed disgust, I think, but I’m convinced his shade is smiling.
A note in Robert Baker’s The Extravagant: Crossings of Modern Poetry and Modern Philosophy (U Notre Dame P, 2005) gets it right, if rather wordily:
In the United States, during the first few decades after World War II, Beat, Black Mountain, and New York School poets continued to explore a wide range of elliptical practices developed through the modernist and avantgardist period. From the mid-seventies on, Language Movement poets and others, drawing on these writers as well as earlier writers who had been marginal even within the modernist and avantgardist field (including, among others, Stein, Zukofsky, and Khlebnikov), radicalized these sorts of practices into a polemical art of the indeterminate and dispersive. In turn, and perhaps surprisingly, these practices have in recent years been loosely assimilated by many poets working in more traditional modes and only occasionally sharing the concerns – themselves extremely diverse – of these earlier modernist and avantgardist formations. Many contemporary poets, that is, appear to have adopted a similar distrust inherited modes of narrative and thematic patterning, though less commonly a distrust of expressive voice, and a sort of programmatic disjunction (or a parodic inversion of the old modernist imperative “Only connect”) now appears to be taught in writing workshops around the country. It is true that these currents develop alongside what remains the dominant poetic in this country, namely, an attenuated neoromantic poetic that, as Altieri and others have noted, seems ultimately to derive from Coleridge’s “conversation” poems: a modest, sensitive, usually elegaic art of self-expression detached from a more sweeping art of exploratory vision. Yet the poetic of indeterminate play has spread widely in the field of turn-of-the-century U.S. poetry.