Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Annotation and Its Discontents

Much of this weekend has been taken up marking a set of student papers from an American modernism course, a goodly number of them grappling with the question of whether it’s possible to get anything out of The Waste Land reading the poem “cold” – ie, without the aid of TSE’s notes (or the notes Frank Kermode added to the edition we’re using). Consensus among my undergrads seems to be “no,” tho I suspect that has as much to do with their own anxiety about their educations, which gets translated understandably into a kind of white-knuckled resentment against TSE’s “elitism,” as it does with the poem itself. Interestingly, many of them concede that they can follow the “mood” and general gist of the poem without “getting” the references, but can’t muster up enough negative capability to let it stand at that. Maybe they’re afraid I’m going to ask them about Wagner’s Parsifal or the precise composition of the Tarot deck on the mid-term Thursday.

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.


Jehza said...


Wonderful timing. This evening I wrote a very general post outlining the beginning of my thoughts on being a serious reader after the arrival of Google. I think about it now, and it seems like the everyman's-annotation.

And it comes hot on the heels of a similar conversation I had with peers about the The Waste Land and other poems. I am becoming more recently a firm believer that poems should and often do stand on their own without the benefit of annotations. The Waste Land, in particular, is a poem that carries a great deal of power and voice (however each individual reader may come to value it) that is not dependent on knowledge of the references. Too often, I think, readers of poetry look for direct meanings of every image and every reference, whereas I am much more interested in a wider impression being made. Hmm...in which camp does this conviction put me?

In any case, this past weekend I had a horrible experience reading an anthologized version of Crane's The Bridge in which my interaction with the text was absolutely crippled by the annotations. Crippled. And I was so incognizant as not to realize until I was quite a ways through the poem that I was miserable from having worried the notes to death. As soon as I thought more carefully about it, I was once again interacting with the language and the poem, rather than the banal system of reference.

Perhaps it all has something to do with impatience. Is it an instinct to read the poem and "get it" in one reading, to know all that there is to know, consume, and move on? I believe if instead the model was based more on a lifetime, where in each subsequent unaided reading of a poem we become more aware of the references due to a growing base of our general knowledge and exposure to other texts. It seems feasible to me that one who has read The Waste Land without annotations every year for several decades would probably grasp the poem as a whole better than any person who reads it only a few times with the help of annotations.

Though I would not throw out annotations altogether. I'd say the new Zukofsky site sounds like an invaluable resource in many ways. In a similar fashion, I suppose I would like to see more annotation existing away from the actual page. At least in the form of end notes. The disruption of poetry by footnotes seems like a ghastly practice to me. I still owe Crane several more honest reads considering how cramped my first attempt became due to that encroachment of "scholarship."

Apologies for the long comment. You caught me on a topic of current interest.


Archambeau said...


The "only connect"/"only disconnect" bit from Baker's book is a great hook to hang some of the ideas about contingent poetry on. I mean, the rhyme between facts or historical moments in poets like John Matthias and John Peck is the key trope (derived from Pound, mostly, but also from Jung in Peck's case), and the thing that most seperates them from langpo/post-avant types. I'll order a copy of Baker's book ASAP.