Commentaries are designed to provide welcome remedies. They tend to dispel ignorance with concise strokes, and with the attendant danger of wholesale skipping. To approach Joyce we may all need notes, at some stage. Notes (by the way, the exact opposite of "ignotas") unfortunately have to parcel out instant information which, when in print, can be taken for relevant truth. By their nature, notes are goal- and object-oriented, not toward the inquisitive endeavor (it's their aim to shortcut this). In our comprehensive wisdom we may underrate the motive force of ignorance (of the Socratic kind). If Odysseus had set out from Troy with a copy of The Mediterranean on Five Drachmas a Day he would have saved himself enormous trouble, but the Odyssey would have become a much more tedious epic or, more likely, none at all. Commentators also like to think that a final, clinching gloss supersedes all the previous trials and errors when the best glosses, actually, can hardly be anything else.On the other hand, in re/ your Harold Pinter comment: No, of course Pinter's "American Football" was probably not a big "hit" in Kuwait, nor in Washington, Tel Aviv, or the Royal Court of Saud. Spenser, I suppose, whom Simon Shepherd calls "a penpusher in the service of imperialism," could have written a victory ode that would have gone down better at the courts and Hilton lobbies of the "liberators" and liberated. And I imagine you & I agree that the best political poems – not necessarily the most stirring – are deeply shot thru with ambiguities and misgivings: my own favorite is Marvell's "Horatian Ode" to Oliver Cromwell. Which was not a big hit for the Drogheda survivors, either. But one does not have to concur with Pinter's politics – his opposition to NATO's Kossovo intervention is a notorious example – even with his stance on the (first) Gulf War, to see that what he assaults so energetically in "American Football" – American triumphalism, American arrogance, the American cult of physicality and violence, the combination of sexuality and physical aggression that too often defines American masculinity, etc. – richly deserves energetic assault.
Katy Lederer, Music, No Staves (Potes & Poets, 1998): A very spare, very beautiful, & quite affecting chapbook; its poetic is announced midway thru: "MONK MONK / MONK MONK" – Thelonious Monk, I take it, his awkward elegant stutters & repetitions, above all the speaking silences of his music, reproduced in the pregnant & echoing blank space of Lederer's pages. Cf. John Taggart's "Monk" in Loop (Sun & Moon, 1991).
Jena Osman, An Essay in Asterisks (Roof, 2005): 12 or 13 years ago a friend fingered Osman to me as one of the major "players" of her generation. She was then, and she is even moreso now. A magnificent, dense, complex, playful book. Osman seems determined to writng every bit of torque possible out of a menagerie of source texts, pressing language that ranges from the lyrical (Dickinson) to the flatly prosaic (Supreme Court documents, the natterings of Rumsfeld & co.) through machines of unlikely transformation, until there emerges something indeed rich & strange.
Pascal Quignard, Sarx (trans. Keith Waldrop, Burning Deck, 1997): A poetic essay, brutal and learned, on sarcasm: "The Greek verb sarkazein: 'to bite into the flesh.' / From sarx, flesh. Sarkasmos, sarcasmus: to bit into the flesh." In a chilly & calculated modernist idiom, Quignard marshalls formidable classical chops (including a truly stomach-turning passage from Herodotus) to a meditation on violence & language.
Maybe this should be The Season of The Chapbook, ie the season I read through some of the masses that have gone unread on my shelves (but not yours, no not yours...).