Friday, October 14, 2005

Annotation and Its Discontents ii

(unfortunately pedagogical)
Do I trust Google? Up in Tuscaloosa Jeremy Hawkins has been pondering the relationship of readers’ googling (verb in lower-case) knotty places in the poems they read, & more conventional forms of print annotation. (Interestingly, Jeff Twitchell-Waas’s notes that much of the work for “sourcing” Zukofsky displayed so fruitfully on his Z-Site – tell all your friends, ring the bells, etc. – involved no more than googling phrases.) I suppose I’m of many minds, & the direction in which my thinking leans has much to do with which of my hats I’m wearing at any given moment – the professor’s mortarboard, the poet’s fedora, the scholar-biographer’s skullcap, the critic’s big paper dunce-cap, etc. And all of this is tangled up with the issue of annotation I skated by the other day, & the notion of “contingency” that Bob Archambeau has been learnedly worrying. (And even, I guess, questions of “difficulty” & accessibility that were kicked around months ago, but which seem to reappear in the first 4 weeks of every semester I teach.)

•I do not encourage my students to rely on Google as a research tool; they rely on it anyway, because it is easy, and because they – like their teacher – are often over-programmed, overburdened, or simply lazy.

•Searching Google for a piece of information is rather like trying to find the one right book in a poorly-organized but massive second-hand bookstore, where if you’re looking for something on (say) Kaballah, you’re more likely to find a brochure from the Kaballah Centre™ than one of Gershom Scholem’s magisterial studies.

•Annotations of any sort are indeed often a hindrance to a 1st reading of a poem. I tackled Maximus years ago with Butterick’s Guide open on the table beside it – & ended up shutting Butterick after 20 or 30 pages: it was simply too great an impediment to a continuous experience of the poem.

•There are moments, however, when my reading experience – even a first reading – is simply stopped dead by an unexplained but clearly crucial reference. (Happens about 5 times per page with recent Geoffrey Hill.) In those case, when I need just enough to get on with it, Google is usually a fair substitute for editorial annotation.

•The web as searched by Google, however, is a randomly organized, wildly repetitive mass of data whose reliability varies from the rock-solid to entirely nil. The advantage of editorial annotation, whether at the foot of the page in a Norton Anthology or in a self-contained volume like Butterick on Olson or Terrell on Pound, lies in the fact that the author has compiled her or his annotations with that particular poem in mind. Annotating on the fly with Google is often the Forsterian “Only connect” gone mad, metastasized.

•Which doesn’t mean that “scholarly” annotations are particularly trustworthy, either. (I’ve found at least two errors/inaccuracies in the notes Frank Kermode provides for the Penguin Waste Land, and this from a scholar the latch of whose sandals I’m not worthy to do up.) One of the dazzlements of Lawrence Rainey’s Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture: Text, History, and the Malatesta Cantos (U Chicago, 1991) is that it shows precisely how unreliable – in certain ideologically crucial ways – Terrell’s Companion to the Cantos is. Terrell presents the historical referents behind Pound’s references as tho they were absolute and immutable historical fact, rather than controversial events and figures, mediated repeatedly by 1) the often highly biased sources upon which Pound relied and 2) Pound’s own often highly biased presentation of them. So what Terrell gives us, in the guise of the bedrock, real-life backstory to the poem, is often actually no more or less than Pound’s own construction of that backstory.

•When it comes to real scholarship – and that kind of work is still being done, and still deserves doing – and, for that matter, when it comes to a true, intimate knowledge of a poet’s work, there is ultimately no substitute for making one’s way thru the same things that the poet her- or himself read. Note: I am not speaking of useful criticism, or of a useful working knowledge of a poet’s techniques. What I’m speaking of, sadly enough, is a kind of knowledge – something like the anthropologist’s “thick description” – that it’s probably only possible to acquire of a handful of poets over a lifetime. At some point in one’s life, one has to decide whether one is – in Isaiah Berlin’s terms – a “hedgehog” or a “fox.”
Oh but isn’t that depressing. I’ve shaved – entirely, cleanly – for the first time in maybe half a decade. It gives me a decided non-rakish look, all the sexual magnetism of middle-aged Adorno – or perhaps Elmer Fudd.
“…I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” –J. R. R. Tolkien, Foreword to 2nd ed. of Lord of the Rings


Jehza said...

I really appreciate the distinction you make between the different purposes of reading; reading for scholarship being entirely different from that open reading one first gives a poetic text.

In regards to googling, I believe that somewhere between that first reading and the reading of a scholar lies the use for internet searches. I suppose my distrust, besides in the obvious problems that are inherent in such a chaotic and unmoderated cache, comes from any convention that we unconsciously allow to become a cultural habit. In almost none of the situations where I've noticed people relying on an internet search to inform a reading have I noticed any kind of reflection on the practice. It's good to hear that you approach the subject with your students.

Could you point me towards your earlier posts on difficulty and accessibility?

Congrats on the shave and thanks for that perfect Tolkien quote.


E. M. Selinger said...

Shaved? Dude! (As they say.)

You're a braver man than I am, Elmer Fudd.

About the Eliot: one problem your students probably face is the odd, external time frame of their reading. They can't afford their ignorance long enough for it to blossom into curiosity.

Hmmm... More on this soon on my own (hirsute) blog.


(P.S. SOMEONE at has a sense of humor! I just had to type "ofayz" as the keyword to get in. Shout-outs to all of you out there--)