Thursday, June 14, 2007

Index, relief at completion of

One begins with the notion of the ideal index, the key to all the book’s mythologies, the list that is itself a re-visioning of the book, a re-seeing of its shape & bearing. Or, failing that, the invaluable readerly tool, the list that enables the casual scanner to pounce straight on whatever information she or he desires.

But then reality – the clock, the calendar – intervenes. With galleys in hand, one realizes that one has 3 or even 2 weeks to produce something, some sort of index. On the desk – in the CD drive – is nearly 500 pages of text, goddess knows how many proper names, places, events, titles of poems, novels, plays, essays, periodicals, musical scores.

To a large extent, computer searching of the pdf files can take care of this. Key in, say, “Turnbull” for the late, lovely Gael Turnbull, & up pop 20 or so mentions of his name. But what of the numerous “Williams”es (Jonathan, Floss, William Carlos – often “Bill,” or even, in one letter, “Unkle Bull Walrus”)? And what of the family members who so often become “her son” or “his father”? There’s no algorithm to find those. And there’s no digital method to know what’s there to be found in those 475 pages, short of actually reading them again. Did I mention the poems quoted without titles mentioned, the tags & sentences plucked out of unattributed essays? One has come a long way from the hundreds of index cards on a big, big table – but one can’t do the job without a good supply of paper, pens, and highlighters handy.

It’s no surprise, as I lamented last week, that so many indices are little more than concordances of proper names & titles. When one has nailed down those names & titles, there’s not a hell of a lot of energy left to tackles themes, ideas, even events. (& of those proper names, who deserves to thunder in the index? “Wyatt, Sir Thomas,” cited some 4 times as the sources of an (unquoted) passage, as a font of English lyric tradition, as a pioneer of the English sonnet? – but never quoted. The dozens of poets & artists name-dropt as characteristic of a given aesthetic moment? I’m inclined towards the big tent – let’s see what my editor has to say.)

But it’s not a very Zukofskyan index. As J. said the other day, “have you indexed a?” Me: “Of course I’ve indexed “A” – and I’ve indexed “A”-1, “A”-2…” J: “No – have you indexed a, & an, & the?” LZ & Celia had time and leisure & the sheer obsessiveness necessary to produce idiosyncratic indices, selective x-rays of the work done. I – Professor Microscope Drudge – I muddled thru as best I could.

Inevitably, however, indexing reveals even to the author things unseen before, unseen even in copy-editing & proofreading stages: thematic threads I’d thought lightly touched upon become pounding Wagnerian leitmotifs; names dropt as casual scenery turned out, surprisingly, to have been dropt over & over – who’d’ve thought I had a Tennyson obsession? And the sheer comprehensiveness – from Adams, Brooks, to Zukowsky, Morris, not a letter of the alphabet or a period of literary history untouched. A book far more learned than its author – or at least I hope so.
For the casual dropper-by, I refer to my forthcoming The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007). Publisher’s – or rather, distributor’s – announcement can be found here.


jane said...

Hey Mark,

will you send me an email?



Anonymous said...

Happy publishing, Dr. Scroggins! Perhaps a completely fresh pair of eyes -- a virgin reading -- could help catch events, themes and categories for the index. Considering that I am making little progress in writing my thesis this summer, I think I need another project to jumpstart me. The near finalization of your book, though, may preclude any tiny inkling of possible assistance I could give. Nevertheless, I would love to take it on, if you think my limited skills could assist in any way.