Wednesday, July 31, 2013

annotation and its discontents, part 793

Yes, it's that time of year when I'm reading towards the upcoming teaching semester, & start posting fiddly harumphs about how various editors have annotated things in the books I've assigned. This time around it's (again) Eliot's Waste Land. I should just throw in the towel and tell the students to read the effing thing wherever they can find it, rather than go to the trouble of ordering bound copies – but after using (yet again) Frank Kermode's Penguin The Waste Land and Other Poems last spring, and dithering about with finding links to supplementary materials online, I jumped at the publisher's description of Broadview Press's recent (2011) The Waste Land and Other Poems; this one includes all the poems in the Penguin (ie all the canonical material up thru The Waste Land itself, as well as "Tradition and the Individual Talent," "The Metaphysical Poets," and a bunch of supplementary things – poems by Pound, HD, Loy, Hulme, Imagist essays, contemporaneous reviews etc. It looked pretty good online.

I'm not generally dissatisfied with the volume. The texts seem accurate enough, and the annotations are for the most part okay. But here's my major kvetch: The poems are annotated Norton-style – that is, single-word glosses in the margin, longer notes as footnotes to each page. I can live with that; indeed, it beats the hell out of notes all at the end, as in the Penguin or in Oxford World's Classics volumes (ever try to read an early modern play in World's Classics, flipping back & forth constantly?). But what's at issue for me is not so much the editors' (there are so many that I won't recount the names) own annotations as their decision to stick all of Eliot's own notes to The Waste Land in with their notes at the foot of the page. (This is something Norton does in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, as well.)

Most of Eliot's notes are signalled by "[Eliot's note]," which is okay I guess. Many of them – all those bare "Cf.s" – are paraphrased ("Eliot refers us here to..."). A few are dropped entirely (I'm not sure how many – sorry, I'm not OCD enough to have collated the whole shebang). The problem, however, is bunging them in with the editorial notes, which entirely obliterates the possibility of coming to terms with Eliot's notes as an authorized paratext, simultaneously integral to the experience of the poem and supplementary. I often give students, as an assignment, the task of sorting some of Eliot's notes – which are simply acknowledgments of sources, which are substantive commentary, which are seemingly padding? So much for that assignment, unless I xerox up some pages of nothing but the notes alone (which it seems to me makes sense).

And here's the howler: Lines 115-116, in which the passive-aggressive speaker responds (silently?) to the neuraesthenic woman: "I think we are in rats' alley / Where the dead men lost their bones. " Eliot annotates that first line thus:
"Cf. Part III, l. 195." 
The Broadview editors annotate it thus:
"[Eliot's note] Cf. part 3, line 195 [of Metamophoses 6]."
 HUH? say I. I guess I can live with changing the Roman numeral to Arabic (after all, I had a grad student a few years back who at the mature age of 35 couldn't read Roman numerals, and I guess there are many many more undergrads in that boat). But what the hell's going on with the Metamorphoses?

Clearly, this is a moment in which Eliot's annotations are simply pointing out cross-references in his own poem. Line 195 of The Waste Land, in Part III ("The Fire Sermon"), reads "Rattled by the rat's foot only, year to year." (This, by the way, is a category of TSE's annotation I haven't given enough thought to – why cross-reference, and why cross-reference only selected moments?) But the Broadview editors are stuck on the slightly earlier note in which Eliot, speaking of the story of Tereus and Philomela, directs us to Ovid's Metamorphoses 6 (or "VI," as Eliot has it). So without it seems going to the bloody trouble of turning over two leaves of their own text and seeing that the "Cf. Part III, l. 195" note is no more than a reference to another "rat" passage – and obviously without consulting a copy of Ovid (Ovid has books, but no "parts," as their note implies) they assume that this mysterious note must have something to do with the Metamorphoses. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy, folks.

Oh yeah, and once again they get the title of Middleton's A Game at Chess wrong – "at," not "of."