Remember Your Ephemera

My review of Moez Surani’s excellent first collection, Reticent Bodies (Wolsak & Wynn, 2009) is now up at The Mansfield Revue. Read the review, if you like. But mostly, read the book. Here are some selections from the former:

Returning to the dusty traditions of love and loss, of abstractions made real by the force of his descriptions, Surani stands out amid the microscope-wielding fetishists of the quantifiable world that have dominated his generation of Canadian poets. This uniqueness of worldview is carried on a talent robust enough to move, in the course of a single line, from the specific to the global, and from the personal to the political, without ever losing sight of his target or forgetting to employ his ferocious and adaptable wit.

And

To return to the text, there are three kinds of poems in Reticent Bodies. These are the Great Canadian Anecdotal Riff (see “Yardsaling with Robin”), the intertextual call-out to a classic of fiction or poetry (“The Missing Exchange”) and the metapoetic experiment (“Several Idiomatic Demonstrations of ‘Carbunkle’”). These cycling concerns (life, literature and language) are shared, to varying degrees, by most of our young lyricists. What sets Surani apart is that he is willing to affix each of these three concerns to any level of emotionality or subjectivity. This creates surprises when his expected unemotive poems like “Carbunkle” find themselves suddenly charged with both a great wit and a great passion, as in “you get angry for no particular reason and shut everybody out—‘Carbunkle,’ he muttered, leaving the room.”

And

If this formula sounds familiar, it should. It is poetic home base to both Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen, the two great romantic obituarists of mid-century Canada, whose love songs impacted future generations of young male poets in a paradoxical way. Venerating them both as the grand old masters of the nation’s lovelorn youth, decades of young men promptly wrote away from them, turning to the woods, to low culture, to popular ephemera and the full shit and plastic of corporeal life, unconcerned with notions like reticence or love. In Reticent Bodies, there’s a real invitation to turn back and approach the brief glimmering spark of Canadian neo-Romanticism directly.

Not wanting co-opt Mansfield’s generosity in letting me do the review, I’ll end the pullquoting for now. If you want to read the whole thing, you’ll have to read it on their website.

My only qualm with Reticent Bodies (the review is an absolute rave) is the lack of a Notes section that details the many and various allusions, quotations, and borrowed sources in the book. Surani names his sources and everything, he’s in no danger of plagiarism, but I expected a lovingly collected list of original sources, archived with all the care and efficiency of a museum curator. The book is notable for the long and diverse list of heroes (and antiheroes) that make appearances in its pages. To borrow from the review, this includes “Austen, Steinbeck, Othello, Quixote. But coupled with this is a second set of allusions to the heroes of the literary iconoclast, to the shadow cabinet of contemporary book learning; they include Neruda, W. C. Williams, Cohen (more on him later), Hikmet and Maupassant.”

Am I being paranoid, or has something happened to the Notes sections of poetry collections? I feel like I’m seeing them less and less, and I’m worried that dominant early theme in my generation’s contribution to Canadian poetry (let’s call it “removing embellishments”) has taken out as many wonderful elements as unnecessary ones. In our denials, both private and public, of things like the epigraph, the 100+ page collection, and the tangential personal narrative, we’re losing some of the beautiful ephemera of the poetry book. I’m not saying Notes sections are on that list of victims (lots of people use them), but the “anti-ephemera” meme in poetic discourse could just as easily line up against this decoration as it has on any others.

And that would make me kinda sad. As I’m a big fan of detailed Notes sections. By “detailed”, I mean more than a list of source texts and publication dates, but instead a whole string of loosely connected micronarratives that speak to the lives of the quoted authors, the historical context of a given poem’s setting, or that admits that the poet kidnapped the intentions of a given passage by quoting it out of context. At their best, Notes sections hint at a sort of pre-creative map, a list of interests, icons, and starting points from which the author first jumped off. Maybe this is the root of the young artist’s fear, that such a concentrated list of borrowed (or at least bordered) ideas suggests a lack of creativity, a breach of authorial uniqueness. Whereas authorial uniqueness, as expressed in un-ideas like “the singular voice”, is something of a lie anyway, I don’t worry about it much. But we don’t always know this when we start out, do we?

One of the many joys in Damian Rogers’ new first collection Paper Radio is a Notes section that is both gloriously long (3 pages!) and written in a tone that is at once formal and coyly playful, and that speaks to the poet’s real excitement when recounting the various musicians, poets, and thinkers that informed the poems. There’s even a sort of boozy eloquence to the text, as if each paragraph began with an unwritten, “Oh, and that reminds me. The thing about ___ is….” It’s so nice to see poets get excited over things that aren’t just themselves. The poems, at least, in Reticent Bodies carry the same sort of intellectual joyfulness and unashamed ownership of one’s predecessors. I would have loved to have them all written out in one place.

I know there’s a lot of readers out there who just stop reading when they get to the Notes section of a book, and I know why. But my advice to my fellow poets is this: own your interests, own your heroes, and own the stuffing out of your quotations and allusions. Those who don’t care won’t read it. But those who do will read it, Google the unfamiliar elements, kill a couple hours on Wikipedia, and love you all the more.

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59 Comments on “Remember Your Ephemera”

  1. D.C. Says:

    I fully agree on the notes section. I too am an avid note reader. Nothing I enjoy more than reading those notes that really open your eyes to something you didn’t realize when reading the primary text.

    Allan Pred (an historical geographer) probably has the craziest notes I have ever read. His book “Past is Not Dead” is the epitome of note-insanity! Check it out.

  2. Alessandro Says:

    Hi, Jacob –

    so glad you took the time to read, enjoy, and write about Moez’s book. Good stuff…

    A

    ps. I feel lucky having been able to turn to him and his poetic sensibility for years now!

  3. LH Says:

    Notes are very good, particularly when they are well thought out. We forget the uninitiated, and notes offer ways into a text. I can’t imagine I would know how to read Nourbese’s Zong, for example, without the extensive notes…sure we can do the work ourselves, and likely we do still need to move out from the text to trace the influences and reverberations, but it’s good to see how the author has framed the influences. That might seem quite different from how a reader experiences the work.

    I like to encounter a work without the notes, and then again with them. Very different. Or it should be very different otherwise perhaps we don’t need the notes?

  4. voxpopulism Says:

    I think we still need the notes. Or maybe “need” is too strong a word, but at least we can have our reading experienced enriched by the notes. The notes can be a sort of map of pre-readings, and can provide shortcuts when it comes time to try and situate the book in a field of similar books or authors. Maybe this is part of the problem, authors don’t tend to want to be situated.

    With highly experimental texts, like the Nourbese, there’s a second element. The notes can start to teach us how to read the poetry.

    AP: Indeedy. Reviews of good books are fun to write. Not easy, exactly, but fun.

    CT: A “historical geography” sounds like an incredible job to have. Let’s discuss this further over beers and food tomorrow.


  5. I’m anti-note, for reasons I spelled out a couple years back in these two blog posts:

    http://zachariahwells.blogspot.com/search?q=bowhead


  6. Reading the notes along with, or immediately after, a poem is akin to peeking at the key when doing a crossword. It’d ruin, for instance, the fun of Geoffrey Hill for me to have his highly allusive poems annotated, because discovering the references on reading and rereading constitutes at least some part of the draw. If I’m really stuck, I’ll do some research. I don’t need to be spoon fed.

    The notes I’ve seen most often reek of those long, rambling contextualization chats some poets give before reading. Just read the damn poem. Maybe a few words of set up for effect. But let the thing thing tell its story. It’s like apologizing for your retarded child. Let him talk.

    You make some great points, as usual, J, but I’ve always found notes self-indulgent, intrusive and, for 99% of poems, frankly needless. I sometimes wonder whether a poem that actually needs notes isn’t crying out for a good edit. I guess I subscribe to the Shakespearean method: the best notes (or stage directions) are in the text.

  7. voxpopulism Says:

    George (this is in response to you, it blows my mind how illogical the layout of WordPress’s comments is), I think the difference between the reading windbag and the note section is that the latter is voluntary. Lots of people just don’t read the, and that’s fine.

    I don’t think many people read them as they work their way through the book; there’s a reason why they’re all at the end, after the poems.

    And in terms of “being spoonfed”, I feel that with the proximity of information nowadays, most of the info that may be initially obscure, could easily be retrieved. And I’d rather it be retrieved by a poet than by Google, especially one with an intellectual connnection to the source.

    And Zach: All fair points. Though for what its worth, I really liked the hypertext poem. I didn’t click the links until AFTER reading through the whole thing first, though. This is likely the difference in our perceptions on notation.


  8. Well, I should hope you read it thru first; it’s less than 200 words! However, had I written up an endnote for every hyperlink in the poem, the overall text of the notes would be at least that long–if the notes were extremely laconic. Do it for every poem in the book and it gets rather silly.

    As for not knowing how to read a book sans notes, that is to me a rather damning statement of that book’s failure to communicate its content.

    I’m with George here. The notes, wherever they’re placed, are still part of the book and I don’t think explanatory apparatus belongs in a book that isn’t prose non-fiction (or a scholarly edition of something written by someone long since et by worms). Part of the problem, to borrow a Wikipedia term, is disambiguation. Noting a “fact” in a poem is perforce an act of interpretation and interpretation ain’t the writer’s job, it’s the reader’s.

    So, a note is either a)irrelevant, b)intrusive or c)necessary, and therefore serves as the unfortunately stillborn poem’s epitaph.

  9. voxpopulism Says:

    (Thanks, George, for helping me fix my comments section).

    I think Zach’s comment is more applicable to notes that explain the poem, and try to justify it, rather than do what most notes do, which is source a quotation or fill in some obscure detail that might both entertain a reader and enrich the experience of reading the thing.

    Again, I like the hypertext in the poem, but surely books as super-annotated as the fictional one you’re describing above don’t actual exist in real life, do they? And I’d argue that, in most cases, an author (or editor) would choose to leave that whole poem un-noted, as there are 1. No direct quotations and 2. No references that fail the contemporary test of obscurity (which is to say, putting it into a Google search and finding out the jist of what’s being talked about).


  10. But even by “sourcing a quotation,” you’re telling the reader how to read the poem; you are guiding, however subtly, their interpretation of the thing. This is not a neutral act. Saying that a reader can choose not to read the notes is a bit of a canard. When I read a book, I read all the text in it, including the jacket, acknowledgments, etc. Everything that’s in or on a book, one would assume, is an integral element of the thing. If there is text that doesn’t need to be read, then what the hell’s it doing there? Leaving out the notes is a gesture of respect towards the integrity of the book as a whole work of art and therefore the integrity of the reading process.

    My point about super-annotation is: why annotate some things and not others? Again, any decisions on such matters veer into the realm of interpretation. As soon as you decide to annotate something, you’re deciding for the reader what they do or don’t, should or shouldn’t know. Every reader is going to find some things more or less obscure in a poem than another reader will. If you’re going to annotate at all, the only assumption safe to make is that no one knows anything. Which is stupid, so: don’t annotate!

    If you want to know where the Klima and Kafka quotes that precede my books come from, my suggestion is to read Klima and Kafka. Doing so will give you a better idea of why the quotes are there than a note ever could. And, as an added bonus, you’ll have had the excruciating pleasure of reading a couple of amazing Czech writers! (Or, you could just, you know, ask me and I’d tell you. I’ve had readers ask for background about poems and it’s my pleasure to shed whatever light I can.)

  11. voxpopulism Says:

    ZW: “But even by “sourcing a quotation,” you’re telling the reader how to read the poem; you are guiding, however subtly, their interpretation of the thing. ”

    But subtly guiding interpretations is what we do when we write, isn’t it? At least it’s what we do when we edit.

    There’s a polymath culture in contemporary poetry that I really appreciate, and I think that the practice of a considered, well-edited, and thoughtfully generated notes section is a celebration of this. Of course, you can have the polymath culture withot the notes, but I’d argue that you can’t have the celebration.


  12. At least the kind where the host tries to make everyone wear stupid paper hats or name tags or some such EXTRANEOUS PARAPHERNALIA.


  13. Sorry, I’m trying to help readers get my metaphor.


  14. By which I mean I’m being a jerk.


  15. And now WordPress is telling me I’m posting comments too quickly. Fascists.

  16. voxpopulism Says:

    Um. They have your better interests at heart.

  17. Brian Palmu Says:

    I agree completely here with George and Zach. There’s a subtle, though great, danger in the poet providing end-notes. At the risk of sounding precious, it demystifies the entire process, pre-, during, and post-reading. We can argue about the poet’s intention, his or her level of philosophy on the obscurity/transparency spectrum, but the reader’s experience, when notes are readily appended, starts to become one of prosaic elucidation and factual narrative, however subconscious that may play out. Even if one is enamoured of the suggestions in the poem, when notes are provided it’s too often tempting to immediately hit the shortcut, thus destroying the integrity of the poem, its lingering mystery and intriguing association. Of course, many poems aren’t worthy of the work necessary to suss out difficult exegesis, but if and when the poetic topography is covered with multiple signs and directions, it becomes expected that any road without suitable markers will begin to frustrate the reader. If one is really into a poem, he or she will gladly — with real joy in the personal success — work to find out its sources and metaphorical puzzles. If notes are accepted as the status quo, then we get what’s already happening to N American contemporary poetry — explanation on how to read the “text” IN THE POEM. In which case, the postmodernists win — theory is art, art is theory, and the seminal and generative authority of the poem is emasculated, defanged, or at least asked to sit down and have tea with professors and critics.

  18. voxpopulism Says:

    These are all good points, Brian. But what I think you folks are doing is, in your attempts to preserve the mystical element in the poems, you’re all vastly overestimating the mystical element in the quest for one’s own knowledge. Research is not what it used to be.

    In the age of Google and Wikipedia and whatnot, is flipping to the back of the book any more or less of a hunt than typing that info into a search engine?

    Endnotes, when done well, have all the self-identifying power of a living will. And good poets will show the variety of their interests, and the dexterity of their brains, in the all-the-cards-on-the-table reveal of the Notes section. Not doing one is, of course, also an option, but certain kinds of books call out for one more directly.

    To get back to the source, this Surani book is a perfect example. And not because it’s postmodern or avant garde (it would be far more at home in 1969 than 2009), but just the opposite, because it’s so old fashioned. It lives in its precedents, engages in dialogues with them, teases and mocks them, and (I think) would have benefitted from listing them out by name.

  19. LH Says:

    Hey George, yup, the best notes are in the text. But notes can be fun as well, if done right. They can seem like a weepy cattle call of all who have dusted the robe of the anointed author, or they can offer, as I said in my earlier post, an additional fold. I guess the point is it should mean something or not…but thankfully we don’t have to make a hard and fast rule.

    Anyhow, I like cats damn it.

  20. Brian Palmu Says:

    James Joyce, when asked if he had sympathy for readers trying to make sense of Ulysses, said (I paraphrase): “No. It took me my whole life to write it. They can spend their lives figuring it out”. That’s the other extreme, but I side with the creator’s arrogance.

  21. Brian Palmu Says:

    Oops, just saw your last note now, Jacob. Yes, I can see your point, and I know I sound alarmist, but these trends — and that’s what this is (think of the add-ons needed for Pound if end-notes were the norm, e.g.
    )– tend to amplify and solidify. To each his/her own, of course.

  22. voxpopulism Says:

    Sure, but if you’re going to drop Joyce and Pound into the puzzle, surely we have to mention Eliot, as well. The author’s notes to The Waste Land is eloquent, efficient, and long as all hell. The first couple publishers didn’t include it, but now it’s hard to find a version without it, it’s binded to the poem itself now.

    Of course, not everyone can balance throughlines like Joyce, and not everyone can marry disparate predecessors like Eliot. Generally speaking, good authors make good decisions regarding whether or not to include a notes section and, thereafter, when to limit the depth of their detail.

  23. Brian Palmu Says:

    Did Eliot initially want those long notes to be included with Wasteland? My first acquaintance with Eliot was with his Complete Poems – no notes. I can’t compare, but I’m glad the book was “clean”. If I desired, I could have always decided to search out his additions; when they’re part of the same book — preface, foot- or after-note — it’s a different ball game.

  24. Brian Palmu Says:

    Sorry, Collected Poems 1909-1962 Faber and Faber, copyright by Eliot in 1963. He wanted the separation, just before his death? Or was it always, and only, the publishers’ idea to include the poems with Eliot’s explanations?

  25. voxpopulism Says:

    The first couple publications were in magazines (one was called “The Dial”, not sure of the other), but the first actual book publication had enough room to print them, in 1922. Of course, the notes themselves predate all these things, Eliot had them ready well in advance.

    I know that his opinion on them changed a lot throughout his life, back and forth. At some point, someone made him expand them out a fair degree, which he hated doing and said something along the lines of “now here’s something the bogus academics can use” or something, which left him pretty unhappy about the whole idea of the notes.

    There, that’s all I know about the notes section of The Waste Land. Two paragraphs.


  26. My understanding is that it wasn’t a case of the book having “room” for the notes; it was that without them, the publisher thought it too short a book. The notes are, ahem, the padding in Old Possum’s bra. Now how’s that for a visual?

    For me, leaving them out has nothing to do with mystique or mystification, anymore than putting siding over the Tyvek of a house does, or tucking in the loose ends when you’re finished knitting.

  27. Michael Lista Says:

    Zach’s right about the Wasteland notes; Eliot didn’t include them in an ernest attempt to explicate his poem’s obscurities. That’s a wild misreading. They were thrown in at the publisher’s behest who thought the poem on its own would prove too slim a volume. Also: have you ever actually read the Wasteland notes? It’s a joke. Half point to the poem’s most obvious of obscurities (i.e. Dante references) and the rest are red herrings. They don’t help worth a damn; Eliot was smart enough to perform the whole gesture with his fingers crossed behind his back.

    Cut the artist’s statements and let your poems do the talking for you.


  28. What has the world come to, LH? Me, on-side with with Zach and Brian.* But I stand by my crotchityism here. And theirs.

    I do think Jake’s points about “the mystical” in research are timely and well-taken, but would counter with: the notes themselves are a way of supplementing the “mystical” of the poem proper with the intellectual “mystique” of encyclopedic survey an academic thesis, no? Kind of like proving you could be a contender on Jeopardy.

    I don’t deny that a proper set of notes can be useful, or engaging, or even integral to a given work. I just submit that the books requiring this are few and far between.

    *(Ironic) Note: but it’s nice to be all playing in the same sandbox and see that nobody’s resorted to digging for and throwing cat poop yet.


  29. “encyclopedic survey and academic thesis” Sry. Srsly.

  30. voxpopulism Says:

    Hmmm. Still unsure about this. Why do the original notes even predate any certainty of the poems being published, then? And let’s not forget that when we talk about the “Complete Poet’s Notes”, we’re talking about that mid-career plump-up that Eliot said such unnice things about, not the originals.

    Michael: A notes section and an “artist statement” is not the same thing. The latter is a rationale for the project, while the former is a collection of the borrowed sources and obscurities that populate the book.

    George: I don’t know. I think the only path that argument can take is anti-intellectualism, the equivalent of making fun of the guy who can name all the Prime Ministers. There’s an intellectual honesty in a good notes section, a laying out on the table of the sum weight of borrowings, rephrasings, and alludings. I agree that some books have them and don’t need them, but surely as many omit them in error.


  31. Being able to name all the PMs is an indicator of intellect? Yowza.

    (Yes, that’s right, I’m making fun of the guy defending the guy who can name all the PMs.)

  32. marita Says:

    I’m really enjoying this discussion, thank you for starting it.

    As always, I’m a fence-sitter and can see both sides quite clearly. I’m curious if you can point to a few examples of recent books that do notes effectively? Solie’s Pigeon and Lebowitz’s Hannus come to my mind, but I’d like to hear what you think. (And I’m asking partially for selfish reasons. The book I’m working on has a historical foundation and occasionally plays with found text.)


  33. Solie is a great example. All three of her books have the kind of notes I expect to see in a book of poems. Babstock’s Airstream Land Yacht, Barbara Nickel’s Domain and All Our Wonder Unavenged by Don Domanski are a few other examples of books with notes that work well.

  34. voxpopulism Says:

    Hi Marita. And hey, thanks.

    Solie seems to do notes well. Pigeon and especially Modern and Normal have good, well-considered, but not over-written notes sections. The book that started this conversation was Paper Radio by Damian Rogers, which has an excellent one. There’s lots of examples, and you’ll likely have to read the book first to tell if the notes are essential and enriching, or just a means for the author to detail their well-readness.

    I don’t know your manuscript, but I’m thinking that, in general, historical foundation + found texts = you shouldn’t feel bad about wanting to include notes.

  35. Stephen Rowe Says:

    A large part of me agrees with Jake when it comes to the purpose of notes and their varied uses. I believe Milton was one of the last major writers able to claim he had read nearly everything available to him in Western culture. Such a person, one might assume, would find notes lacking in importance. This is not possible in today’s world and Jake is right to suggest that a well written notes section can save the reader’s time when it comes to lookup of points of reference, sources, and fundamental concepts that may not be familiar. Today’s quick-look-up resources and the spread of information across the globe make these things easy. Reading a note that gives sources for quotes and some minor context are no different than someone looking it up afterwards or asking the author in person, with the exception of saved time. In the near future (and even today, especially among the youth) you’ll be hard pressed to find people who would prefer to take the time to read referenced material every time they encounter it in a new book.

    Poems in a book speak for themselves. I don’t understand how they cannot, with or without a notes section. The notes are not the poems. I don’t believe they do much to colour the readers view of the book, which will either strike them as a good book or not. I think notes, at their best, can serve to continue the dialogue initialized by the poems themselves, somewhat like a “further reading” section in some historical works. This discussion can then be a part of personal interaction between author and reader, as Zach suggests.

    Of course, the reality is that an author will or will not include a notes section and as readers this is not something we control. What we do control is how we read the text we are given and this can only be assessed on a book by book basis.

  36. LH Says:

    Good points. Isn’t it a matter of case by case? I agree, let the work speak. Absolutely. Notes where none are needed can be irritating as hell, and in Canada, it has been an epidemic to be sure (famously noted by a rude Giller judge…). I want to thank my cat, my rose garden…

    When they’re done well though, they are done well. Eunoia has great notes, and I thought Erin Moure’s notes for her Sheepish Vigil were very useful.

    Oh, The Wasteland. How cryptic it once seemed.

    ;)

  37. LH Says:

    Um wait, I think those were my notes I was quoting…


  38. I make all my notes before I start writing the poem. Afterward, they go in a box. And you’re right, LH, it is a case-by-case matter. As are all things, really. I haven’t read some of the exemplars cited here. This Crispin Buck and his work Euphoria, for instance. I’ll have to look them up.

  39. Brian Bartlett Says:

    Coming in late to his conversation, I just want to make a couple of points. First, does it have to be such an either/or situation? Yes, some poetry books use back-of-the-book notes that are extraneous, condescending, pretentious, or irritating; but others (the examples of Solie & Babstock are good ones)use them with a light, helpful hand that acknowledges community & influence & interaction. Sometimes I think that acknowledgment is worth making explicit rather than implicit. Those who take absolute positions against notes worry me, as do those who take absolute positions against other conventions that have developed for some poets. The outright rejection of endnotes suggests there is one way and one way only to conclude a poetry book (with the final poem, then blank space.)
    Second, just as a point of exasperating information: the North Anthology of Modern Poetry (3rd ed. anyway) has taken Eliot’s endnotes for “The Waste Land” & turned them into footnotes, sticking them at the bottoms of the pages and even interspersing them with other notes. Eliot never approved the notes as FOOTnotes, so the Norton is betraying the poet there. Otherwise one of my pet-peeves is ridiculously unnecessary footnotes in poetry textbooks. (“Hitler — a leader of the Nazi Party in Germany during World War II”) But that’s another topic.
    One last reference: has anyone recently read Nabokov’s Pale Fire, maybe the ultimate “endnote novel,” largely taken up with dizzyingly elaborate endnotes to the poem that kicks it off?


  40. Brian, I’ve only been taking the con side of the debate as strongly as I have because Jake said, imperatively, in his original post that poets should “own your interests, own your heroes, and own the stuffing out of your quotations and allusions.”

    If you want to do such things, by all means, but however well done the notes to Ken and Karen’s books are, they are unnecessary. I can think of no book of lyrics that has been improved by notes, but I encounter many made worse by them.

    A book like Hannus, mentioned above by Marita, is different–and not just because I’m married to the author! It contains poems, but is not primarily a book of poetry. It’s a biography and was nominated for two non-fiction prizes. As such, the informative component is of much greater importance than it is in non-hybrid books of poetry; the notes actually do add something of substantive value (and are legally necessary in many cases).

    The conceit of Pale Fire is actually a perfect example defending my side of this argument. While both poem and notes were written by Nabokov, in the world of the novel, the poem belongs to John Shade and the notes to Charles Kinbote, a scholar. As for the Norton, that’s an hilariously sad lesson to annotate with extreme … reticence.

  41. Brian Palmu Says:

    Oh, THAT Hitler.

  42. Brian Bartlett Says:

    Okay, Zach, Pale Fire not such a good example for the discussion, since as you point out it wasn’t the fictional poet who wrote the voluminous endnotes. As for the notes in Ken’s & Karen’s books being “unnecessary,” it’s very, very tough to say what is & isn’t “necessary” in any book. God knows, most collections include poems that could be called unnecessary. And readers usually disagree somewhat on which poems were & weren’t vital for the book. Excessive concern with maintaining only the “necessary” would likely have meant no Anatomy of Melancholy, no Tristram Shandy, no Moby Dick, no Ulysses. I often love books that Frye called “anatomies,” which are open to all sorts of playful apparatus (like the pages of quotations about whales before Melville even gives us the line “Call Me Ishmael,” or Hawthorne’s long “Custom House” intro. to The Scarlet Letter–not really an intro., though, but a key part of the book).

  43. Brian Bartlett Says:

    ..that should be “that Melville gives us before the line…”

  44. LH Says:

    No lyric book has ever been improved by notes? None? Well, I won’t take that bait, but I will echo Brian above that surely we can appreciate the playful anatomies? Give poets leave to be, after all, creative beings?

    Marita, I don’t think we have answered your question. For me it’s a matter of what is necessary. If can do without, let it. If it adds, then it needs to be done with as much thought as all the other aspects of the book…

  45. LH Says:

    If it can do without…

  46. Brian Bartlett Says:

    As a very rare contributor to blogs, I’m obviously reading too fast: wrongly corrected my sentence about Melville that in fact needed no correcting… must’ve been some confusing…


  47. Playful apparatus is great. Steven Price, for example, pulls a Melville in his Anatomy of Keys. (I hadn’t before connected the title with Frye’s term, so thanks for that–maybe Steven should have noted it…) I think also of Solway’s Karavis book Saracen Island, in which the use of notes is delightful. But a straitlaced annotation of sources is what this thread was originally talking about.

    But let’s look at Solie’s Pigeon. The first note, to the first poem:

    “In “Pathology of the Senses” are lines that include adapted definitions from The Penguin Dictionary of Biology (10th Ed. M. Thain and M. Hickman, ed. London: Penguin, 2000.)”

    To which one can only say: so what? This is neither legally required acknowledgment, nor illuminating/surprising information, nor stellar writing, nor playful game. It’s just a fact. And a rather uninteresting one, considering the poem begins: “Oligotrophic: of lakes and rivers.” It may not exactly be common knowledge, but it’s commonly available.

    LH: I said I can think of none. I’ve looked at some of the examples cited by others and find those examples unpersuasive. If the notes are beautiful, bring it, but in 99% of the books I’ve read, they’re merely dutiful. Jake said we should “own our allusions” (but didn’t note the allusion therein to Guns ‘n’ Roses, I might add), but we own them by incorporating them seamlessly into poems, not by pointing them out. All that says is we’re borrowing them. To return to Eliot, we’re better off stealing than borrowing.

  48. Brian Bartlett Says:

    Zach, My experience reading the note to the Solie poem isn’t at all to say “so what”? You state that her note is “just a fact” and an “uninteresting one,” but I don’t find it so. Dangerous to present as absolutes what are relative (“one can only say…”?). Some of us might be glad & grateful for the note–I like knowing that her poem is partly a “found poem,” with lines adapted from a particular source. But now we’ve come full circle: this is going back to the “to acknowledge or not to acknowledge” discussion on the Harriet blog last year re: found poems. And we argued from opposite positions then. For those who didn’t see the discussion, here’s the link to it:

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2009/01/lost-and-found-a-reading-of-a-poem-i-like/


  49. Jake made “use your illusion” new enough via “own your allusion” that the credit is unnecessary. But someone should smack Zach for brining GNR into this.

    I’ve read Ken’s and Karen’s books and the strength of their writing as poets makes me interested enough to skim their notes, but I generally didn’t need them to experience, digest, or enhance the poems. And I’d wager that while they enjoyed doing them, and probably spent a bit of time crafting them, they themselves would say you needn’t have the notes to have the full effect of the books.

    I’d be interested to see a book of lyrics in which the notes were INTEGRAL to the experience of the book. Jenny Boully did a great book a few years ago called The Body, which was a set of footnotes to an absent text. Of course, even that plays with some level of irony around the whole thing.

    Great discussion here, guys. I’m swaying back and forth, but really do think note’s are “a matter of what’s necessary”, as LH notes. Maybe I just have never come across the books for which notes were?

  50. marita Says:

    Zach, Hannus may be placed in the non-fiction section for awards, but to this reader, I consider it a book of poetry. It was also in the poetry section in our local bookstore. I think it is a great example of a poetry book which uses notes well. Regardless, please pass on my praise for Hannus to your wife. I loved it.


  51. Dudes, dig that rogue apostrophe. That’s just how I roll.

  52. marita Says:

    p.s. I think any conversation is enhanced by a GnR reference, but that’s the small town BC girl in me. If there was an emoticon for devil horns, I’d be using it here.


  53. \m/

    You’re welcome.


  54. Brian, thanks for pointing out that earlier discussion (if nothing else, it’s an embarrassing reminder of how I repeat myself!), which had slipped my mind. You make points there that are pertinent, about how it’s a different ball of wax when a poem is constructed entirely of found words. Very different from a poem containing a few adapted definitions. You said:

    “there’s a huge difference between poems with their occasional unacknowledged allusions and echos and found poems in which every damn sentence, phrase, and word is derived from some other source (even with taking the liberties to abbreviate and cut and rearrange, which I took liberally, while adding no words at all).”

    And I agree; which makes the Solie note I quoted, according to your argument, disposable. Part of my point is that damn near every poem someone writes has some element of found/overheard/adapted speech or text in it. There’s no such thing, practically speaking, as original language. I’m sure there are a gazillion other things in Pigeon that Solie might have noted, but didn’t. Solie is a magpie and as Jim Pollock pointed out in his excellent recent review of her work, her poems are densely allusive. So again, if you’re going to do notes (or note’s, as George would have it) at all, why do them in a desultory fashion? I just doesn’t get it.

    Marita, Rachel appreciates your kind words. But she’s always been very uneasy about the poetry designation. She wanted the book to be cross-listed as “Poetry/History” or “Poetry/Biography” or “Poetry/Women’s Studies.” (As it is, it’s only listed as “Poetry”; even so the person who listed it thus submitted it to the GG Non-fiction prize.) It was interesting that when she was submitting the ms. to publishers, the rejection notes came back saying that it was either not enough like poetry or not enough like biography. One particularly stupid one went so far as to say that the book “didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be when it grew up.” And George, you might remember suggesting to her that she might have to publish a more straightforward book first, before she could get the more unorthodox one accepted.

    At any rate, while there is unquestionably poetry in Hannus, it’s a very very different book from Pigeon, in terms of the ratio of subjective to objective content. Many of the things noted (interviews, newspaper articles, journal entries, etc.) aren’t “found poems” in the way that Brian’s are. They simply aren’t poems and don’t pretend to be.

    GnR rules! \m/

  55. LH Says:

    I have given two examples above of great notes which no one has picked up on…though I guess they aren’t relevant? Hm. In any case, I’ll call my part in the thread done and move on.

  56. voxpopulism Says:

    Yes, yes. Eunoia good, Moure good. Hound good. All good.


  57. Sheep’s Vigil is a translation.


  58. […] February 9th, 2010 Remember Your Ephemera. In a good day for the credibility of blogging as mind-changing medium, our hero introduces his […]


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