This page is solely about poets who add 'explanatory' notes to their own work because I see this as a more interesting, if infuriating, component than glosses provided by critics. This is not to denigrate critics en masse but simply to observe that what the poet feels can or should be said is often a greater aid to engagement.
Some 'difficult' poets annotate their own work and these notes are included alongside the published poem. It may be thought that this is helpful to the reader who is trying to understand a difficult poem. This article looks at several annotated poems and tries to identify the various types of notes and identify the strategies that poets use and the motivations behind them. I'll also describe how the notes are set out in relation to the poem and the effect that this may have on the reader.
What follows is subjective and based on my own experience, as ever I welcome contributions/amendments from others. The e-mail address is at the bottom of this page.
Edmund Spenser's 'The Shepheardes Calender' (SC)
This poem was published in 1579 complete with several explanatory devices. The notes, the description of the 'general argument' and the epistle to Gabriel Harvey are written by someone identified as 'E. K.'. Much critical debate has raged over the identity of E. K. but I prefer to believe that all of these were written by Spenser himself rather than by one of his contemporaries. The reason for this is twofold- the notes can be read as an integral part of the poem and there seems to be an undue emphasis on self-promotion which ties in with Spenser's clear ambition to be the leading poet of the age.
This early poem is ostensibly a pastoral and tells the tale of Colin Cloute (a shepherd) and his love for Rosalind, a country lass, but it is also a self-conscious announcement of Spenser's skills as a poet. SC is divided into the twelve months of the year, each month is preceded by an argument, an emblem and followed by EK's notes which also explain the emblem. The notes give definitions of difficult or obscure words and words that the poet has made up, they also give a brief explanation of classical references and allusions made in the poem
The "June" poem is especially interesting because it contains a discussion of Collin's ability as a poet. It is presented in the form of a dialogue between Colin and Hobbinol, his friend.
The argument is:
This Æglogue is wholly vowed to the complayning of Collins ill successe in his love. For being (as is foresaid) enamoured of a Country Lasse, and having (as seemeth) found place in her heart he lamenteth to his deare friend Hobbinoll, that he is now foresaken unfaithfully, and in his steed Menalcas, another shepheard received disloyally. And this is the whole argument of this Æglogue.
The obvious response to the last sentence is "no it isn't". By this stage of the poem we've grasped that Collin is a self-portrait and that this isn't straightforward pastoral and 'June' can be read as an exposition of Spenser's poetic skill and ambition.
The third stanza has Hobbinol saying in response to Collin's misery:
Then if by me thou list advised be
Forsake the soyle, that so doth thee bewitch:
Leave me those hills, where harbrough nis to see,
Nor Hollybush, nor brere, nor winding witche:
And to the dales resort, where shepheards ritch,
And fruictful locks been everwhere to see.
Here no night Ravens lodge more black than pitch
Nor elvish ghosts, nor gastly owles doe flee.
E K's note to "Forsake the soyle" is: This is no poetical fiction, but unfeynedly spoke of the Poete self, who for speciall occasion of private affaryes (as I have beene partly of himself informed) and for his more preferment removing out of the Northparts came into the South as Hobbinnoll advised him privately."
"those hills" is given: "that is the North countrye, where he dwelt."
"n'is" is glossed as "not".
"dales" is given: "The Southpartes, where he now abideth, which though they be full of hills and woods (for Kent is very hillye and woodye; and therefore so called for Kantish in the Saxon tongue signifieth woodye) yet in the respect of the Northpartes they be called dales. For indede the North is counted the higher countrye".
Whilst these notes are of limited use to the modern reader (apart from the definition of n'is), if we bear in mind the purpose of June (to state Spenser's ability and the nature of ambition) then things become more interest. If we view the higher ground of the north as representing new ways of writing as opposed to traditional methods as represented by the southern lowlands then the denial of "poetical fiction" is disingenuous and the claim to first-hand knowledge is doubly spurious given that E K is Spenser.
Things become more complex because Spenser is also putting himself forward as Collin and the praise that Hobbinoll piles on Collin's poetic ability (which E K is careful not to gloss) later in "June" underlines that poetical fiction recurs throughout.
The notes may not be helpful, they may be dishonest but they also give an indication of the scale of Spenser's ambition and the methods he would use to launch his career.
With regard to the emblems, things become a little more complex. Most critics would seem to be of the view that these illustrations were placed at the start of a text to clarify or simplify its meaning for those whose level of literacy was poor. In SC each emblem is glossed witha fairly brief 'explanation' but this is the emblem for February:
and this is the gloss:
This embleme is spoken of Thenot, as a moral of his former tale: namelye, that God, which is himselfe most aged, being before al ages, and without beginninge, maketh those, whom he loueth like to himselfe, in heaping yeares vnto theyre dayes, and blessing them wyth longe lyfe. For the blessing of age is not giuen to all, but vnto those, whom God will so blesse: and albeit that many euil men reache vnto such fulnesse of yeares, and some also wexe olde in myserie and thraldome, yet therefore is not age euer the lesse blessing. For euen to such evill men such number of yeares is added, that they may in their last dayes repent, and come to their first home. So the old man checketh the rashheaded for despysing his gray and frosty heares.
Whom Cuddye doth counterbuff with a byting and bitter prouerbe, spoken indeede at the first in contempt of old age generally. for it was an old opinion, and yet is continued in some mens conceipt, that men of yeares have no feare of god at al, or not so much as younger folke. For that being rypened with long experience, and hauing passed many bitter brunts and blastes of vengeaunce, they dread no stormes of Fortune, nor wrathe of Gods, nor daunger of menne, as being eyther by longe and ripe wisedome armed against all mischaunces and aduersitie, or with much trouble hardened against all troublesome tydes: lyke vnto the Ape, of which is sayd in Æsops fables, that oftentimes meeting the Lyon, he was at first sore aghast & dismayed at the grimnes and austeritie of hys countenance, but at last being acquianted with his lookes, he was so furre from fearing him, that he would familiarly gybe and iest with him: Suche long experience breedeth in some men securitie. Although it please Erasimus a great clerke and good old father, more fatherly and fauourablye to construe it in his Adages for his own behoofe, That by the prouerbe Nemo Senex metuit Iouem, is not meant, that old men haue no feare of God at al, but that they be furre from superstition and Idolatrous regard of false Gods, as is Iupiter. But his greate learning notwithstanding, it is to plaine, to be gainsayd, that olde men are muche more enclined to such fond fooleries, then younger heades.
To my 21st century eye, this feels more like a further elucidation of the poem rather than of the emblem.
In the Penguin edition of Spenser's shorter poems, Richard A McCabe comments that most of the emblems are "subtly nuanced to qualify, or even to contradict, the emphases of the verse." His gloss on the above includes the observation that the above Latin phrase ('No old man fears Jove') does not actually appear in the works of Erasmus.
T S Eliot's The Waste Land
The most innovative and influential poem of the 20th century comes with a set of notes. Given that this is also one of the more bewildering poems of the century, this must be good news for readers.
In assessing the value of the notes in terms of elucidation we should also consider Eliot's motivation in producing them. He wanted the poem to be published in book form but recognised that the Waste Land was too short to make a book and therefore added notes to make it more attractive to publishers.
I'm not going to add to the mass of critical work that surrounds every aspect of this poems but I would like to make the following points:
- the notes assume that the reader has a working knowledge of Latin, Italian and French;
- many of the notes are simply references to other works;
- the note to line 218 on Tiresias does say important things about the work but ends this with a quote from Ovid in Latin although the poem isn't identified;
- the notes exclude some of the most baffling lines in the poem;
- the note at the beginning of the poem states that Eliot has made much use of "From Ritual to Romance" by Jessie L Weston and Frazer's "The Golden Bough". The note ends with "Anyone who is acquainted with these works will immediately recognise in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies" thus suggesting that we need to read these tomes before embarking on the poem.
The note to line 196 reads: "Cf. Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress.", which is odd because lines 196-8 are:
But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.
The relevant Marvell lines are:
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity
The oddness comes from the revesral of "mood" and the fact that lines 185-6 are:
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.
This doesn't have any kind of note but is the first appearance of the Marvell allusion and is more in keeping with the mortality theme, the allusion at 196 being an inversion.
As we shall see below, some notes are effective in elucidating the text and others are so effective that they can be read as an integral part of the poem. Eliot's falls into neither category but has served to give critics more stuff to debate and argue about.
What the Marvell reference does (as the Spenser reference before it) is give the reader an idea of how the poem was made rather than what the poem means and this is more of interest to other poets rather than readers.
David Jones' "The Anathemata" and "In Parenthesis"
I have written at some length on these important poems in the Jones section of this site but here I want to concentrate on the material that Jones provided to go with the poems.
"In Parenthesis" comes with a fairly short introduction, a sketch map and notes. "The Anathemata" has a longer introduction, illlustrations (Jones was also an artist) and notes.
It is possible to read "In Parenthsesis" without the notes, its theme (the Somme offensive) is well known and the narrative is reasonably clear.
I'm of the view that most of us will need to skim over the illustrations which seem at some distance from the poem. I do accept that this is probably due to my ignorance in these matters and that the pictures may hold an important key to understanding...
With regard to "The Anathemata", W H Auden wrote "...one must admit that without the copious notes which Mr Jones provides, it is unlikely that anyone except the authour would be able to understand the poem. I myself have read it many times since it first appeared ten years ago and there are still many passages which I do not "get"." Auden was of the view that "The Anathemata" is the greatest long poem of the 20th century.
The notes to both poems are copious and can be read as integral to the work. The strategies that readers will use will vary depending on preference. My own view is that "The Anathemata" cannot be read without some reference to the annotation because otherwise the text is too bewildering. Eliot was of the view that "In Parenthesis" should be read straight through before the reader engages with the rest- "Understanding begins in the sensibility, we must have the experience before we attempt to explore the sources of the work itself".
John Matthias disagrees with Auden's view that each section of "The Anathemata" should be read very slowly once, consulting every note and then a second time without looking at one. Matthias suggests that the reader should "get whatever he can on an initial reading without consulting the notes" and then using them as needed on subsequent readings. I'm currently on my fourth reading and can report that there are some sections that descend into the unreadable without some reference to the notes and I couldn't simply skip over these because what follows doesn't then make sense.
Jones' prefaces to both poems are also incredibly useful in giving the context and rationale for the work. I read the preface to "The Anathemata" after reading the first few pages of the poem because I was astonished by the quality of the work but also recognised that its oiginality demanded that I obtain that context before going any further. My current reading involves referring to the notes and the introduction (I haven't got to the illustrations yet). This experience continues to be utterly absorbing and I'm beginning to see what Auden meant when he speaks of the poem's "infinite reward".
The preface to 'In Parenthsis' is a beautiful and humane piece of prose in itself and succeeds in giving greater context to Jones' experience of war but is not essential to an understanding of the poem- I read the poem straight through twice without consulting either the notes or the preface.
John Matthias' "A Gathering of Ways" and "Kedging"
"A Gathering of Ways" was published in 1991 and contains three poems about place. The first, "An East Anglian Diptych" is about the rivers and ancient routes of that part of the world. "Facts from an Apocryphal Midwest" is about the exploration and the trails going south from Lake Superior. "A Compostela Dyptich" centres on the routes taken by pilgrims from France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The poet's notes are to be found at the back of the first edition.
These notes consist of a brief explanation of the rationale and background for each poem together with a quite extensive reading list of works that Matthias relied upon in his research.
Whilst the poems are very good and reasonably clear to follow, the are a number of obscure names and phrases that the reader could probably benefit from.
"The Rivers" contains reference to Gildas and Nennius without explanation whereas "Matrona, Bel and Wandril wander in the mist" is clarified.
The sources referred to are gloriouslt eclectic for each poem but I'm not sure whether the intention is to persuade us to read all or some of these works. "Rivers" makes use of Edward Thomas and his prose on East Anglia which I'm currently enjoyig reading but I'm not at all attracted to the book by T C Lethbridge that Matthias made much use of.
The publisher describes "A Compostela Dictionary" as "strange and visionary" which it isn't (ambitious and effective would be my adjectives). Use is made of languages other than English and in his notes matthias says:
Alhough the poet knows the various languages which he must sometimes quote alll too imperfectly himself, the poem's polylingual texture is essential: it is neccessary for the reader to try and hear the Latin, French, Spanish and Provencal words as best he can.
It's not clear from this whether 'hearing' involves some understanding of the meaning of the phrases used or whether we are meant to give priority to how they sound.
"Kedging" is a longish poem with a nautical theme that is accompanied by an 11-page essay which gives the wider historical context of the poem and pays further tribute to Matthias' mother-in-law who is one of the other main threads.
To my mind 'Kedging' is one of the very few completely successful poems to have been written in the last fifty years- it wears its erudition lightly and manages to say quite complex things with an ease that's only matched/surpassed by the 'perfect' Elizabeth Bishop. It's also more than a little annoying that an American should be so adept at working with the central elements of British culture.
At the start of his essay, Matthias explained that it was originally written at the request of Chicago Review where the poem originally appeared and that he decided to print in the "Kedging" volume as it was generally enjoyed by readers. He does however add this caveat:
There are always dangers that come with any experiment in self-reading. One doesn't want inadvertently to shut down any passage - a resonant word in the watery context of this poem - by opening up a lock here and there by way of some auto- and bibliographical heaving and hoing at cranks, gates gears and other kinds of machinery. Most of the ships in this tale are too heavy to portage; and a clogged sluice may now and then may require a better trained nautical sleuth than the maker of the poem and the author of these notes.
The essay is not a line by line forensic account of the poem but an exploration of the factual and fictional characters involved as well as a more detailed account of the events that are referred to. It is a pleasure to read because of Matthias' inherent charm and modesty. Given that he is one of the most technically adept poets that we have, his use of the term "braiding" to describe how he has run so many strands together is typically self-deprecating. Readers will gain a deeper insight from the essay but both it and the poem can stand in their own right.
Keston Sutherland's "Hot White Andy" and Stress Position"
Both of these are difficult works, endlessly allusive, complex and full of quandaries for the reader. "Hot White Andy" is 'about' the rise of China and "Stress Position" is 'about' the use of torture in Iraq.
The first poem contains one footnote at the start of its second section which begins:
At the committee meeting I spotted a woman in light,
she drifted past the monitor, I remember that
they were screening Bleaching Lenny1. The snow was
At the bottom of the page the note reads:
British reality TV show. Famous comedian Lenny Henry is caught on camera inadvertently bleaching himself, one body-part per week. In the final episode (8) of the series we are given to contemplate a morose Henry, by this point a ghastly supernatural alabaster from head to foot except for his (since episode 7) quasi-autonomous scrotum, engaged in teabagging an unnamed but invidiously Chinese companion of unfathomable gender. Henry fails to detect, through the dark suck-hole in her latex Marsilio Facino mask, the tiny hidden natatorium of bleach fashioned ingeniously out of an aluminium peel-lid froma peach yoghurt pot Henry Dared to lick out in the first episode (2).
This is very, very clever and manages to make several complex points that underpin the theme of the poem. It isn't intended to to provide a scholarly gloss but rather a wry comment on such annotation. "Bleaching Lenny" is explained adequately in the first two sentences but Sutherland goes on to use the device as a metaphor for more complex issues. Readers may question whether this is too clever- I still havent worked out what Ficino is doing in there.
"Stress Position" is probably the best poem written in the last ten years but its use of notes add further puzzles for the reader to tussle with. The second part contains 4 prose sections 3 of which contain footnotes. Most of these appear to be commenting on annotation rather than adding anything to the text. The first note contains a number of possible explanations for the abbreviation "LOD", the second also refers to LOD and is in French. The following three refer to individual letters and are defined both by themselves and further ways that the letters can be re-arranged.
The second prose section is a brilliant portrayal of a mind in torment. The note to "Stress Position not in W H Smith? It will be" is a quote from Kierkegaard's journals with the phrase "Now for the product placement" tagged on to the end.
Note 6 is struck out but is a versified rendition of part of the prose but "the dust of your wasted fields, is replaced by "Prynne". The next two note simply repeat the word in the text and the rest are blank.
I'm normally sceptical of devices that are too mannered and self-conscious and Sutherland walks a thin line here especially when compared with the note in "Hot White Andy". I'm not sure that any of these help "Stress Position" and could be seen as a distraction. The insertion of Prynne and the use of Kiekegaard will, of course, keep the critics busy for many years to come.
As can be seen from the above, poets have different motives for providing notes to their work and do this in different ways. With the exception of the "Anathemata" it is possible (and may be preferable) to just read the poem but these 'self-readings', whatever their motive, usually provide us with a couple more aspects to tussle with.