Difficult Poetry and the Explanation Problem
Do readers of difficult poetry want an explanation of the work or do they prefer to do the work of interpretattion themselves? To a large extent this depends on what is being explained and who is doing the explaining. What follows is an overview of different kinds of explanation based on my own experience of reading work that I've needed some assistance with.
Explaining the great poems of Spenser and Milton.
I first started reading 'serious' verse with Edmund Spenser's 'The Faerie Queen' with a gloss by A.C Hamilton and John Milton's 'Paradise Lost' with a gloss by Alastair Fowler. Both Fowler and Hamilton are scrupulous in clarifying obscure allusions and providing clear definitions to obscure words. This is what I needed because both works are very long and doing my own line by line research would have detracted from the flow of the poem. I also learned to read only those notes that were helpful to me and to skip the bits that seemed either too detailed or extraneous. On the second and third readings I found that I was using the notes less and was more able to get on with reading the verse. Because I was deeply impressed with both poems, I then started to look at more background stuff to give me deeper context. Re-reading the gloss and comparing the two also made me realise that both editors' notes were skewed to their own academic interests and that Hamilton in particular is guilty of explaining stuff that doesn't need to be explained whereas Fowler pre-supposes knowledge that I don't have.
There are some glosses that are simply annoying, I don't wish to name names but some commentators seem to think that providing definitions for words that most of us will know is the main task in elucidating a text whilst overloking the fact that some passages are still obscure even when all the words are defined. Hamilton does this in the episode involving Occasion in Book Two of the FQ. Fowler remains the best guide to Paradise Lost but even he over-indulges his interest in the astronomical aspects of the poem
I far prefer over-explanation to not providing enough. John Carey's notes to the shorter Milton is an example of annotation that glides over some material that should be glossed and this is a pity because it means that we then have to delve into the morass of Milton criticism to give us the information that we need.
I then read Nigel Smith's edition of Andrew Marvell's verse which has been criticsed for providing too much information but I found that I could be selective in only using the notes when I needed them. Some of his extraneous notes are a delight, I'm particularly fond of the little known fact that General Fairfax was an avid Spenserian and that his horse was called Brigadore after the horse that goes missing for most of 'The Faerie Queene'.
Explanations of 20th century poetry
This initial experience led to a degree of scepticism with regard to using glosses with more modern stuff- preferring to try and work out the references for myself and ploughing through the obscure passages until I could make some sense. There is also the view that poetry shoud be immediate, that it's our direct response to poetry that matters.
However, most of us will need some help with at least some of the references in the best of modernist verse. The Waste Land and The Cantos both contain more than enough stuff to mystify the ordinary reader- hence their reputations for difficulty. The question is- how much do we need and how do we make best use of it? I would argue that this will vary according to our enthusiasm for the work and our present knowledge base. I, for example, do not speak a foreign language nor am I well-versed in classical literature so I'll need more help with Pound than I will with Eliot (and not just because of length). I'm quite content to work out what the English in both poems means but may still need help with some of the allusions.
Explaining The Cantos
The first of Pound's Cantos begins with-
And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy wlth weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us out onward WIth bellying canvas,
Circe's this craft, the trim-colfed goddess
Then sat we amidshIps, wind jamminng the tiller,
Thus with stretched sail, we went over sea till day's end
Sun to his slumber, shadows o'er all the ocean,
Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,
To the Kimmerian lands, and peopled cities
Covered with close-webbed mist, unpierced ever
With glItter of sun-rays
Nor with stars stretched, nor lookmg back from heaven
Swartest might stretched over wretched men there
The ocean flowing backward, came we then to the place
Aforesaid by Circe
Here did they rites, Perimedes and Eurylochus,
I'll need help here with all of the proper nouns and to check whether swart means anything other than 'dark'. Carroll F Terrell's 'Companion' gives this definition for 'Circe':
Goddess living on fabulous island of Aeaea who is powerful in magic; sister of Acoetes; daughter of Helios and Perse [Od. X, 210 ff.]. Witch-goddess, particularly associated with sexual regeneration and degeneration. Circe, Aphrodite, and Persephone form the archetypal triad of feminine deity: sorceress, lover, girl-identities "compenetrans."
This doesn't give us the part that Circe played in the Odyssey and I don't want to spend time reading Homer to find out especially when a quick search on the web reveals much more detail. I also don't understand the term 'compenetrans' which just seems to make things more confusing.
We have more success with 'Kimmerian' which is glossed as :
Territory of the Cimmerians, a people whose city and land were perpetually shrouded in mist and cloud [Od.XI,14-19].
It might be useful for the reader to know that this Cimmeria is a figment of Homer's imagination and is not connected to the historical Cimmeria, but apart from that, the gloss gives, the reader all that is needed.
With regard to Perimedes, we are told simply that he is a member of Odysseus' crew whereas Wikipedia comes up with 6 different ancient Greeks and also tells us that the Perimedes of the Odyssey was very loyal to Odysseus throughout the story.
The Companion describes Eurylochus as :
"Great-hearted and godlike Eurylochus" was Odysseus's second~in-command. He was the leader of the first band of men who sought out Circe.
This is fair enough but doesn't explain why the crew should be seeking out Circe nor the reference to the 'rites' which is a significant episode in Homer.
To my mind, Christine Brooke Rose's 'A ZBC of Ezra Pound' and Hugh Kenner's 'The Pound Era' are the best guides to the work. The first expresses more of a reader's delight in and knowledge of the work whereas Kenner cannot be matched for providing the wide range of contexts that most of us will need. Neither of these are by any means conventional glosses but it can be argued that Pound is not well served by the somewhat pedantic tones of academia.
Explaining The Wate Land.
The Waste Land announced the arrival of modernism in English verse in 1921 and has been massively influential ever since, recognised as the most important English poem of the 20th century. It is also difficult and most of us will need help to get the most from it. Lawrence Rainey's 'The Annotated Wasteland' sets out to provide this help and for the most part does a reasonable job. Full references are given to the many allusions and foreign phrases are explained. There is however one niggling doubt. The line "Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song," is glossed-
Eliot's note cites the refrain to the "Prothalamion"(1596) by Edmund Spenser (1552-1599), a poem which celebrated the ideal of marriage to commemorate the wedding of the two daughters of the Earl of Worcester. The first two stanzas (of ten in the poem) read:"
Followed by the first two stanzas. If I didn't know anything at all about Spenser, I'd accept this as it stands, I may read the quoted stanzas but wouldn't feel the need to pursue it any further. In fact, 'Prothalamion' is the second part of a two-part poem celebrating Spenser's courtship of and marriage to Elizabeth Boyle in 1594. Nor does Rainey refer to the repetition of "Sweet Thames, run softly" in the next line and the reversal of mood in the way that Eliot uses it although this is noted in a borrowing from Marvell later in the same section. I also like to think that Eliot is making an explicit contrast between his use of the Thames and Spenser's in the Faerie Queen. So, using someone else as a reference point isn't always reliable and care should be exercised before accepting what is said.
(Over) Explaining Maximus.
I'm an enormous fan of the Maximus Poems by Charles Olson and have read them through three times without the aid of annotation. This is not to say that I understand every word but that I am able (I think) to gather the sense of the work without additional help. I've now decided to read George F Butterick's "A Guide to the Maximus Poems" because I think the work is significant enough to me personally that I should find out a lot more. I'm particularly interested in the way Olson makes use of local history and the role of place in 'Maximus' and so far Butterick has pointed me in the right directions without telling me what to think, he also quotes extensively from Olson's private papers to give greater context whilst allowing readers to make up their own minds. "Oceania" from part III of 'Maximus' is one of the best poems in the work. It contains:
Omnivorous, the only trouble with his situation is he eats himself and since 1650 this infestation of his own order has jumping to 2,700 million and going to 6,200 on January 1st 2000 is
Butterick's gloss to this reads-
The figures are from an article in an unidetnified journal, a torn page of which, bearing Olson's underlinings and calculations, was found among the poet's papers from 1965-66:
According to Professor Edward S Deevey Jr, writing in Scientific American, world population went up from five and one third million some 10,000 years ago to 86.5 million 4,000 years later, and then for centuries increased only slowly until some 300 years ago another revolution set in. This revolution is still under way,although it has entered a new stage in our own lifetime. With the coming of industrial methods of environmental exploitation and control, it became possible to change the ecological balance once again in a most drastic fashion and to support a vastly increased world population: 545 million in 1650, 906 million in 1800, and 2,400 million in 1950. For the year 2000, Deevy predicts 6200 million.
Further calculations from the journal article were made on an envelope from Jeremy Prynne postmarked Cambridge, Eng., 9 May 1966.
As readers, we don't actually need this information to make sense of this part of the poem but if we are interested in the way that the poem was put together then this kind of information is invaluable. For those of us who want to know how Olson succeeded in making the complex look 'easy', the Butterick tome is an invaluable guide. For those of us who try to write poetry Butterick makes a number of interesting points especially about originality and the creative process.
Explaining J H Prynne.
Of course, with the growth of web content, looking up references and allusions has never been easier (although some of still find difficulty with precise translation). This is enormously useful when it is clear that an allusion is being made. Some poets choose not to indicate when they are quoting and this makes things much more complex. The prime culprit in this regard is Jeremy Prynne and most of us are therefore forced to rely on commentary to both identify the source and to work out what the passage is 'doing' in the poem.
In 2010 Glossator, published a Prynne edition in which various writers attempt to contextualise some aspects of the work. One of the problems with writing anything useful about Prynne is the temptation to make things more complicated than they are and I have enormous respect for those writers who manage to get this balance right.
In the Glossator issue, John Wilkinson has an essay on Prynne's 'Word Order', a sequence published in 1979. In his essay Wilkinson makes a number of assertions that I may not agree with but he also provides invaluable help with some of the references that I would otherwise have missed. The fourth poem in the sequence contains the phrase "rap her to bank" and "wer soll daz bezahlen" and Wilkinson points out that this is a quote from a miners' song and reproduces the text in full. He also explains that the German is the chorus from a drinking song which he quotes and then points out that 'Pinke-Pinke' from the third line of the chorus is used in poem 17 of the 'Word Order' sequence.
Whilst a quick search on the web for 'rap her to bank' does reveal this information and the relevant context, the reader does have to know that it's a quote in the first place. The relevant verse reads:
would you take a chance on it
or take a cut, in the cavity
rap her to bank: nothing
I can say that, were it not for Wilkinson, I would have spent a very long time trying to nake this out and failing.
In the same issue Justin Katko has a long essay on 'The Plant Time Manifold Manuscripts' which sets out to describe the scientific background to this complex work. The essay is scrupulous in describing various versions and the main sources and provides the kind of information that we need to make sense of the points that are made. The reader does have to absorb a lot of challenging scientific theory but that's what the work is about.
Keston Sutherland (Prynne's finest critic) has an essay in Glossator on "L'Exthase de M. Poher" which was published in Prynne's 'Brass' collection of 1971. In typical fashion Sutherland goes to great lengths to identify exactly what (and when) the title refers to and situates the poem in the context of Prynnes other work. As with most good work on Prynne, the essay is densely argued and readers do need to have access to the other Prynne poems referred to.
This complexity is however redeemed by:
But this is not the poet shoring ruins against his fragments. It is a way to model lyric, to make a language for fact without desire. The poem implicitly announces a shift in the moralism of knowledge away from anything like eidetic phenomenology, with its bracketing of affectivity along with ontic commitments, toward the project of a lyric beyond subjectivity, that is, beyond memory, appetite, greed, and all the other consolations for predatoriness that make up the spiral curve of bourgeois autobiography, a project that would come into full view only much later in Prynne's work.
I think that's the best summary of the Prynne 'project' that we are likely to see for some time even though most of us will need help with 'eidetic phenomenology', 'ontic commitments' and many may wonder how bourgeois biography can be said to have a 'spiral curve'.
In summary, the above is an attempt to describe the various kinds of commentaries that are available for readers of difficult verse. Obviously it is up to personal preference/disposition whether these are actually used and I would again wish to repeat my view that it is the readers' unassisted response to the work that is most important. The companions to Pound, Eliot and Olson are all available on the web.