… or what’s a footnote for?

January 12th, 2016

A poem’s reach should exceed its grasp…

It’s a little embarrassing to be a poet who needs notes to her poems.  Ten pages of them in Standard candles – good grief, Alice, are you writing poetry or an academic paper?

Critical voices hiss in my ears, colliding from opposite ends of the literary-theoretic spectrum like proton beams sparking into snarky virtual particles.

“A poem should carry its own bags,” mutter advocates of plain speaking. You shouldn’t need to look up concepts like optical molasses or the Pythagorean theorem in order to ‘get’ a poem. The poem should deliver its meaning right to your feet, as nicely self-contained as a packed suitcase on a baggage carousel.

From the opposite corner, post-modern voices hiss, “You don’t control the meaning anyway. Let the reader make of it what she will.” Let a reader rifle through the suitcase and unpack whatever they want.

And then another voice comes in, sounding remarkably like my Scottish grandmother’s: “You’re just showing off!”

Should I/can I make a case for footnotes in a poetry book?

Wasteland not ….

Well, I’m certainly not the first poet to use them. T.S. Eliot sent The Wasteland out into the public with eight pages of notes for a 17-page poem. I’m hardly in that league, but surely I’m allowed to follow in his big footnote-steps.

However, I’m not doing what that master was doing. Notes to poems serve two different functions. Eliot didn’t want to explain how readers should understand his work – he wanted to point them to the vast tradition of literature and myth that he was drawing on to create his traumatized mosaic of post-WW1 psychology.

His notes tell us that he is indebted to Jessie L. Watson’s book on the Grail legend and Frazier’s The Golden Bough. “Anyone who is acquainted with these works,” he says augustly, “will immediately recognize in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies.” But that’s all the help you get.

In other words, if you’re not acquainted with those works, go off and read them. And read Baudelaire, Milton, Ovid and Dante while you’re at it. Preferably in the original Latin or Italian.

My notes serve a different function.  I don’t want to send you out of my book; I want to keep you inside it! And my notes aren’t about a long-shared heritage of literature, but about fairly unfamiliar concepts from science that are just entering the popular imagination. Sure, you could Google “optical molasses” and get to a Wikipedia page replete with phrases like “Sodium MOT” and “the reduced Planck’s constant.” But I want to save you that trouble by giving you a quick framework for an unfamiliar metaphor (and a great-sounding phrase! What poet could hear the sounds of “optical molasses” and not want to use it?)

Science has been a source of metaphor for me for as long as I have been publishing poetry, and all that time I’ve struggled with how much needs to be explained within the poem and how much knowledge can be assumed. After all, any poem – science-related or not – calls on a huge body of knowledge that gives it context. Even an apparently simple line like “A host of golden daffodils” requires you to know that daffodils are yellow flowers and that ‘host’ can mean something other than a TV personality.

Poems never carry their own bags, entirely. They part of an ongoing translation project, a dialogue of ideas. When John Donne wrote “At the round world’s imagined corners… ,” the poem reflected the intense scientific debate of his time over whether or not the sun stood the centre of the solar system.

After a while, a concept like that becomes ordinary and familiar, part of the image bank that any writer can draw on. Part of the challenge lies in guessing what ideas might actually become part of that image bank.

Time and the suitcase

In my first book, Time Travels Light, I used the concept of the black hole as a metaphor – and I added a footnote, because when I wrote the poem in the mid-1980s, black holes were barely out of the conceptual box. Now, of course, we use the phrase in popular culture all the time. Readers don’t need to be oriented the same way.  So that particular note becomes a little, disposable peg that can be dispensed with, and you didn’t need to build a lot of information into the poem itself.

Of course, as time goes by, your poems will likely need notes again. My college textbook of Donne’s poetry had notes for almost every line, because many of the allusions (scientific and otherwise) that he could expect his audience to be familiar with are now esoteric.  Time dumps so much out of our cerebral suitcase, and ideas that fascinate me now – like the multiverse – will quite possibly disappear from the popular imagination as thoroughly as Ptolmey’s calculation of epicycles has.

This will happen to all poets, whether we write about cosmology or baseball. We want our poems to exist at that edge where things aren’t quite familiar.  So we have to go a bit further, we have to risk a bet on what images will resonate a few years down the road.

Otherwise we’ll be stuck with well-trodden metaphors. Dawn may eternally young and inspiring for poets and it doesn’t need a footnote. But you can’t write all your poems about sunrise if you can’t occasionally bring in a heliocentric solar system.

 

 

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