Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Language: Can You Know Too Much About a Poem?

On one of my many bookshelves sitting side by side are several books that explain writings in their historical context. The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner explores the classic work by Lewis Carroll while Asimov's Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan takes a look at the context of Gilbert and Sullivan's light operas.

I find both books, and several more like them, incredible reading. Regardless of how well I think I knew those texts having details and context makes them all the more interesting to read. Context adds to my appreciation and understanding of the text.

This isn't just post modern deconstruction of the texts. This is placing a text and its author into its original time and place.

But how much background detail and explanation is too much? At what point do scholars add more to the work than the author intended or understood? Just because an author likes to mention flowers does it have to have some significant meaning? How much is too much?

I raise these questions because there is a fantastically detailed exploration of T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland. Richard A. Parker notes that:
Since T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land was first published in 1922 readers have had difficulty following the poem (and thus, in many cases, considering it rubbish). Part of the difficulty in understanding The Waste Land is due to Eliot's use of allusion. By taking the view that allusion is actually a different form of hyperlinking I have translated The Waste Land into a hyperlinked presentation.
And what a presentation he leaves us with. It's a view of the poem with details of allusions, seemingly endless cross references, comparisons of the finished poem to Eliot's draft, and much more. More information than you might have thought possible.

But is it too much? Of course one can just read the poem without the additional notes and explanations and just be left as befogged as one was before. Shouldn't there be a more gentle guide to The Wasteland? Something between the poem itself and a scholarly masterpiece?

Or should we leave poems without explanation and without exploration of the poet's use of allusion, metaphor, and the knowledge people would have had back when the poem was written? I find myself wanting to find the middle ground. Maybe someone can explain and introduce the great poetry of past ages without making me feel like there's volumes of explanation behind every line.

1 comment:

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