Footnotes and Frustration in Modern Poetry -Sam O’Dell

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Some poets from the modernist movement seem determined to make me feel as uneducated as possible while reading their work. Of course, this was hardly their intent when they sat down ninety-some-odd years ago to write the poems that I’ve been reading lately. H.D. did not intend to slight me while casually dropping “goddess” into a poem, assuming that I, her reader, could easily infer what goddess she was talking about in the third section of “Fragment 68”. (Most likely Aphrodite, according to my anthology’s footnote.)Hilda-Doolittle-HD-007

Now, whether or not Ezra Pound intended to make others feel less intelligent while pulling obscure outside references into his poems and essays is up for debate. The guy seems the type who may have enjoyed making sure others knew he was smarter than they were. Still, he probably expected at least some of his references to be understood by his readers, and, well…let’s just say I at least got the “winged shoe” one.

As I read these poems, reference after reference flies past me. You can only read so many footnotes before you begin to wonder, “is it me?” I think most of my peers are in the same boat, though. Most of us have not studied a classical language, like Latin or Greek. Most of us can probably count the number of gods, goddesses, and other mythological beings we’re deeply familiar with on both hands. And all that ancient and medieval geography? We’re not experts, to say the least. Certainly there are some people my age with all the knowledge I just listed and more but it’s not as common as it once was.Ezra_Pound_by_EO_Hoppe_1920

There are positives and negatives to this sort of reading experience. While I may leave these poems feeling as if they were meant for someone with more background information than I possess, I also learn things. Sure, I may not retain the information of every footnote I read, but some of it has stayed with me. No matter how many footnotes I read, though, I know I am never likely to achieve a level of knowledge that would allow me to ignore those footnotes in the first place.

I think that’s okay, though. No one can know everything, after all. Even when I don’t completely understand a reference a poem is making, I can go on to enjoy the rest of what the author is saying and then come back to the reference I don’t understand and try to make sense of it. In some ways the allusions an author makes are little windows into the past, allowing me a glimpse into the mindsets of people long gone. That brief little transportation into the past is definitely worth reading a few footnotes.

– Sam O’Dell

About Ann Persons

Annie Persons is currently the managing editor for Shenandoah. She is a junior English major and Creative Writing minor at Washington and Lee University. Her favorite pastimes are reading and writing, and she hopes to continue engaging with literature for the rest of her life.

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3 Responses to Footnotes and Frustration in Modern Poetry -Sam O’Dell

  1. R.T. Smith says:

    I suppose it should be said that a huge component of a writer’s audience is herself and her immediate colleagues, comrades, friends. How individual artists balance this need with the hunger for a wider audience varies as each artist navigates among “populist,” “accessible,” “difficult” and “obscure.” If we look at Pound’s early work, we don’t always feel at once eluded and attacked, as if we were pursuing renegades on the border, as The Cantos can cause us to feel. Joyce is a great example. Who can’t follow most of the stories in Dubliners, but some readers lose their way (or their appetite) with Portrait, others feel engaged with Ulysses from the “Stately plump. . .” to the final “yes,” and still others love to plunge into the Wake. When artists get ruthless with the questions of “what important contribution might be mine alone to make?” they may be headed toward the obscure, but it’s hard to guess how posterity will judge. We’re driving at night, and the headlight wires are frayed.

  2. Ann Persons says:

    I think that the difficulty of the genre is what enamores me with it. That being said, I’m always glad that the anthology or collection provides footnotes so that I don’t have to look up the reference myself. I’d like to think that I would look it up, though.

  3. Taylor McPherson says:

    I like testing my knowledge of Greek Mythology by reading these poets–shows me how much I’ve retained from my earlier schooling!

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