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.)
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.
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