Another reader might find it absurd that James Fenton spends the bulk of his NYRB review of Robert Lowell: Collected Poems nitpicking the annotations; I, on the other hand, am delighted. Anyone can rhapsodize about Lowell’s verse, but it takes dedication, an eye for detail, and a well-stocked mind to go through the footnotes as Fenton has—and, as it happens, I love footnotes. I’ve spent much of my life trying to understand things foreign to my experience, and I long ago learned the value of a well-annotated text. This, alas, does not appear to be one.

Fenton introduces the subject by saying:

These editors are very keen to tell us things we might well know or easily look up: the meanings of vino rosso, Dummkopf, hors de combat, bête noire, in ovo, coup de théâtre. They inform us that Boulder is in Colorado…. they tell us that Fraülein [sic] means a young woman. So they clearly do not expect us to have been out and about very much. In which case it follows that, in the same poem, they ought to let us know that the English Garden is, rather surprisingly, the main park in central Munich.

The editors do not explain the background of the burning of the city, very important to the poem. And not only do they not regularize punctuation or spelling, they do not even explain Lowell’s errors:

If he had been careful he would have written “homo homini lupus,” not “homo lupus homini.” He would have written “Sturm und Drang” rather than “sturm und drang“—but then, would he ever have described an acquaintance as comical “in the manner of the crusading sturm und drang liberal scholars in second year German novels”? What precisely does this description connote? If the editors know, why don’t they tell us? If Lowell is both misusing and misspelling the German term, they should quietly inform us, and we can then move on.

They also fail to explain the ultramontane connotations of the title “Beyond the Alps,” the epithet “our black classic” for Paris, the borrowing of a line from Empson (who borrowed it from Anita Loos), the fact that Sir Walter Raleigh was a poet (and thus a presumed stand-in for Lowell), the source of the Sappho poems used in “Three Letters to Anaktoria,” and many other things. But they do “explain” that the Parthenon honors Minerva (sic), who was born from the head of Zeus (sic). Fenton says, “In the end, one falls back, defeated. It is too depressing to go on.”

Now, you can say that he’s being picky, that the poetry is what matters. And so it is—but if I’m going to add a weighty, expensive volume like this to my already groaning shelves, I have to trust the editors (Frank Bidart and David Gewanter), and after Fenton’s evisceration I cannot. There is nothing I despise more in an editor than plodding annotation of what the reader can be expected to know (and sloppy annotation at that) and not of what the reader needs explained. How can such editors be trusted to make the right decisions about the text of the poems? I shall not be buying this book.


  1. I love my “Annotated Sherlock Holmes” – all the annotations are written with reference Sherlock Holmes scholarship which is a very strange branch of scholarship. They work as if Holmes was a real, and not a fictional, character. The volume is even arranged in chronological order according to Holmes’ life – not the order of publicaiton. But since he is a fictional character made up by a drug addict, there are all kinds of inconsistencies that need to be explained away! The annotations are often more amusing than the stories themselves…

  2. I like James Fenton’s poetry. Have you read a book on footnotes? I know there is one around but I keep collecting books and not getting around to reading them.

  3. I keep collecting books and not getting around to reading them.
    *bitter laugh* Yes, I know exactly what you mean. And I too am aware of the existence of the book but can’t remember the name; I seem to remember reading a review that said it wasn’t as good as it should have been, but I’d certainly like to take a look at it.

  4. Richard Buchholz says

    Did you see the attack on Fenton’s review in the “Snarkwatch” feature of The Believer? Even if you didn’t, Language Hat, your comment is the perfect riposte to that nonsense.

  5. Perhaps this is what you are looking for? “The Footnote: A Curious History” by Anthony Grafton. (The Amazon entry lists a review in the NY Times Book Review:
    “Grafton’s subject, apparently so trivial in itself and yet potentially so enlivening, offers cause for somewhat uneasy mirth. We may recall the toilers of Gulliver’s Travels who sought to make sunbeams from cucumbers. Not surprisingly, the pages of The Footnote are peppered with human folly.”

  6. In highschool I wrote a poem which mocked our English textbook. Then to add a touch of realism to my parody, I loaded it with totally useless footnotes. For example, in one line the poem refered to the book as a “dog-eared enixum” which was thus annotated:

    Dog-eared: Having ears like those of a dog.

  7. Richard: I hadn’t been aware of Snarkwatch; now that you’ve drawn my attention to it, I see it’s the sort of thing that makes one grateful for the existence of gatekeepers in professional publications. Apparently anyone can write in and bitch about a review they didn’t like — often, no doubt, a friend of the author (“I’d like to lodge a complaint against Carolyn See’s recent review of Michael Griffith’s new novella and stories… It should be said that Michael is a colleague of mine, and friend…”) or the author in person (“OK, so my book was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review….”). Which is fine, I’m glad they have an outlet, but I’m not sure why anybody else would want to read it. Anyway, the complaint about Fenton is still on the front page, so here’s a shortened version:
    “Frank Bidart is one of the most consistently interesting poets working today, but you’d scarcely know it from reading this review. It’s not enough that the collected poems of Lowell bring back into focus a really fascinating twentieth century voice…; it’s not enough that Bidart and his collaborators manage to carve a single volume from the disparate intentions of a writer who in at least one case rewrote and republished an entire volume of his poems…. No, as far as James Fenton is concerned, this book is a failure because it does not footnote an incorrect usage of the Italian in one instance. Actually, Fenton notes a number, perhaps a half dozen, of these dastardly flaws in the editorial vision. In no case are his reservations anything more than parsimonious, especially in concert with a silence on the matter of Bidart’s own work, and Bidart’s appropriateness for the task of overseeing Lowell’s papers (as his former amanuensis)…. What’s good for poetry is when people read it and when they rally around a generous and forceful bit of poetical vision. There’s enough vision in Robert Lowell: Collected Poems for a dozen poetry chapbooks, but James Fenton fails to note this, as he fails to note the considerable labor that went into producing the book. With so much unimpressive carping coming to the surface, he might well have recused himself from the review, the better to speak on some subject where he had a little joy left.”
    In other words, “Why be so negative, dude? It’s Lowell! Feel the joy!” This sort of anti-critical cheerleading is fatal to any sort of quality. What on earth does the fact that Bidart is “one of the most consistently interesting poets working today” have to do with whether the book is any good? Because he’s a good poet, he must be a good editor? Jesus. Thanks for alerting me to this folly.

  8. Kerim: Thanks, that’s the one.
    Justin: That’s great! You know, if you’d played your cards right, you could have been editing collected editions of Lowell. And I see you were a Latinist even then. You’ll enjoy this line from Urquhart: “With parturiencie for greater births, if a malevolent time disobstetricate not their enixibility.”

  9. I disagree. While not “absurd,” Fenton’s review was very unsatifying. Unlike you, I would not base my decision to purchase the Lowell volume on the reliability of the annotations. Perhaps editors who cannot get the annotations right also cannot be trusted to get other things right. But this is not necessarily the case, and if it is the case, why can’t Fenton tell us? That is the job of the reviewer.
    Part of the problem with Fenton’s review is that at the very same time he criticizes the sloppy editorial work, he is also criticizing the sloppiness of Lowell’s poetry. Fenton strongly implies that the editors should have more thoroughly corrected Lowell’s errors. This is surely a controversial point, and I would have liked Fenton to address the controversy more explicitly. Is it the editors’ duty to correct such errors? How does that change the poetry?
    Another point: not all readers of the poetry need rely on the annotations. Part of the enjoyment of reading is discovering for oneself the allusions and metaphors. Outside of poets such as Pound or Eliot, say, the annotations really are supplemental.
    If one wants a convenient edition of Lowell, there really is no alternative. The Selected Poems hardly compares. How long will it take for the next Collected Poems to arrive? Fifteen Years? Twenty Years? Never again in my lifetime? Oh well, I will likely buy the volume. A flawed edition is better than no edition.

  10. But we don’t really need a Collected; we have the individual volumes, which in many ways are more satisfying to use. (Certainly easier to handle.)

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