Tuesday 22 April 2014

Commentaries written by the author

According to William Empson "Poets, on the face of it, have either got to be easier or to write their own notes; readers have either got to take more trouble over reading or cease to regard notes as pretentious and a sign of bad poetry" ("Argufying", 1987). I've some sympathy with this. Though the author might not be best placed to write a study guide, they have a unique viewpoint and should have some worthwhile comments to offer. The best example that I know of (and it's excellent) is Kona MacPhee's The Perfect Blue companion. She writes - "I'm hoping to provide the same kind of informal preambles that I might offer when introducing the poems at a reading" and that "The commentaries aren't aimed at other poets, critics, literary academics or "professional" poetry readers, but rather, they are explicitly intended to provide a handhold, a stepping stone, a small reason-to-trust for readers new to poetry".

I'm surprised that more people haven't written such commentaries. If you know of more, tell me. My attempts are

I've had no feedback about these. They're not often visited; the pages that are read the most are those that web searches on other subjects would most likely stumble upon. At least they serve to archive something of the books' beginnings and launches, and correct misunderstandings that might easily arise. They also helped with the issue of deciding how many notes and footnotes to put in the books.

Later ...

Having made a similar post at Eratosphere, Maryann Corbett et al made the point that I'm conflating different kinds of web-augmentation -

  • Notes - like you'd get in the poetry book
  • Study Guides - see for example Jehanne Dubrow's Red Army Red Study Guide. Some books include study guides nowadays. They might encourage CW tutors or reading groups to choose the book.
  • Commentaries - like Kona MacPhee's, aimed at non-poets
  • Companion Site - a place to store corrections, and links to youtube clips or reviews.


  1. I’ve mixed feelings about commentaries. I’ve said before that a poem which needs notes to explain it—e.g. Beckett’s ‘Whoroscope’—is basically a bad poem; the poem should stand or fall on its own merits. I do talk about my poetry in some of my articles but they’re not really commentaries. I don’t think I’ve ever dissected a poem for everyone to see. Perhaps I should.

    I do what I do mainly for newbies. When I was starting out I hated the fact that everyone seemed to want to keep the hows of writing to themselves. I suppose I get it but it still annoyed me that I had to go it alone. I know writing is a private thing but it’s not as if I was asking them how they had a wank! I liked Kona’s site—I read through it before reviewing her book—and I liked yours too but I have to admit to not going back to it after I’d written my review. Part of the thing I have against commentaries is that they change how a person reads a poem. A poem is after all a collaboration between poet and reader and what they make if it will be unique to them. To them come along and say, no, the poem’s actually about this isn’t really fair because that’s what I’ve make out of in my capacity as reader plus I have access to all the other stuff that surrounded the writing of the poem which no reader should be privy to. It’s an interesting topic. I must give it some thought. Perhaps I’ll blog about it.

  2. I've mixed feeling about them too. At least (unlike notes at the foot of poems) they needn't be read. The Best American Poetry/Stories series have them.

    I think it's unreasonable nowadays to assume too much knowledge (or cultural heritage) common to both poet and reader. By mentioning "X Factor" and "4' 33"" at a recent workshop I managed to bamboozle both low- and high-brow people. Some names can be web-searched, but much of the time readers won't realise that there's an allusion to pick up, or that it's a Black Mountain-style poem, or that it's in syllabics, etc. And topical poems don't stay topical for long. Web-notes for printed-books seems a fair compromise - purists can keep their noses in the books while the rest of us read about Americanisms, etc.