Footnotes are a Necessary Evil

After flipping through the pages for this week’s reading, I decided to experiment by tackling the poems without reading the footnotes the first time through in order to avoid the confusion and choppiness I experienced while reading Eliot’s The Waste Land.

To my surprise, Crane’s To Brooklyn Bridge was significantly easier to read and understand than Eliot’s piece, despite being overwhemled by the essay-like footnotes below at first. However, the footnotes became a necessity for Ave Maria and Cutty Sark, as these footnotes contained more useful historical background rather than simple commentaries and personal interpretations like in the first poem. Without the explanations provided in the footnotes, I would have missed a lot of the references to people and events mentioned in the poems.

Despite the need for these footnotes, I found the experience of reading them to be rather daunting in the similar fashion as when I read Eliot’s The Waste Land. The extensive footnotes often distracted me from the meaning of each line and stanza and caused me to reread the lines before and after the footnotes a few times in order to grasp the meaning with the footnotes in mind. This process done over and over again made the poems very tiring to read and took the pleasure out of reading these poems.

On a completely random note, I really enjoyed the imagery provided in footnote 11 in To Brooklyn Bridge. I never compared the aesthetics of the bridge to a giant Aeolian harp until seeing this footnote. This comparison makes the bridge appear more ethereal and poetic, further glorifying the infrastructure as Crane intended.

More Footnotes than Poem…A Cop Out?

I am once again very conflicted about the inclusion of the footnotes for this week’s reading of “The Bridge.” Quite obviously, there is more content—and sheer word count—in the footnotes than the actual poem itself. I found this to be quite interesting; it seemed that Hart Crane used the footnotes to describe what was actually happening in each line. While there are allusions mentioned in the footnotes, for the most part they seem to provide an analysis of the lines themselves, as if they were written by some highbrow academic. This is where the conflict lay for me.I thought the footnotes were helpful to understand what was actually happening (for example, in “The Brooklyn Bridge,” the line “A jest falls from the speechless caravan” (20) is noted as referring to a bedlamite’s suicide. No where in that line, nor in the context of the line, is a reference to death or suicide, and the meaning would have been completely lost. However, because Crane uses such heavy footnotes, it seems as if his writing of the actual lines of the poem itself are overly “poetic” and vague. When I read it, it seemed that Crane was basically saying “here’s my poem, I know the average reader wont be able to understand it fully so I will just provide this academic analysis for you.” So, in that sense, I thought the footnotes were a bit too much. However, I did also like that the footnotes were actually written in very descriptive language; they were not prosaic and straightforward, but indeed had very image-rich descriptions that made imagining the scene Crane was painting to be easier. I found that reading through the poem, and then rereading it with the footnotes was the most helpful way to do it. For me, it was best to see what I could grasp from an initial reading (which was not much) and then to go back over it with the footnotes to better fill in the details that I missed.

Allusion and new types of footnotes

The poems this week came along with a similar overwhelming amount of footnotes as last weeks. The biggest difference for me, was that the overwhelming amount of footnotes this week was extremely plainly written and made things that could have been complex, quite a bit simpler.

This is especially true in the case of finding allusion. Much of Cranes work makes references that I would not have if I were reading by myself. For example, the footnote number 4 explained that the imagery may have been taken to be a ladder between earth and heaven from Genesis 28:11-12. I merely noted the interesting use of older language, but never made that next connection when I read on my own.

Additionally, the footnotes helped clarify a lot of the language like “rip-tooth” and “Down Wall”, which could have otherwise thrown me off quite a bit.

I think that I am slowly developing better techniques by which to read poems with extensive footnotes, but sometimes still feel a little overwhelmed when reading a poem with more than half a page of footnotes for 3-4 small stanzas of poetry. It almost feels as though the footnotes are a literary review of the poem rather than helpful side comments to help you understand what is going on as you read. It may have been easier if some of this analysis was presented in a review written on the side, and then only some of the more necessary word explanations/definitions were left in as actual footnotes.

The poem “To Brooklyn Bridge” was not very long, but I believe the footnotes made it feel much longer than it actually was. If you take the poem and read it through at once, it feels quite manageable.

Why so many footnotes in Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge”?

The very first thing I noticed in this week’s reading was that there were excessive footnotes, which appeared to be essays of their own, just like what we saw in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” last week.  Once again, I feel like the purpose of footnotes is to enhance a poem, and though lengthy footnotes provide lots of information with (hopefully) the intention of aiding in a deeper understanding, it breaks the flow of the poem.  This ultimately results in the reader having an even more difficult time understanding what is going on in the poem.

I think the main difference between Eliot’s and Crane’s footnotes was that Eliot used the footnotes to explain references whereas Crane’s footnotes seemed to serve as an interpretation for lines in the poems.  For this reason I think Crane’s footnotes enhanced the meaning of the poem far more than Eliot’s did because he explained what was hard to understand rather than telling us to read a novel or two to even begin to understand what he wrote.  For example, lines 13-16 (“And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced…implicitly thy freedom staying thee!”) were linked to a footnote which explained that we were supposed to take note of the imagery in the stanza and explicitly stated where certain references were from.  In this case, there was a biblical reference to Genesis 28:11-12, and the footnotes even include the parts from Genesis that especially relevant to the poem.

Because I thought the footnotes were actually helpful in this poem, I think that the best way to approach this poem would be to read the poem once through without the footnotes, read it again with the footnotes, and then read it a third time without the footnotes.  By “sandwiching” reading through the poem with footnotes with reading through the poem without footnotes, I think it is easier to avoid getting lost in the footnotes themselves.

A Disciple of T. S. Eliot’s

When I first opened the course pack to the section that included Hart Crane’s poem I was very surprised. At first glance, I thought we were going to be reading articles of prose instead of poems because I did not even see anything set up that looked even remotely like a poem. However, when I looked closer, I realized what I had originally thought to be prose were actually footnotes that corresponded with the few lines of poetry at the top of each page. These footnotes made poems that would have ideally been spaced out on one to two pages max, take up an average of six pages each. I knew that this would entail a rather difficult reading and started to mentally prepare myself, but even after doing that, I do not think I was successful in understanding what the poem was ideally about because even with all the footnotes, I felt as if they did not give me the right information. This I know is incorrect because why would any author not include what they actually mean to get across to the audience, therefore I know it is greatly my misunderstanding of the poems that is making it difficult for me to make sense of them.

The poem I largely focused on was “To Brooklyn Bridge.” I felt as if the poem had a very modern outlook compared to any of the other poems we have read, especially when it came to the hustle of the city. I personally thought this was a large metaphor to the fact that Hart Crane was homosexual. It almost seemed to me that he wished that the people around him were as modern about accepting his homosexuality as the city was in accepting the modern environment that had consumed it. I believe the only reason I even came to such a conclusion was because I did some research on Crane and came to realize he had committed suicide after being attacked for making sexual advances towards a male crew member on a boat. I know he did not write the poem after his death, but this sort of behavior must have followed him for a long time, which would highly influence his writing. Therefore, I deem it necessary to know when he wrote his poems to be able to better read and understand them.

Annotations vs Annotations

Last class when we broke off into small groups and discussed different passages of The Waste Land, as a group we agreed that the annotations did not really help the reader figure anything out because they would always reference a larger piece of literature-who is going to read a volume of another book to understand one line of the poem? The footnotes really did not help with comprehending the actual line being referenced to in the poem.

Similarly, in Hart Crane’s To the Brooklyn Bridge, the footnotes are and are not helpful. The footnotes are significantly longer and the language they are written in is more descriptive. They were easier to read and a little more helpful than the notes in The Waste Land. However, even though the footnotes are longer and explain the text more, I did not feel as though they really helped too much with my understanding of the reading. I feel that they were too long. The poem is maybe, not even, one fourth of the page and then the footnotes take up the rest of the page. I, honestly, felt like the footnotes were the main reading. I tended to forget to go back to the line I stopped at and finish reading the rest of the poem that was on that page.

After reading all of these readings with extensive footnotes, I feel that they really took away from the poem as opposed to aiding the readers in following the poem. I think footnotes in moderation would be exponentially more efficient.

Crane in Reference to Eliot

As I read “The Bridge”, one of my primary instincts was to compare it to “The Waste Land”, as the differences between them offered a unique perspective on Crane’s work.

Crane’s poem differed greatly from Eliot’s. Crane’s work is more of a cohesive: he refers back to many of the same poets (Whitman, Melville, Eliot, etc.), extends his metaphors, and I could have understood Crane’s work in lieu of my knowledge of the allusions. In Eliot’s work, the allusions seemed more obvious and their origins were identifiable – often times, direct words or overt symbols from other works were employed. While Crane’s allusions were more connected, I found them less obvious. This subtlety challenged me as used the footnotes. The footnotes often provided a personal interpretation of Crane’s work as opposed to simply a reference. I hesitate to criticize these commentaries, as I know far less about Crane than the students who wrote them. However, the footnotes seemed to be grasping at connections that weren’t necessarily there (or at least obvious to me).

I found some of these footnotes very revealing. The explanation in “Cutty Sark” relating Crane’s sea faring character to Ishmael of Moby Dick and the main character in Rime of the Ancient Mariner added depth to the work. Without the explanations of Columbus’s journey, “Ave Maria” would have been difficult to understand.

However, some footnotes added confusion; The related texts broke up the flow of my reading and interrupted a specific theme to refer back to another one. Sometimes the alluded source seemed to contradict one of Crane’s other sources.

Crane’s work had a much clearer narrative than Eliot’s, but I found Crane’s less enjoyable. The allusions weren’t a “riddle”; they were an enhancement – so I felt less accomplishment when I discovered their meaning.

The Footnotes: Questioning their Function

For some reason when I read this week’s footnotes, I kept comparing them to Eliot’s footnotes. The difficulty in Crane’s poem came from trying to discern between what was a good footnote and what was not.

Unlike Eliot’s footnotes, the footnotes from the students serve as an interpretation of the lines rather than an explanation of a particular reference. For example, footnote number four in “To Brooklyn Bridge” states “the imagery in this stanza may be taken to represent the Bridge as a latter-day Jacob’s ladder.” I wrestled with the notion that these student’s footnotes were interpretive. They seemed very “sparknote-y” to me, but then again what is the true purpose of the footnote? Footnotes in this style seemed to be reaching for meaning, by researching context and significance of images which are scattered throughout the sections.

On the other hand, it must be noted that a lot of the footnotes in “Ave Maria” do give us a lot of historical context. I found these actually less helpful than those that swayed more towards objective interpretation, because they left me to the task of interpreting the text. For example, footnote 4 in “Ave Maria” talks about Perez, who was Columbus attorney. It goes into details about his significance in Columbus’ voyage.

I just wrestled with the great variation in footnote style throughout the reading.

triumph and obscurity

All the footnotes we’ve read in the past week made it easier to read the poems at least in the sense that I know to not get distracted by them initially, to try and form my own thoughts about the poem independent from projected/implicit meaning that’s been over my head. The poems read as epic and evoked plenty of religious imagery, being identifiably majestic as well as subtle. I didn’t really know what to make of the poem To the Brooklyn Bridge until the final stanza. It made me think that Crane was circling around the idea that we are human and ordinary, but what we can create can be extraordinary, and that there is a sort of redemption in this. Though much of what has been created in modernity has eroded myth and divinity, not all hope is lost. Line 30: “(How could such mere toil align thy choiring strings)” furthers this point. The footnotes sometimes seem to make something of noting and I think that’s the biggest issue I have with them – it comes across as a desperate fishing for meaning, but then again the poet is an artist and art is always intentional, intricately so. I struggled to grasp the eroticism noted in footnote 14, needed footnote 6 to illuminate the suicide that has occurred, and footnote 12 helped paint a picture of private and public life cross-pollinating on site at the bridge. The earthly is connected to the celestial and spiritual, departing from Eliot’s The Waste Land, which was more experimental in terms of form, causing me to see Crane’s poetry as more assuring and less anxiety inducing, contributing to my overall sense of the poem as more optimistic about the time in which the poet lives.

To Brooklyn Bridge: A Balance Between Footnotes and Self Interpretation

The most difficult part of the poem involved deciphering what Crane means. Several examples come to mind: “inviolate curve” (5), “panoramic sleights” (9), “speechless caravan” (20), “harp and alter” (29). In some of these cases, the footnotes provide a possible interpretation, such as “speechless caravan” representing the heavy traffic or the “harp and alter” representing the lines and superstructure of a bridge.

The way I figured out “panoramic sleights”, and subsequently all other confusing terms, was using a combination of context and metaphorical thinking. The stanza talk about cinemas, so I assumed that the panoramic refers to the abundance of lights that would typically engulf an urban movie theater. “Sleight” may refer to the actual movie, describing it as deceptive or a form of trickery.

It is worthwhile to comment on the footnotes in this case because the poem is so heavily annotated. In most cases, the annotations helped clarify what Crane meant. For example, it would be difficult to decipher “Down Wall” into “Wall Street”. On the other hand, understanding the reference to the Old Testament, which is discussed in footnote 10, might hold little meaning if the complete significance of the story is unclear.

It is also interesting to note that many of the footnotes are questionable in the objectivity. For example, in footnote 11, the bridge’s engineering is described as triumphant. The line “O harp and altar, of the fury fused” could simply refer to the sturdiness or quality of workmanship of the structure rather than a direct reference to the tension lines of the bridge. This illustrates what I believe to be a common problem with excessive footnotes: the incorporation of emotion into an analysis where it is not warranted.

1 2