This is excerpted from a long essay I'm currently writing. Please drop me a line to tell me what you think, particularly if you have any ideas about what I should be reading/researching. I'm planning on including a section in the essay about famous marginal notes/annotations, such as Blake's annotations of Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Thanks for reading.
In college, I was a big fan of used books. A first-generation college student, I never had very much money. So, I always tried to register early. This way, I could get to the bookstore early, too. I combed the used books, looking for the best copies, the least-tarnished and annotated copies. As a freshman and sophomore, I worried what people would think about overly-abused texts. I wanted to fit in, not stand out. Plus, I wanted to be the one who wrote the formula for the quadratic equation in the margin of my algebra textbook, not some unnamed freshman who came before me.
However, as I entered my upper-division courses in literature and languages, I found that my habits changed. I looked for books with annotations. I wanted the books that had copious notes written in the margins. I remember finding a well-used copy of – Romanticism anthology. That semester, I was assigned a long essay on Shelley’s “Adonais.” My tastes were distinctly 20th century. I favored Eliot and Yeats, Frost and Stevens. I found much Romantic poetry inscrutable, too concerned with flowery diction and the elevation of the self. I must confess, too, that I was a rather lazy student who hadn’t yet developed a taste for wrangling with a text and teasing out the various meanings of a poem.
Whoever owned that Romanticism book before me had heavily annotated “Adonais,” and those annotations helped me as I read the poem. I read it again and again, slowly adding my own notes beneath and beside the ones that were already there. The previous owner had helped me with the poem. His or her notes provided the scaffold on which I built my own meaning. I don’t remember how well I scored on that essay (probably not too well). I do, however, remember those notes. And I remember the strange feeling that in some way, I was having a conversation with the previous owner about Shelley’s poem.
As I advanced through my undergraduate days, I became an inveterate annotator. I’m ashamed to admit that at times, I even wrote in library books. I wasn’t, however, the only one who did so. I had a distinct rule: if the previous patron had annotated the book, then I felt license to do so, as well. When I did write in library books, I always used a thin-leaded mechanical pencil. In an American authors class I took under Dr. Carlos Dews at the University of West Florida, I read my way through all the required Tennessee Williams’ plays, each one a loaner from the campus library. Likely, my notes may still be in some of those books, thin, light words and thin lines joining sections of the text. Whenever I turned the books back in, I never erased the annotations. I hoped that another reader might find some use in them.
Only when I began teaching as a graduate assistant did I see the true value of annotating. In writing those notes, I wasn’t merely explaining the text to myself. In the act of annotation, I was writing a new text composed of the original text and my writing. I didn’t read Tom Phillips' A Humament until much later in my scholarly life, but I think the comparison holds. Just as A Humament is a “treated” text, so the poems in the X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia-edited An Introduction to Poetry become my own “treatments.”
I always found a lot of joy in annotating a poem. I remember sitting in the graduate student offices at the university, conferencing with students over short essays they were composing for my class. Their assignment: analyze a sonnet, paying particular attention to the way that the strict form of the poem informs the poem’s content. A young woman was sitting with me, one of my students who was completely confused about John Donne’s “Unholy Sonnet XIV,” “Batter my heart, three-personed God.”
I opened my text to the poem and put my finger on the poem. “Right here,” I said, about to make what I thought was an important point about the text.
“Wow,” she said. “I sure wish I had your book.”
I looked down at the poem, now scored over with my own black pen (I preferred and still prefer to write in ball-point pens with fine tips). My circles and lines connected parts of the poem. My notes and half-sentences ran up and down the poem’s side. I’d circled parts of the title. My chest swelled a little with pride. This was how a professor was supposed to read. I was struck by an odd fact: the student was more impressed with my annotations than she was with Donne’s powerful words.
O for a muse of fire,