A piece in the NYT‘s “Weekly Review” by James Collins on not outliving one’s office supplies began by quoting Eliot’s “Little Giddings,” one of the Four Quartets, the last and posthumously published poems by T. S. I was not familiar with the poems and so, it being Primavera, I went to Perkins Library to check it out. The sole copy available is an exceedingly worn first edition (1943), spine repaired with book tape and its pages some of the most heavily annotated, defaced, tortured, marginalia’ed I’d ever seen. Here is the Angst of at least seven discernible hands (if my paleography is correct), crazed graduate students, bleary-eyed undergraduates, and perhaps a dutiful girlfriend helping her harried boyfriend, all trying to pull meaning from this verse the past seventy years.
Much has been written about marginalia, that study of reader’s commentary in the blank portions of (mostly medieval) texts. It’s a form of public feed-back, crowd-sourcing-before-crowdsourcing. When I was a graduate student, library book marginalia annoyed me. I didn’t care if a reader ten years earlier thought the paragraph at hand was Kopros. Dutiful English word translations of the foreign quotations were always handy–though I usually quibbled with the German. Today I take a tenderer view. Those poor English majors, today working in the family business or those literature Ph.D.’s now high school principals, never having had their say on Eliot in any public forum, except in Duke’s sole copy of the Four Quartets.
The more I looked at these comments the more the pages appeared as art. Circles and arrows resembling David Cutcliffe’s diagram for an end around. Fragmentary thoughts: “different emotional tone,” “epic simile,” “See BN III [and then circled] The way down.” The ‘way down’, indeed. If Julian Schnabel’s canvases can be considered art, this must qualify, too. So much of Eliot was devoted to recalling old texts (“can these dry bones speak?”). How rich the layers upon layers of phrases–and what else is poetry but perhaps that very thing, forming a new text, a nearly different one from the original, without the palimpsest erasures?
Assuming some of this annotation is contemporary to the publication date, the earliest responders are likely dead. All are gone from this place in North Carolina. What I once saw (and am professionally required to see) as defacement, I find now as monument. Like the graffito left by Goths during the sack of Rome.
I’ll let you figure out the ‘secret’ of this blog’s title, purportedly written in the men’s room of Faber & Faber, where the poet was employed.