Reflective Essay on "In the Midst" Poems

"On Editing the Baroness's 'In the Midst'" by Alice Ko

(View "In The Midst")

The process of creating a "scholarly" edition of one of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven's poems was truly a challenge. To be honest, simply deciding what kind of edition to create was one of the hardest parts of the whole experience. Flipping through Greetham's Textual Scholarship was not overly helpful, since he has a tendency to focus on texts that come in fancy scripts and old variants of the English language – creating a parallel old and modern English spelling edition clearly was not an option; likewise, the differences in various versions of the poem were not substantial enough to warrant a parallel-text edition. I made a brief foray into the world of genetic editing, but soon realized that my grasp of editorial marks and conventions was far too limited to even begin to try to relate the various levels of the Baroness's editing processes in a single document (without rendering the entire document unreadable). Once I had made the decision to take a hybrid approach (combining a genetic presentation of transcriptions with a clear-text version of the poem with an inclusive text apparatus), then I had to deal with all the other issues that came with the task, such as capitalization, font effects, and how to present things in a textual apparatus.

In his examination of postmodern poetry, Jerome McGann describes how important form and composition are to the meaning of this "new" poetry, where "[t]ypography and layout are not simply devices ‘to tell how the voice should sound,' they are poetic resources adaptable to many uses" (McGann, 98).

At first, I was tempted to regularize the text of the poem. I spent some time looking at sans serif fonts, trying to see if any of them worked better than Lucida Sans, particularly with lower case letters. (I made yet another failed attempt at trying to figure out how to make minuscule letters the same height as majuscule letters, still wanting very much to recreate the Baroness's mixed case handwriting.) Then I started reading some of the assigned texts from this past semester and realized that regularization would never work. It was uncanny, how many of my concerns seemed reflected in much of the reading. One of my worries was about whether or not to capitalize the beginnings of lines. Given the Baroness's tendency to punctuate lines with dashes, there was rarely any clear sense of whether or not a thought was closed or merely pausing. Reading Martha Nell Smith's opinion on regularizing Emily Dickinson's poetry further confirmed the doubts I had regarding the "punctuation" of lines:

Though ... [translating Dickinson's] oddly angled marks as dashes may be "mistaken" in leveling many different marks into one kind of representation, [Smith is] not so confident about what Dickinson would have intended for typeface. Whether one holds that ... [Dickinson] would have opted to translate her marks into commas and periods, or, ... straighten them into dashes, one limits conceptions of Dickinson's intentions to the forms and conventions of mechanical reproduction (Smith, 14).

Particularly given the fact that the Baroness's editorial changes often involved merely the addition or reposition of dashes, I suspect that any determination on my part of whether or not the dashes "mean" closure or a brief interruption would probably be considered presumptuous. Yet, at the same time, the requirements of many publications (including this one) are by necessity limited "to the forms and conventions of mechanical reproduction." Even on the Internet, where images of manuscripts can be scanned, there are issues of image compression and resolution. Unless we want to handle fragile manuscripts until they crumble, "mechanical reproduction" is probably our best option. Nevertheless, that quote certainly gave me pause – and prompted me to forgo any attempts to configure a "pattern" of capitalization based on the Baroness's dashes, whether in the form of capital letters used with lower case letters, or by using "large" caps with "small" caps.

As stated above, the issue of capitalization in the Baroness's poems goes beyond merely deciding whether or not to capitalize after various forms of punctuation. Speaking of Emily Dickinson's manuscripts, Amy Clampitt "declares that ‘there's something about the way those words go racing across the page, and yet with spaces between them, that changes your idea of everything you've read before ... The handwriting is fierce'" (qtd. in Smith, 17). If that can be said about Dickinson's manuscripts, the same is emphatically true about the manuscripts of von Freytag-Loringhoven. With her thick-nib fountain pens and dramatic lettering (I am constantly reminded of your remark regarding the Baroness's all caps handwriting – that that was probably the way she spoke), there is certainly a force to her manuscripts that is lost in the regularization of her poems into upper case and lower case letters. Even reproducing the effect of all capital letters, the sheer regularity of the computer's fonts takes much of the life force from the Baroness's words. Unable to reproduce some of the most distinctive features of her hand, such as the delta-shaped letter A's and the lower case N's and M's that hold as prominent a place as any of the capital letters, I realized the extent to which the limits of "mechanical reproduction" sterilized the form of manuscripts.

In his examination of postmodern poetry, Jerome McGann describes how important form and composition are to the meaning of this "new" poetry, where "[t]ypography and layout are not simply devices ‘to tell how the voice should sound,' they are poetic resources adaptable to many uses" (McGann, 98). Citing the works of one such postmodern poet, McGann explains how Susan Howe "who spent the first part of her artistic life working as a painter – tends to see the page as a visual artist sees it" and relates her work to that of writers such as Gertrude Stein for whom "the composition of the page is its explanation" (McGann, 102). Furthering the connection between poets and other kinds of artists, McGann writes:

So far I have been emphasizing the analogy between "composition" as it concerns the typographer and "composition" as it concerns the visual artist. Another analogy is possible, however, and has been equally important. "Composition" is an activity of musicians, and the printed page may equally be produced as a kind of musical score, or set of directions for the audition of verse and voice (McGann, 83).

I am particularly interested in McGann's statements about a visual artist's conception of the page and poetry, since von Freytag-Loringhoven was originally trained in art school, and remained involved in the world of art for most of her life, modeling for art studios, and being involved in the Dada movement. Knowing that many of her poems were written on sheets with drawings on them, one would suspect that the Baroness had a keen appreciation of the visual aspect of things, which makes it even harder to try and "regularize" her works. Even if we cannot see that the visual effect of her poetry contains any inherent meaning, the difference in presentation between the handwritten manuscript and the typed edition is drastic enough that any potential meaning in the visual aspect of the poem would be lost. Following the idea that "the composition of a page is its explanation," I have been very careful to include my transcriptions of the poem as a part of the edition so that readers can get an idea of the genetic development and composition of the work; similarly, that is why I suggest including a scanned image of the original manuscript in any final version of the edition. There is a distinct sense that the spatial aspect of her poetry (see how she often changes the layout of her poem simply by breaking up lines and adding or deleting dashes) matters, and an original image of the manuscript would provide the best sense of how this visual aspect changed throughout the numerous edits.

Finally, I needed to justify my choice to include the inclusive text apparatus in conjunction with the genetic presentation of transcriptions and versions. By including the inclusive apparatus listing "variants," I was suggesting that there was a "final" version, in spite of the emphasis of a genetic edition on the version development of a text. Nevertheless, the evidence provided in the manuscripts certainly suggested that the Baroness felt that one version of the poem was more "final" and complete than the other versions. Using the "C" text as the final, clear-text version was a decision made based on the fact that that copy of the poem was free of editorial marks, as well as the only version of the poem that as signed. Looking at the development of the manuscript versions of the poem also supports the idea that the "C" text is the final version of the text, as there is a constant progression toward the final version, with penciled comments on the version with the most editorial changes (version "A") reflecting changes to the original text that made it onto the final version. Having decided to take the brave step of presenting a "final" version, the challenge of clearly presenting the textual variants in the apparatus began. Given the intensely "visual" effect of the Baroness's insertions, deletions, and other editorial decisions, placing the variants in a textual chart that demanded brevity and organization was very difficult, as evidenced by the constantly changing styles in my apparatus.

This scholarly edition is a dedicated and careful start to a final edition of the Baroness's poem. Although much time and effort has been spent on creating this project, I have no illusions as to the many deficiencies present in the edition. There are no contextual glosses (due mainly to the fact that I was unable to figure out a way to include yet another apparatus that did not appear awkward in an edition of such limited scope), or references from the OED. There are many instances in the textual apparatus where variant designations are unclear and irregular. The main shortcoming of this edition is its inconsistency – the attempt to produce a coherent product based on limited experience and knowledge has resulted in an unevenness that could, perhaps, be remedied with a little more time and experience. Perhaps beginning with as unconventional an artist as the Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven may have played a factor in the level of difficulty I found in completing this project. As stressful and difficult as I found the project, however, I cannot deny that it was certainly a learning experience.

Works Cited

McGann, Jerome. Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.

Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

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