Reflective Essay on "Ostentatious" Poems

"Chasing the Baroness: Editing Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven's 'Ostentatious'" by Jennifer Gavin

(View "Ostentatious")

If I get it wrong she will haunt me in Technicolor. Initially curious, tentative, then with an increasing note of uneasiness, I leaf through originals of "Ostentatious" and wonder, how do I edit this poem, with its loud, juicy celebration of the senses? I peruse the cart in Hornbake's Rare Book Room, looking for answers. I find bizarre visuals, descriptions of the baroness's exotic travels and outlandish behavior, along with versions of her other poetry, all of them bursting, multi-layered, complex—yet open and impressionistic. The baroness, wearing household appliances, shrieks with mirth as she simultaneously does a bizarre dance in homage to the chandelier and laughs at my attempts to pinpoint her. In the haunted quiet of the library, nobody around me seems to notice this. I resent the person at the next table over, absorbed in what I am sure is a two-dimensional study and scratching away productively on his canary pad with a sharpened pencil. I look for insight, hoping the baroness will speak to the meaning of the poem and how it is to be presented. While she becomes more and more flamboyant, she remains simultaneously aloof and silent on the subject of "Ostentatious" and how I am to proceed, yet more complex and multi-layered the more I research. I am now frantic. I fear the consequences. Martha Nell Smith records the wrath of Emily Dickinson, who felt that punctuational and typographical tampering were misrepresenting her poetry (Smith). Indeed one is aware that we are working with the sacred: Bowers was right when he described editing as a daunting task. What was Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven doing? Is it my place to decide? Not only do I think, how do I, but I also wonder, how dare I? Who am I? The only thing I am certain of is that editorial theory is not for the faint of heart.

The baroness, wearing household appliances, shrieks with mirth as she simultaneously does a bizarre dance in homage to the chandelier and laughs at my attempts to pinpoint her.

Since further research into these works (attributed to a literary movement which defied traditional artistic and literary meaning) evades answers, I go back to the gurus of editorial theory looking for a solution. "Ostentatious" does not seem to fit into the realm of "one best text," because this work is modern; we have all known originals to work with. Bowers, then, places emphasis on one single text, that which best reflects the author's original intent. In this case, the author's latest intent has had the opportunity of the baroness's reflection over time, as recorded by the four versions which came after the original. These later editions are not afterthoughts, but appear to be signs of the poem's organic evolution. Later versions record the emergence of a spatially elegant and dazzling poem celebrating senses at which the first version hints. Von Freytag-Loringhoven experiments in later versions with ink colors and spatial arrangement, the results which are displayed on the latest known version.

Because the school of W.W. Greg and Bowers presents a partial solution in that it does acknowledge authorial intent which can be portrayed in one version, I keep referring to it mentally as I considered McGann's theory of versioning. Should I present all known versions of the "Ostentatious" and leave the melee for the reader to sift through? Is it a shirking of responsibility to present all versions in their known forms? The audience for a variorum of "Ostentatious" would be those who are already familiar with von Freytag-Loringhoven's persona and work, who wish to study the evolution of the text and the writing process. The baroness is not yet published and, because through the course of English 601 I have come to see authorship as a complex, interactive social mode, I decide that the audience for this version of "Ostentatious" will be those who are unfamiliar with the baroness, her work, and would be less concerned at this point about textual variants.

Thus one decision leads to a plethora of other decisions in the editing process. Stephen Ratcliffe emphasizes the importance of writing's visual quality, saying that a poem's "sound/shape articulates meaning," and as I apply this theory to the most dramatically shaped version of "Ostentatious," I find it to be true and earnestly adhering to the poem's theme (1). Because it is a poem which embraces the world of sensory impressions, I decide to stick as closely as possible to the visual presentation. The baroness's elegant handwriting loses its flavor when I transcribe it in Times New Roman block capitals, for then it seems as if she is overly insistent or aggravated, therefore I choose a font which most closely resembles her handwriting. The spacing is also important in this edition because, not only are her letters spread out in an ethereal manner, but the stanzas on the page work with the idea of the expansive, all-consuming EASTWARD and WESTWARD in the poem, central to its main idea.

This edition of "Ostentatious," therefore, does not mark an adherence to any one of the theories we have discussed, but does present one version. Using the latest version as the base text, I have made some slight modifications for a sensory presentation. I kept the green punctuation because the poem is so visually vibrant and "ULTRAMARINE" that I wanted to retain the poem's sense of color. I removed the off-centered stanza that was blotted out in black ink with the idea that the last stanza, being the thoroughfare that runs through the poem (and runs directly between the "EASTWARD" and "WESTWARD"), is the axis around which the poem balances. If I were to replace the off-center blotting with the stanza itself, and without accurate spacing, the poem will lose balance, spin off its axis, and be flung away from the "THOUROUGHFARE" which is not only the last word of the poem, but also the metaphysical center of the poem and central to its meaning. I had to decide that this thoroughfare doubles as firstly, the road of communication between the author's world and how it is perceived and rejoiced by her senses and secondly, the road of communication between the "AGOG" author and the person with whom she is communing physically.

I studied the punctuation carefully and almost made an error. Because there are variants in punctuation (and, in one version, an absence of punctuation), I had first read "LIMBSWISH" as "LIMB'S WISH." This would be in keeping with the poem's trend of personifying an object (often in nature) and attributing it with possessive ownership, as in "FALL'S BUGLE SKY," "DAY'S STEELBLAST GALAXY," and "SHE-MOON'S CHEEKFLUSHED TRAVESTY." I decided, however, that even after the baroness had gone back over "OSTENTATIOUS" after it was written to add punctuation (as indicated by punctuation in a different color), there must have been a reason why there was no apostrophe in any of the five versions. It was then that I read "LIMSWISH" as "LIMB SWISH," which is in keeping with the poem's auditory sense indicated in the musicality of "BUGLE SKY" and the "SAXOPHONE DAY'S/STEELBLAST." One must tread lightly indeed.

I added a period at the end of the poem, since a period was present in the previous three versions. I added a "B" to "LIMSWISH", operating on the assumption that "LIMSWISH" is a misspelling of "limbswish" as it appears in the previous four versions. I look over my shoulder to see if she minds, but while I sense her hovering in an outlandish get-up involving silver spoons and a disgruntled puppy, I only see my studious and annoyingly productive neighbor at the next table over. His author probably left specific instructions. The more I learn, however, I realize that rarely do such easy answers exist.

All of these decisions are painstaking and I feel it acutely. Now that some of the difficult decisions have been made, I wonder, does the reader have to know all of this? How heavily should this poem be annotated? Wolfgang Iser says that the reader fills in the gaps in reading (293). His ideas lead me to believe that the poem itself, highly impressionistic, should stand on its own for the reader I have in mind, with a minimum of interference on my part. The biography comes after the poem itself, once the impression has been made upon the reader. The textual notes define certain words, particularly those which may have changed in connotation since the time of the baroness's utterance, so I have given the reader a sense of what these words meant at the time of composition. Wanting the reader to be aware of the depth of the poem, however, I have also added two hints in the footnotes because I wanted the reader to consider the poem not only for its impression, but for its depth. I did not want to present a binding detailed explication, but I did want the poem to be liberated by suggestions to the imagination of the reader, suggestions which could lead to further thought and interpretation or dismissal.

I found this project difficult and uplifting; there were moments when I thought that everything I know is wrong, then there were frightening and joyful moments when I caught a glimpse of the baroness in her splendor and glory. Editorial theory is more intellectually complicated and morally soul-searching than it appears initially. Editors are hidden Atlases, invisible laborers shouldering the world of the author's work so that others may see it. Bowers is right in his admiration for the courage that editing requires. It is like Dadaism itself: sometimes there are no answers. There are, however, extremely educated, painstaking decisions, along with an end result that one hopes will satisfy and inspire one's reader. I inhale deeply, embracing the streusels and trumpets that bombard the air in glorious cacophony.

Works Cited

von Freytag-Loringhoven, Baroness Elsa. Ostentatious. Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven Papers: I, 1; II,1; III,1-4; IV,1. Archives and Manuscripts Department. University of Maryland Libraries.

Iser, Wolfgang. Interaction Between Text and Reader. The Book History Reader. Ed. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery. New York: Routledge, 2002.

The Socialization of Texts. The Book History Reader. Ed. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery. New York: Routledge, 2002. 39-46.

Ratcliffe, Stephen. Listening to Reading. Albany: SUNY Press, 2000.

Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992. 11-49.

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