Editors and other mediators and re-mediators . . .

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I am not nearly as media-savvy as some of the contributors to this blog (Crystal and Roger and Katherine have reaffirmed for me my old-fogey-dom at the same time that they have taught me a lot!).  But I can say with conviction that my undergraduates so far this year have seemed to be at their very best when I ask them to think about Romantic poetry in relation to a Romantic-period history of media, mediation, and re-mediation. Is this the case for other visitors to this blog?

One of the most successful class sessions we had in fall term was on ballad-collecting and on the Tour to Scotland that William and Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge took in 1803--a session that resulted in an energetic discussion of the Romantic period’s nostalgia for poetry as sonic experience and the Romantics’ awareness of the gains and the losses involved as sung and chanted ballads were re-mediated as printed artifacts. This past week, as we began the second term of our year-long course with the poetry of John Clare, mediation has once more come  to be at issue, and our discussions have once again been wonderfully energetic and thoughtful. I from the get-go have stressed the controversies that attend on the presentation in print of those poems of Clare’s that in manuscript tend to flout the conventions for standard English orthography punctuation. (And I have taken pains in designing the reading assignments for these two weeks  to give the class various editors’ versions of the poems--Eric Robinson’s, vs. Jonathan Bate’s, vs  J. W. Tibble’s.)  The flashpoint for those controversies is, of course, readers’ ambivalence about the role in the production of our reading matter that is played by that mediator and middleman (or middle-woman), the editor.

The  intensity of the students’ engagement with these topics makes sense, I think, because (as the students in ENG308Y were themselves quick to recognize) they themselves have a stake in the controversies over the editing of Clare as well as in the controversies over copyright in the manuscript material that have become entangled with those debates about editorial practice. Clare’s corpus is a work in progress, and they sense that they can shape that progress. I have the advantage, too, that as some one who is preparing a new selection of Clare poems for the 9th edition of the Norton Anthology I can talk about the choices I’ve had to make as I’ve punctuated, or not puncutated, and the sleepless nights I’ve experienced after making my decisions. This generation of students seem interested by just the issues of textual criticism that to previous generations might have felt like a distraction. I half suspect that this is because they are so aware that their schooling is happening at a moment of media shift, when the relations among print artifacts, digital text, digital sound files are being unsettled and rearranged.

Let me give an example of some of the moments in discussion when students made connections that indicated that awareness.  In the class session last term in which we treated ballad-collecting and Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper” we got a lot of mileage from the passage in James Hogg’s Familiar Anecdotes of Sir Walter Scott when he listens in on his mother’s response to Scott’s ballad-collecting:

there war never ane o' my sangs prentit till ye prentit them yoursel', an' ye hae spoilt them awthegither.  They were made for singing an' no for reading; but ye hae broken the charm now, an' they'll never sung mair.  An' the worst thing of a', they're nouther right spell'd nor right setten down.

When we talked about this moment my students came up with some terrific analogies for the problem: recording artists who thwart their audiences’ desires for lyric sheets, for instance. The recent project of a colleague here at Toronto, Andrew Dubois, coeditor of the recent The Anthology of Rap for Yale U.P., has been much in my mind as I’ve thought about why it feels so right for us right now to zero in on this aspect of Romantic culture-- odd as it is to think of Margaret Laidlaw as a forerunner of Chuck D!

P.S. Re. my December post:  I still haven’t prepared those slides of my own note on poems--embarrassment about handwriting , not to mention about my proclivity for statements of the obvious, has been holding me back!

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