The undergraduate classroom might seem like the last place to introduce students to archival materials. We have so many other commitments—to coverage of historical periods, to literary interpretation and theory, to improving student writing—that it might seem like an extra activity that might simply take up too much class time. However, students can and should learn about the cultural conventions that affect the transmission of texts, and I would argue that their close readings of these texts is actually central to their understanding of what poems, plays, and short stories are and how they work. Reading various versions of a text can actually get undergraduates—and teachers—to work toward a clearer and more effective definition of close reading. The results of my students’ research consistently demonstrate that textual studies can actually inspire close reading and help students generate the questions that they can use in a variety of literature courses.
Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” is one of the most famous poems of the twentieth century. It also provides us with a short, easy way into discussing archival materials. This is how the poem appears in most literature:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Immediately, students are engaged with the poem. The title locates us in Paris in the early 1900s, when the Metro system was still a wonderful and terrifying new symbol of modernity. The students are haunted by the “apparition” of the faces, stuck underground like the ghosts of the dead. And they like the surprising comparison between these ghostly faces and the petals on a bough. They see the commentary on the alienation of the modern metropolis. Formally, they can recognize Ezra Pound’s debt to the Japanese haiku tradition (and, as Ezra Pound wrote in his essay titled “Vorticism,” this poem is indebted to the haiku tradition), and the poems mathematical precision: the equation between faces and petals, the loose iambic pentameter of each line.
In fact, this poem is so accessible—or at least it seems to be—that it’s easy to forget that it is the result of a variety of editorial decisions, and that the transmission of the text across time actually transformed the poem. This is how the poem looked when it was first published in 1913, in Poetrymagazine (To see the original 1913 publication of Pound’s poem, you can go to this link on the Poetry Foundation website: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse/2/1#20569747):
IN A STATION OF THE METRO
The apparition of these faces in the crowd :
Petals on a wet, black bough .
In this version, the title is boldly announced in all caps, the poet’s name appears just beneath the text, and the poem itself seems to be deeply concerned with innovations in typography and design. In this context, the words are transformed by the use of white space between them; and by the change from a semicolon to a colon. With a semicolon, Pound joins two independent ideas, but with this use of the colon, Pound suggests that the second line is an appositive, or description, of the first.
In class, we discuss the tiny differences between these two versions, and I ask students which version they like best—not which is best—and I don’t tell them which version has actually become the standard version that appears in literature anthologies until the very end of the class period. As they work through each version, they have to pay attention to the tiny, seemingly superficial choices in layout and punctuation that they might overlook in a reading of just one version in our anthology. In doing so, they are engaging in a critical discussion, even if they don’t know it yet. In recent years, bibliographical scholars have shown how such “accidentals” as punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and overall typographical design contribute to meaning in significant ways. In this example from Ezra Pound, students see that these choices in appearance are indeed substantive, even emotional.
[This post originally appeared on LitBits on November 2, 2011.]]