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This report is taken from PN Review 251, Volume 46 Number 3, January - February 2020.

Footnotes in Songs and Poems William Poulos
The average scholarly edition of a Shakespeare play looks something like this:
Romeo1: But soft!2 What3 light4 through yonder5 window breaks?6

Below a passage (or even a line) you’ll find footnotes explaining obscure words, historical context and literary allusions. Unhappy being confined to the bottom of the page, the empire of footnotes now usually colonises at least half of it, and it’s not that rare to find a page with more notes than text. Sometimes these notes are helpful; sometimes they’re crucial to understanding the passage. Sometimes they’re bewildering, and after reading them I discover I know less about a passage than I did before.

That song lyrics don’t come with notes is a mixed blessing. Most of the time, though, they don’t need them. The lyrics of, say, Gershwin, Porter, even Morrissey at his most pseudo-literary, don’t need explaining because they are drawn from common experience rather than the annals of literature. An obscure word or an allusion can be a nice ornament because it isn’t the driving force of the song. Songwriters, in fact, know that their audience isn’t going to look anything up, so they ensure the context clarifies any obscurities. Now that we have many scientists contributing to public discussions, one would expect more scientific vocabulary to appear in songs and poems, but despite some notable exceptions, such as Stephen Edgar, few poets have yet been able to integrate a scientific vocabulary into a poem that’s widely read and recited. Where William Empson failed, Tim Minchin succeeded. Minchin’s brilliant song ‘You Grew on Me’ is ...

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