Footnotes in history

I think the world is all fucked up in many ways (see footnotes)

So writes Bernadette Mayer, in her poem Ode on Periods. The footnotes are non-existent: there are none at the bottom of the poem. She continues, I’ve nothing at all to say but to exercise / my freedom to speak about everything. I love Mayer’s subversion. The flip she makes by moving the marginal (yes, this is a poem about menstruation) to the centre of the page, and relegating the ‘world’ and all its (fucked up) problems to a footnote (one she doesn’t even bother to write).

Her poem suggests that footnotes are extraneous to the main idea, but also are a zone of multiplicity – they can hold ‘the many ways’. Footnotes are vast and tiny at the same time. (A bit like a magic charm – a hag-stone you can hold in your hand, an evil-eye trinket pinned to the inside of your shirt, protecting from unquantifiable harm).

Footnotes are notes placed at the bottom of a page. They cite references or comment on a designated part of the text above it.

Footnotes are not just for interesting comments, however. Sometimes they simply refer to relevant sources –

What are footnotes? [1]

During the course of the project, one thing I’ve been investigating is how poets writing in response to history credit their sources. How do we prove that we’re writing about ‘real stuff that really happened’? Footnotes tell the reader that the author is not just making things up. Journalist Adam Hochschild advises:

…readers may assume that you’re inventing things. It’s important to show that you aren’t, that every crucial detail – especially every quote – has a source.[2]

Footnotes, I discover, were invented for the purpose of history-writing:

The footnote in its modern form seems to have been devised in the seventeenth century, as part of an effort to counter skepticism about the possibility of attaining knowledge about the past. [3]

Does a poet, like a historian, need to demonstrate proof of their ‘knowledge about the past’?  If so, how do historical poets, like or unlike historians, credit their sources? What kinds of source-notes do historical poets use? How do footnotes / source notes / endnotes interact with the poem? Do they ‘spoil’ the poem? What poems are out there, using footnotes?

I find many examples of poets working with history who use endnotes, which sit unobtrusively at the close of a book. The note doesn’t interfere with the look and effect of the poem. When I add a historical footnote to one of my poems, my colleagues feel it tampers with the mystery of the poem-world, explaining it away, pricking it’s bubble. So endnotes are a good solution for hiding yet crediting sources, and one I’m tempted by.

But sometimes, I don’t just want to feel in a poem, I want to think. I find myself hooked in by poetry collections that foreground their historical sources. The footnote (sidenote/sourcenote) becomes part of the visual world of the poem on the page. Here are a couple of stand-out examples: 

In Ormonde, Hannah Lowe tells the story of a ship that is a footnote in history – the forgotten ‘first ship’ that arrived in the UK from Jamaica before the Empire Windrush:

What I Know, from Ormonde, by Hannah Lowe

Her footnote to the poem What I Know, is literally a footnote from a history text (from Bloody Foreigners, by Robert Winder, see above). Lowe says “All I can do is emphasise that this is a work of fiction, with its origins in fact.[4]

In Famished, Cherry Smyth collages together multiple sources alongside and within her poems – combining lyrical poetry with statistics, quotes, newspaper cuttings, snippets of conversation and even nursery rhymes [5] –  to tell the story of the Irish Famine (and continuing anti-Irish prejudice):

extract from Famished, by Cherry Smyth

A polemic, in the model of Claudia Rankine’s collage-like Citizen, I love the texture of Smyth’s book, and how it is weighty with evidence that works with the poetry to inform, move and devastate. It pushes me to consider how my varied history-of-witchcraft sources may be incorporated into the pages of my poems.

To immerse ourselves in the history of witchcraft, Poppy and I have not only been looking at the primary sources, but reading academic articles. This has been a joy and a brain-shock.[6] Reading a particularly dense article … I find my eyes straying to the footnotes. They are bite-sized. They are distracting. Something about their small font is appealing. They give my eyes a little rest from the main body of text and my mind a little rest from its argument.[7] The footnotes remind me of one of my children, pulling on my sleeve and whispering in my ear, while I’m trying to conduct a serious conversation with an adult. Footnotes sometimes feel like the best bits. Not just offering ‘proof’, they often seem to hold hanging questions for which the author doesn’t (quite) have an answer. They don’t synthesise. You can probably psychoanalyse a writer by their footnotes.

In ‘The Fine Art of the Footnote’, Jonathan Russell Clark discusses:

…the dynamic of footnotes, which create dual narratives that are experienced, as much as is possible, simultaneously.[8]

He argues that footnotes have an authority of their own, because they are given a separate space. I like this two-things-at-once nature of footnotes:  authorising and destabilising the text. A supporting act, and a niggle. In this, and in its brevity [9], the work of the footnote reminds me of the poem. Harriet Tarlo says,

Poetry, unlike critical thought, is adept at performing ‘both / and / and’ [10]

Two last poets, using footnotes to experimental effect. Ocean Vuong’s Seventh Circle of Earth is a blank-page poem comprised only of footnotes, written in response to a horrific homophobic crime (scroll down for the poem here). He says:

I hope that the form speaks, enacts, also, that for those in the margins who are perennially silenced, the footnote can be a place one gets to tell one’s story. That because the main stage has been obliterated does not mean all hope of speech is lost. And perhaps taking over the primary space is not the only method, and that changing or charging the forgotten space, the after-thought, with new power is also a subversive possibility.[11]

While Mayer moves periods out of the margins and onto the main page, Vuong’s subversive act is to inhabit the footnotes.

Here is Nathan Penlington’s ‘annotated silence’ [12]:

There’s no certainty, but I read this as an unrequited love poem – it has no content. It’s all about what is present in what is lacking.

What might these adventurous forms offer to creative writing about witchcraft and history? Magic, it has been said, is the refusal of an explanation. Poetry too, is adept at sitting with mystery. Adept, like magic, at an otherwise kind of knowing. The footnote is in good company with magic and poetry, with all its but-ing and and-ing. Playing with footnotes, I might demonstrate visually how my work collaborates with its historical sources; undermining the explanation, adding, exploring…

Author’s experiment with incorporating the form of the footnote into her poetry, Jan 2019

And, something else: this week, I collated Will’s notes on witchcraft incidents in Paris and made a note of all the people involved:

Witchcraft in Paris 1790-1940: Cast of Characters

Beggar-woman, fortune-teller, Swiss maid, thief, two servants, murderer, road-mender, police, victims, brother-in-law, secret society of elites, fortune tellers, spell casters, married couple, greengrocers, witches, husband, customer, mad-woman, gypsy-witch, wife, occultist, professional magician, Breton servant, cook, Hungarian Count, former friend, concierge, lover, daughter, mother, coach driver, employer, doctor, spouse, pharmacist, loup-garou, Italian maid, mistress, unwitcher, child, Hindu prince, bailiff, Haitian man, African man, French man, fraudster.

The list is mundane, with a spattering of the marvellous. Of course, the loup-garou (werewolf) occupies many narratives, but what of the road-mender or the bailiff? Caught up in the criminal repercussions of witchcraft, such people are largely absent from, let alone ‘mere footnotes in’, history.[13] One of my aims is to put these people on the page – to annotate silence.

Thanks to Hannah Lowe, Cherry Smyth and Nathan Penlington for permission to reproduce their poems.

Poetry and Footnotes Bibliography

Here are relevant poetry collections or single poems Ive discovered. Id love to hear of any more

The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx – Tara Bergin

The Body: an Essay – Jenny Boully

Anne Carson (lots of her work…)

If you look closely enough at a word, you’ll find it contains its opposite* – Stephanie Gray

Ormonde – Hannah Lowe

XQ281 – Jennifer Martenson

Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov

Darwin: A Life in Poems – Ruth Padel

‘annotated silence’ – Nathan Penlington

Famished – Cherry Smyth

Wherein the author provides footnotes’ – Jeanann Verlee

Seventh Circle of Earth’ – Ocean Vuong

Death is not the end’ (from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) – David Foster Wallace


[2] Adam Hochschild ‘Reconstructing Scenes’, in Kramer and Call (eds) Telling True Stories: a non-fiction writers guide

[3] ‘The Footnote from De Thou to Ranke’, Anthony Grafton, from History and Theory journal, Vol 33, No 4, Theme Issue 33: Proof and Persuasion in History (Dec, 1994), pp 53-76

[4] Hannah Lowe, ‘The Other Ship’, introduction to Ormonde (Hercules Editions, 2014)

[5] Cover blurb on Famished, by Cherry Smyth (Pindrop Press, 2019)

[6] It’s been nearly 20 years since I quit the academic world for the world of dead people’s stuff (archives).

[7] …an argument which I may be finding it challenging to follow. I especially like the footnotes in ethnographer/philosopher Jeanne Favret-Saada’s work, as they often hold direct quotes and anecdotes, which are then littered through my poetry.


[9] Of course, the footnote can defy brevity: those footnotes that run over more than one page really disrupt the reading experience. Do you to choose to turn pages to follow the footnote, or wait to read the remainder of the footnote until you’ve turned the page to follow the main text?

[10] Harriet Tarlo, ‘Radical landscapes: experiment and environment in contemporary poetry’, Jacket 32, April 2007,


[12] ‘annotated silence’ by Nathan Penlington, in Adventures in Form (Penned in the Margins, 2012)

[13] Will’s notes tell me: ‘1841, The case of the bewitched road-mender.’; ‘1936, A man sentenced for fraud who was later in trouble for threatening a bailiff with harmful magic.’

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