Reading Ovid – The Lover is Not a Fighter

{First in a Series}

Ovid is a Comedian. That’s the best way to read him. Taking him seriously will wear on you after a while. It’s impossible to wind yourself up, in text, to the extent he does, without at least a notion of self-overhearing. Someone does not spend that much time arguing that it’s all Cupid’s fault that he’s a crying simp, without intending that it be found funny.

I was about to sing, in heroic strain, of arms and fierce combats. ‘Twas a subject suited to my verse, whose lines were all of equal measure. But Cupid, so ’tis said, began to laugh, and stole away one foot.

Ovid, Elegy I

This is how he begins, and what I want to draw your attention to is how meta it is. The first sentence is an obvious reference to the Aneid. The second and third are primarily about the kind of verse that is used in epic poetry. Greek Roman epics were usually written in dactylic hexameter, that is to say, six dactyls in a line. Dactyls have a long syllable and two short syllables. But elegaic couplets, supposedly introduced by Quintus Ennius in the 3rd Century BC, shaved one of the dactyls off every other line. That’s what “stole away one foot” refers to.

So he’s starting with clever references. Which, who could blame him. We all sprinkle allusions into our writing and even everyday speech. This is no one-off, however, he runs through this for an entire chapter lamenting the surrender of all other gods to Cupid, and ending with the same joke.

Farewell fierce War, Farewell the Measure too. Only with the myrtle of the salt sea’s marge shalt thou bind thy fair head, my Muse, who needs must tune thy numbers to eleven feet.

Ovid, Elegy I

It’s a callback, and for all its poetic formality, it reeks like the salt sea’s marge of irony (“marge” is an old way of saying “margin” or “edge”, and myrtle is a plant or flower sacred to Venus). Ovid embraces his un-Roman subject knowingly, with a frisson of stagey passion barely masking a sly wink. You want to roll your eyes at him, and you will, but you’ll know that he’s in on the joke his making of himself.

Worth the study.

Enough Was Said T’inspire a Better Mind – On Reading The Aeneid

I have a nicely-bound, Heritage Library edition of John Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid by Virgil. I’m working my way through it, or at least the first 4 books of it, as research for the deep edit that’s going into The Meditations of Caius Caligulia before I publish it. It also makes for a fun refresh of the rhetorical schemes and tropes I studied in grad school: my notes are filled with Greek terms codified by Roman scholars.

But more than that, Dryden’s lively pentameter lifts the story. As my Latin is poor, I could not dare read the original, but this Early-Modern translation has the right archaic feel for something that, like the Iliad and Odyssey, is at least partly a funeral oration for the collapse of the Bronze Age, an event that left its echoes in Scripture as well. Virgil, long-winded as he could be, also had a marvelous sense for imagery:

And here and there above the waves were seen,
Arms, pictures, precious goods, and floating men.

Aeneid, Book I

I like that Dryden satisfies himself with the half-rhyme in order to give the second line it’s full weight: our mind can form the picture quite easily, and it gives an immediacy to what amounts to the opening scene of our story. Note something else: Virgil chooses to begin the story in media res, with Aeneas, son of Troy, already driving his fleet halfway across the Mediterranean, already on his way to become the distant founder of Rome. We then flashback to the sack of Troy by the Greeks, as Aeneas, blown ashore on Carthage, tells his tale to Queen Dido.

And had not Heav’n the Fall of Troy design’d,
Or had not men been fated to be blind,
Enough was said and done t’inspire a better mind.

Aeneid, Book II

This is a triplet, i.e. three lines rhyming, of which I have found several scattered throughout. Most of the poem is couplets, so these stand out. Given that Virgil wrote in a dactylic hexameter, this is no doubt Dryden’s interpolation, as he was well-known for throwing triplets around. Dryden has been criticized for too loosely translating Virgil, a criticism he embraced, decreeing that the poem would read too dull in English if translated to plainly. I have to say I’m with Dryden on this. Here’s another example:

We leave the narrow lanes behind, and dare
Th’unequal combat in the public square:
Night was our friend; our leader was despair.

Aeneid, Book II

The closing chiasmus is so tasty that I want to find excuses to quote it. Book II is filled with grand phrases that capture the horror that Homer finishes the Iliad before relating:

On the bleak shore now lies th’abandoned king,
A headless carcass, and a nameless thing.

Aeneid, Book II

The strenght of this couplet fills me with admiration, especially the “nameless thing”, the translation of a great and powerful man into nothing makes clear that this story is playing for keeps, and to hear the hero speak it gives him a genuine pathos. I had heard this poem sneered at in my youth, as a dull gong banging in blood. I am glad to know that, as always, “they” are wrong.

New Poetry: The Flat Circle

My two collections on Amazon, Stir and The Short Cool Summer, have had some readers, but the writing of poetry requires practice. This new project is exactly that, practice, so I’m posting it to read on Tablo. It will be updated as I add works to it. Right now there are 6-7 pieces.

Check it out, Check-it-outers:

Click to Read on

Yes, it’s in keeping with my current, Blue Period. Click here to absorb.

Rimbaud Dreams of War

Jean Artur Rimbaud wrote strange prose-poems in the Belle Epoque. He was an exceedingly odd duck: not ostentatiously wierd like Van Gogh, but the sort of man who could drop everything and spend his final years as an arms-dealer in North Africa. He’s kind of like William Burroughs, except his stuff is short enough so that I can digest it in one go, rather than get tired of not understanding anything and chuck the book a the wall (how many times have I tried to read Nova Express? At least three. How many times have I got farther than 20 pages? I do not know).

I find his strangeness appealing perhaps because he is not dogmatic about it. Poetry works best when it is a process of discovery, of the writer overhearing himself. There’s a tradition as old as Pindar to the effect that poets are prophets; speaking truths they themselves dimly understand, throwing words together in a disciplined kind of way because it feels right. A purely right-brained approach.

Now, no artist actually works this way. The stuff gets edited. It is shaped. It is messed with. This is itself part of the process, so that you leave your own interpolations at the door and get to the Real Thing. How do you know you have the Real Thing? If you have to ask, you don’t have it.

So here’s War, part of the Illuminations collection:

When a child, certain skies sharpened my vision: all their characters were reflected in my face. The Phenomena were roused.–At Present, the eternal inflection of moments and the infinity of mathematics drives me through this world where I meet with every civil honor, respected by strange children and prodigious affections.–I dream of a War of right and of might, of unlooked-for logic.

It is as simple as a musical phrase.

Jean Artur Rimbaud, “war” The Illuminations, pg. 133

That’s it. The whole Madness. It is not analytical. It is not concerned with understanding, only with experiencing. It is an irruption of Id-sense, Id-longing. Might be the phenomenon Huxley was getting at in The Doors of Perception: certain folk have a spiritual sensitivity that can lead either to Enlightenment or Insanity. In times past the old boy might have become a monk or mystic and offered prayer-poems to whatever Deity would have him. Perhaps a martyr or a passionate heretic, if the cards played out right. Instead he became a pieta to the more erudite segment of nerds.

Still, there’s something to the economy of expression, something I’ve written on before and probably will again, as it’s never been something I could master. My sentences flow like rivers, like dams breaking. And so do some of his. But he doesn’t have eighty of them together. I am the more concerned, it seems, with not being misunderstood.

Whatever: The Vast Confederate Lighthouse

Initially I had planned to have a Content Blues podcast hosted here on the blog, but because I don’t have a WordPress Business Plan and don’t intend to shell out for one, that won’t be happening. Instead, I switched to Spreaker as a distribution service for both this and the Shallow & Pedantic Podcast. The point of Whatever: A Content Blues Podcast will be to collect all the shorter posts (Quick Reviews and such) into an audo format, and leave the rest of the blog to the longer, essayish posts.

The Vast Confederate Lighthouse Whatever.

A smorgasboard of an episode! We correct Twitter's History Department, Praise "The Vast of Night", discuss the pagan themes of "The Lighthouse", read some epic poetry and a sonnet, consider modern cassette culture, and give a shout-out to indie electronica band Validine Chronus.

It’s up on Spotify, Podchaser, and Deezer, and will presently be on iTunes, iHeartRadio, and Google Podcasts.

An Illumination

Here’s something I wrote, in a short burst:

You must,
In each blue moment
Embrace your Freedom.

And in the
sickly wilderness
of intention,

Recognize the you
that intends
and is free.

Fine. Sure. But what does any of it mean? What was I thinking about when I scribbled it my journal?

Because it sounds interesting. It also sound vague and greeting-cardy, depending on one’s point of view. But it meant something to me at the time.

Sample From “The Short Cool Summer”

People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing that they like.

A Man With No Business, Killing Time

When my car is in the shop
They tell me “an hour and
A half.”

So I have fish tacos and
Salad and a pint that
Lingers around the temples
Tightening the skin in that
Pleasant way it does.

And I wander about the mall
With nothing to buy but
A record if I felt like dropping
Forty dollars on the latest from
Queens of the Stone Age.

But Instead I slip through
The attractions and lures of
Commerce promising me
Ease and joy and self-expression
At a discounted rate
This week only.

I wander back, as slow as I came,
The heat somewhat stronger on my face
Hoping to walk through
Firestone’s doors with the words
“I was just about to call you,”
Greeting me

But instead I wait though
A commercial break for
American Pickers or a show like that
To be told it isn’t done yet
It isn’t started yet
They’re very busy and very behind.
I knew this as I walked in
Because my car hadn’t moved
Or spawned new tires.

And they tell me
“another forty-five Minutes.”

So I cross the crosswalkless
Boulevard in the other direction
Along a tree-lined sidewalk
Counting my steps on the FitBit
Congratulating myself for activity
Navigating the wide sweep of the
Parking lot between the old
H.H. Gregg and Barnes & Noble.

There are no books I intend
To buy, but I might surprise myself,
With Upanishads or Buddhist Scriptures
Or a lesser C.S. Lewis tome
But instead I wrinkle my nose at
The gaudy covers of modern
Poetry books, with their
Instagram verses and their
Banal politics and their
Dull ironies on the urge
To fornicate.

I read a few stanzas by Frost and say
In my bookstore whisper
“That’s beautiful.”
I do not buy it.

I slip away into the attached
Starbucks and order a
Doppio Espresso in a paper cup
And then my thumbs fall
To recording
The preceding
As I drink and muse
And consider waking back.


 Like it? There’s more here.

How To Write and Edit Poetry

The actual title of the piece at the Poetry Foundation, “The Warmth of the Messy Page“, is better.

No matter what your approach, engaging in revision will help you see your work more clearly and help you discover more of what you meant and sometimes what you didn’t even know you meant. The word itself says so: re-vision. To see again, to see better. Getting back into work that felt complete may seem daunting—why mess it up again?—but always leads to deepening the poem itself and your own skill in the craft of writing. You will see your work newly each time you come back to it with the willingness to explore further possibilities. It can even be a lot of fun.