Saturday, October 31, 2009

Talking about Catullus

Our readers group met on Friday to talk about Catullus. We spent two hours laughing and praising his work and his character. We began with the first poem of the surviving collection:

Who do I give this neat little book to
all new and polished up and ready to go?
You, Cornelius, because you always thought
there was something to this stuff of mine,
and were the one man in Italy with guts enough
to lay out all history in a couple of pages,
a learned job, by god, and it took work.
So here's the book, for whatever it's worth
I want you to have it. And please, goddess,
see that it lasts for more than a lifetime.

I said how much I liked the poem because Catullus praises the accomplishments of Cornelius. A. asked why that strengthens the poem and pointed out how Catullus often brought in other characters, so there was a trio: the poem, others, and the listeners. I said it made Catullus less of a big I-am.

L. said, his changing focus, quickened the poem. I agreed. Even when he expresses grief, he doesn't get mired in it. In a poem mourning his dead brother, he apologizes to a friend for seeming to ignore him:

Still for all my grief, Hortalus, I send you
these translations of some verse by Callimachus,
so you won't think that what you said to me just
slipped from the vague wandering fog in my mind
the way an apple her boy friend sent her in secret
pops right out of a girl's innocent young breast
because, the poor thing, she forgot all about it
under her dress and jumped up when mother came in,
there it goes bouncing across the floor, her face
is red, so she's so ashamed of herself and could cry.

We followed the poet, delighted when he veered from grief to the description of the young girl and the secret apple. The opposite of obsession, when the mind is locked in an endlessly repeating refrain.

There was so much to admire: his intimate, vital tone, his elegant lines, the way he talks to himself:

So why keep torturing yourself anymore?
Come on now, get tough, get yourself together,
the gods don't want your misery, so quit it.

He is withering on Julius Caesar and Caesar's right hand man, Mamurra. 'This could be a poem about Cheney and Bush,' L. said. Yes, but not the sex. I can't imagine them ever lusting for little girls.

They're beautiful together, the odd couple,
Mamurra, and Caesar his queen.
Naturally. you get two splats of shit together,
one from the city, the other from Formiae,
and you can never wash them off.
One's as sick as the other, twin diseases
in their little bed, with their little minds,
and both still fuck-hungry besides,
beating each other out after little girls.
They're beautiful together, the odd couple.

In poem 12, Catullus shames, teases and berates Asinius for stealing Catullus's prized napkins, gifts from his dearest friends:

It's not nice to use your left hand like that
at the table, Asinius, everybody busy laughing
and drinking, and you stealing their napkins.
You think it's funny? Guess again, creep . . .

I suggested that after Thanksgiving dinner, each of us write a poem in the spirit of Catullus to the creepiest of the guests. If not at Thanksgiving, after another occasion. Will we be as outspoken as Catullus?


  1. Oh, I love the apple falling out, the blushing girl.
    You must tell me, once more, the best translation to buy, please..
    I think your group sounds delicious and am glad that you write about it...

  2. Melissa: I think the best translation is by Carl Sesar, though you can check out others as well for more extensive notes.

  3. Miriam,

    You have inspired the old dog to join a book group. There is one near me.

  4. Bluedog:

    We enjoy studying others and forgetting about ourselves.

  5. My favourite from school was My Lady's Pet Sparrow Is Dead. It seemed so modern, somehow.

  6. Yes! Fresh and modern. I like the sparrow poem too.