Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Of Ginsberg & Catullus

A special post in honor of poetry month... April.

Thomas H. Wilson

Dinner with Allen Ginsberg was memorable.  The poet was coming to speak at the University of New Mexico.  I was president of a large fraternity, and invited him to join us at a chapter dinner.  Ginsberg came with his friend and fellow poet, Gregory Corso.  The fraternity chaplain, a straight-laced fellow who later became a naval officer, asked the 75 or so present to stand for grace and bow our heads.  Before he could utter a word, Ginsburg roared:  “Zeus!”  Corso, across the room, immediately responded, “Isis!”  “Buddha,” Allen thundered.  “Athena,” Gregory shouted.  After more quick exchanges citing gods and goddesses from around the world and through time, at a pause our chaplain had the presence of mind simply to say, “Amen.”  It may not qualify as a Happening, but it certainly made an impression.

 (Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, 1961)

When I was in graduate school at Berkeley, I sometimes carried around slim volumes of T. S. Eliot.  I would find a big deserted lecture hall, take a seat in the middle, and read aloud verses from The Waste Land, Four Quartets, or Prufrock.  Somewhere I had heard a recording of Eliot dramatically reading one of these, and I tried to mimic his elocution.  His words from my mouth resonated around the chamber.  I still don’t know if this was cool or the epitome of nerdiness.

I even managed to quote East Coker, second of the Four Quartets, in my dissertation on Maya architecture, which dealt with the rise and fall of the great site of Chichén Itzá in Yucatan:

            In my beginning is my end.  In succession

            Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,

            Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

            Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

            Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,

            Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth

            Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,

            Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.

            Houses live and die: there is a time for building

            And a time for living and for generation

            And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane

            And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots

            And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

            . . . .  In my end is my beginning.

It is hard to find in writing a better image of the rise and fall of civilizations and of physical change through time.

Everyone may treasure a favorite poem or poet.  I have returned throughout my life to the works of Gais Valerius Catullus (c. 84-54 BC).  Catullus lived at a time of turmoil in the Roman world, perhaps the most climacteric century in Roman history.  Traditions eroded, institutions changed, politics roiled.  The Roman republic was sliding towards empire. It was the time of Caesar, Cicero, Pompey, Antony, Crassus, Lucretius and Virgil. Catullus is known for his love for and frustration with the Lady Clodia, who was wife to a Roman consul and sister to Clodius, a politically active, controversial figure.  Catullus’ passion for Lesbia, his pen name for Clodia, resonates across the centuries:

Catullus 5:  Kisses

            . . . .  Then let amorous kisses dwell

            On our lips, begin and tell

            A thousand and a hundred score,

            An hundred and a thousand more,

            Till another thousand smother

            That, and that wipe off another.

            Thus at last when we have numbered

            Many a thousand, many a hundred,

            We’ll confound the reckoning quite,

            And lose ourselves in wild delight:

            While our joys so multiply

            As shall mock the envious eye. 

(Lesbia and Her Sparrow, by Sir Edward John Poynter 1836-1919)

                                    Translation Richard Crashaw

But Lesbia toyed with Catullus, took other lovers, and caused him no end of frustration.

Catullus 85: Love’s Unreason

Odi et amo.  Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.

Necio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate and love—the why I cannot tell

But by my tortures know the fact too well.

                        Translation Theodore Martin

(Julius Caesar)

Catullus’ verse can be quite sharp, even towards the most powerful men in Rome, such as Julius Caesar, who apparently had a little chat with the young poet about some biting barbs aimed at him (e.g. Catullus 93: “I have no very great desire to make myself agreeable to you, Caesar/nor to know whether your complexion is light or dark.”).

In one wrenching poem, a heartbroken Catullus travels to Asia Minor to visit his brother’s grave.  I revisit this poem at times of personal grief:

Catullus 101:  On His Brother’s Death (Ave atque Vale)

            By ways remote and distant waters sped,

            Brother to thy sad graveside am I come,

            That I may give the last gifts to the dead,

            And vainly parley with thine ashes dumb:

            Since she who now bestows and now denies

            Hath taken thee, hapless brother, from mine eyes.

            But lo! These gifts, the heirlooms of past years,

            Are made sad things to grace thy coffin shell;

            Take them, all drenched with a brother’s tears,

            And, brother, for all time, Hail and Farewell!

                                                Translation Aubrey Beardsley

There are more modern translations of Catullus, but I grew up with these.  At www.negenborn.net/catullus/ you will find the original Latin of Catullus’ verse, and translations into numerous languages.  I enjoy comparing Catullus’ poems in Spanish and German with English.  At www.poemhunter.com/ you may find your favorite poem or explore new ones among almost 800,000 poems from 78,000 poets.  The Poetry Foundation is another excellent resource, www.poetryfoundation.org.

Discuss your exploration of poetry and poets with friends and loved ones.  Discover the poet within you.  Craft a poem yourself, and share it with someone.
Thomas H. Wilson is Director of The Arizona Museum of Natural History

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