Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Catullus Conundrum

Catullus was an ancient Roman poet whose life holds significant lessons, ok, warnings, for other poets.

While he enjoys a significant readership after death, he lasted into the modern world of letters not so much as an outcome of intentional effort but undignified happenstance. The legendary account, which may or may not be true, as always seems to be the case with poets, is that his work was discovered as a stopper in a barrel of wine in some medieval basement. Egad.

There are no reports over whether it was a particularly good barrel of wine, at that.

Bear in mind, there are plenty of Roman poets whose beloved words were deliberately kept intact by appreciative audiences, scholarly and otherwise. But I keep the legend of Catullus in my mind that we can never be truly certain our work will survive into the next age. Nor can we be certain how it will be discovered. This can be both dreadful and reassuring, the chaos of the poet's calling.

Some people get a bit manic and testy, saying as a writer, you shouldn't be concerned about the longevity of your work. They argue it hamstrings you, it takes you out of the present and you lose a certain dynamic and value to your voice if you're just trying to become famous and widely-read. Every writer treads a line between quality and the mercenary, trying to keep one's self and family fed without gauche pandering and compromise.

If you're a writer, and one with a very finite lifetime, you should be taking your craft seriously enough to be of use and entertainment to others, even as you appreciate that fate is arbitrary and whimsical. Obviously, looking at my own body of work, that's not a belief that all of your subjects are supposed to be serious, but when you write comedically, you need to be writing the best comedy you can.

For all of your accolades and honors, it is entirely possible within a century, and even more so in the centuries beyond, that if you do survive, it will only be a fraction of your output, and what future generations find compelling may well be that which you least expect.

You may find your work in the H.P. Lovecraft scenario, where no one gave his work much attention while living.  Consider the issue of Weird Tales where his classic, "The Call of Cthulhu" appears first. The editors thought Elliot O'Donnell's "Ghost Table" would be the one that moves copies that month. Lovecraft wasn't among the ones editors expected to have a great readership years or even nearly a century since his death. I guess you could call it "The Last Laugh of Cthulhu."

My best advice on this is to write as well as you can, whenever possible, because you don't want to be that writer where you have a body of amazing, soul-searing work, but the only example that survives into the next century is your "Ode to a Skanky Possum."

There's another tale that in the old days, a Roman general had a servant constantly whispering in his ear, "Memento Mori." Even on the days of his greatest triumphs, he was constantly reminded he was mortal and could be brought down by anything in the world. Catullus, on the other hand, reminds us as poets that in our art, anyone can survive, both the high and the low. So try to leave a good body of work behind.

Or at least make friends with people who keep cellars filled with barrels of wine for centuries. Something.

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