Catallus

The General Reader, being a general reader, can claim almost no familiarity with The Classics.  However, I do know that I really like Catallus, the first-century BC Roman poet.  Wayne Garrison, if you ever read this, bless your heart for putting me onto him.

Right now the best way I can describe his writing is to say it reminds me of C.P. Cavafy’s.  Like the great modern Greek poet, he is conversational, slangy in tone if not vocabulary, oversexed, lonely among lots of friends, and a wanderer of the Med, just like early Thomas Pynchon.  Reading him is like listening to a very funny, smart guy at the bar.  His poems are rakish, short, and reassuringly scattershot even though they stick to a few major themes: sex is really good (Catallus was extravagantly bisexual), so is drinking, friendship is even better, this too shall pass, you cannot always trust people you love, and empires are especially wonderful and tenuous in the eyes of the rich, which Catallus was–with a landowner for a father, he was the Roman-Empire version of a trust-fund kid.  He sounds like an American hipster (if hipster culture weren’t so poisoned by post-ironic irony), a decadent from our own late empire.  For me that is a huge comfort.  The academic line on Catallus is that his poems are “accessible,” which means they are fun to read instead of boring.

I have the old Horace Gregory translation, which was apparently all the rage with Modernists & the post-WWII generation.  (The paperback has this great Mondrian-esque blue and white cover with small font.  Tuck it into your slim blazer, kids.)  I like it a lot & recommend getting it.  However, do not buy it on Amazon: of the two copies listed, one isn’t actually the Gregory edition, and the other is overpriced.  Keep your eye out in bookstores instead.  There is also a reputedly fine translation by Guy Lee that Oxford UP publishes.  Used, with shipping, it will run you less than $5 on Amazon.  Fuck it, I might get a copy.

-TGR

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