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What is a poem?

By William Fitzgerald


In 1934 William Carlos Williams famously published what seems to be a note left on the refrigerator for a spouse to read, only now set typographically to look like a poem. It’s called “This is Just to Say”.

I have eaten
The plums
That were in
The icebox

And which
You were probably
Saving
For breakfast

Forgive me
They were delicious
So sweet
And so cold

Like the ‘found object’ that an artist exhibits in the museum to raise the question “what is art?”, Williams’ ‘found’ poem seems to ask the reader, “is this a poem – and, if so, why?” We are invited to notice what we do when we read something as a poem. Perhaps we scrutinize it for an implied theme (“it’s really about temptation and forgiveness”, for instance); a poem is never “just to say” what it says. The space that Williams has left so abundantly around the words begs to be filled. “Forgive me” acquires a powerful resonance, all alone on the line, especially in connection with the temptation of fruit! Look what happens to the common, unremarkable words “sweet” and “cold” when you put some space around them. Williams invites us to wake up to the poetry of everyday speech.

Is “This is Just to Say” a characteristically modernist poem? Here’s another poem, written a good two thousand years before Williams’ poem, which also claims to be “just to say”. Williams was just saying sorry, and Poem 49 by Roman poet Catullus is just saying thank you.

Sweetest-spoken of Romulus’ descendants,
All that are, or have been, Marcus Tullius,
and all who will yet be in other times–
The greatest of thanks to you from Catullus,
Who’s the worst poet of all the poets,
By as much the worst of all the poets
As you’re the best of all the lawyers.

Or, in the original Latin:

Disertissime Romuli nepotum,
quot sunt quoque fuere, Marce Tulli,
quotque post aliis erunt in annis,
gratias tibi maximas Catullus
agit pessimus omnium poeta,
tanto pessimus omnium poeta,
quanto tu optimus omnium patronus.

All educated Romans had learned the art of rhetoric and eloquence was prized in all kinds of communication. Elaborate compliments and insults were honed, admired, remembered, and passed around. We sometimes speak of compliments, even insults, as being well-turned, as though they had been shaped on a lathe. So, there’s craft involved.

But is it art? Catullus published a number of well-turned insults as poems, and some compliments too, including this one. Why does he publish (and versify) this little thank you note? If we’re looking for an implicit theme, Catullus offers us little that would enable us to say “It’s really about….”. And what Catullus’ poem highlights is not so much significant words as grammatical and rhetorical forms: the superlatives, the amplified repetitions of a statement. Cicero was a great orator, and amplification was the name of the game in Roman oratory, so this might be a compliment to Cicero’s own verbal skill.

But can we be sure that it really is a compliment? In Catullus’ Latin, awkward jingles, bare symmetries, and a restricted and repetitive vocabulary all lend a dutiful sound to the string of superlatives (“most eloquent”, “best”, “worst”, “greatest”). It is as though Catullus wanted to give the impression that he was taking dictation. Even Cicero’s name, Marcus Tullius (Marce Tulli in the vocative case) is made to form a jingle with Catullus’ own name, two lines down in the same position at the end of the line. Such is the baldness and exaggeration of the comparison in the last three lines that an awkward silence seems to descend as the poem ends. Even Cicero, who was not a modest man, must have suspected that there was more to this than meets the eye.

Was Catullus parodying the orotund symmetries of his prose? There is a nice effect in the second and third lines, where each element of the tripartite division between past, present and future is longer than the last. Cicero’s speeches are full of this device, which is called a tricolon crescendo. But Cicero might also have suspected that Catullus was mocking his high opinion of himself. The great orator was notoriously self-important, and he was well aware of this reputation. Was Catullus trying to immortalise him as the sort of person who might swallow flattery this bald? Or were all these speculations paranoid imaginings, and Cicero should accept the compliment graciously? We readers are in much the same situation as Cicero, not sure whether we are in on the joke or not. Like Cicero, we do not want to be dupes, and so we return to the poem again and again, trying to catch a tone of voice. But the poem maintains its deadpan.

What do we learn about poetry from these two poems on the edge? Perhaps a poem is what you read again because it seems to means something other than it says (and vice versa). Williams’ poem, we feel, means more than it seems to say, but Catullus makes us hover over the possibility that his words don’t mean what they say at all. Williams and Catullus may be suggesting that there is a continuity between the care we take with the language of some of our everyday communications and the care with language that makes poetry what it is. But they are also asking us to notice what it is that kicks in when we write and read an utterance as poetry.

 William Fitzgerald is Professor of Latin at King’s College London and has taught at the University of California and Cambridge University. He is the author of several books on ancient literature, most recently How to Read a Latin Poem If You Can’t Read Latin Yet (OUP, 2013).

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Image credit: Catullus [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

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