Bernadette Mayer and “Channeling Catullus”


Catullus (ca. 84–54 BC)

Bernadette Mayer

Bernadette Mayer

I just had the chance to listen to “Channeling Catullus,” a podcast in the Poetry Foundation’s “Poetry Off the Shelf” series that was posted last month.  It features a conversation with the young poet Hannah Gamble about the enduring presence of the ancient Roman poet Catullus in contemporary poetry.  

The episode uses Bernadette Mayer’s work as exhibit A for this connection (without, alas, mentioning Louis Zukofsky’s notoriously unorthodox reworkings of Catullus).  Mayer has long been fascinated with Catullus and his raunchy, intimate, funny, sophisticated, and playful poetry. Throughout her career, she has published many translations and homages to the poet (as can be seen especially in her book The Formal Field of Kissing).

Gamble — whose first collection was recently chosen for the National Poetry Series by Mayer herself — reads and discusses Mayer’s moving early poem “The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica.”  The poem is perhaps less related to Catullus than a good deal of Mayer’s other work, but it does open with a striking moment of self-address that echoes one of the Roman poet’s trademark moves (“Sad Catullus, stop playing the fool”):

Be strong Bernadette
Nobody will ever know
I came here for a reason
Perhaps there is a life here
Of not being afraid of your own heart beating
Do not be afraid of your own heart beating
Look at very small things with your eyes
& stay warm

Gamble then reads and discusses a powerful poem of her own, whose title also features an address to the self by name, as it riffs on a line by Catullus: “Leisure, Hannah, Does Not Agree With You.”

It’s fun to imagine Catullus as a kind of proto-New York School poet, extremely avant la lettre — cruising around the streets and parties of ancient Rome like Frank O’Hara in a toga.  The link between the two was made long ago by Allen Ginsberg, who once praised O’Hara by saying:

He taught me to really see New York for the first time, by making of the giant style of Midtown his intimate cocktail environment. It’s like having Catullus change your view of the Forum in Rome.

This enjoyable podcast gives us the chance to think more about the ancient Roman city poet of friendship, gossip, sex and love as an under-recognized source and analogue for New York School poetry, as well as about the continuing resonance of Catullus, and Bernadette Mayer, in poetry today.

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