Catullus Speaks

From Morgan Meis at The Smart Set:

The poetry of Catullus, for instance, has been appreciated since the first century B.C. It is, itself, intensely personal. It is so personal that, paradoxically, it has managed to speak to countless individuals for over 2,000 years (the poetry was actually lost for many centuries, but that’s merely to quibble). His greatest poem may be his shortest. Here it is in the original Latin:

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam fortasse requires.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior

In a recent, and I think almost miraculous, translation by Peter Green, the poem is rendered into English as:

I hate and love. You wonder, perhaps, why I’d do that?
I have no idea. I just feel it. I am crucified.
 

Who knows exactly what makes poetry poetry — every attempt to nail it down leaves something out. But this is one of the reasons why poetry is so satisfying. It is able to express, obliquely, the fact that expression never quite makes it all the way around a feeling or an experience. But by showing us that difficulty, poetry does, in a way, manage to bridge the gap between thought and feeling. Which is impossible. Which is exactly the point. And so on. Catullus’ poetry is incredible because it never really says anything and therefore says it all. 

The poem is composed mostly of verbs, no adjectives. It toggles back and forth between the active and passive. It shows us a man projecting himself into the world and that world projecting itself back into him. It is structured exactly the way human pain is structured. Just saying “Odi et amo” can make the skin tingle. It is so raw and so terse. When you reach the final “excrucior,” you are exhausted. And that is one thing that a poem can do. It can be, almost, the feeling that it is. Catullus has been dead for a long time, but he is still very much alive. 

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