Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic. A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina. We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal. We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.
*“Arma virumque cano.”
It’s one of the most famous opening lines ever.
“Of arms and the man I sing.”
With it, the Roman poet Virgil begins his epic poem, The Aeneid, tracing the story of Aeneas from the ruins of Troy to the founding of Rome — at least the legendary Rome.
Few works of literature have been so influential for so long as The Aeneid. Through the Middle Ages, it was the most quoted, most imitated and most revered ancient text outside the Bible. Dante chose Virgil to be his guide through the afterlife.
But I have to admit, I can’t bring myself to read the damn thing. I’ve tried. Tried and tried, but I find the whole endeavor tedious. There are books you are supposed to have read, and I have read most of them. I read the Iliad, or reread it annually. I pick up the Odyssey whenever I have the hankering. My favorite Latin book is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, so it’s not like I don’t care for the Greco-Roman classics. I am socked on them; I read them to the exclusion of things more modern that I should be up on. But, instead, I’ll go through Lucretius, or Longinus or Xenophon and soak it in.
But not The Aeneid. Ezra Pound tells a story on William Butler Yeats, who tried to teach Latin to an old sailor:
“A plain sailor man took a notion to study Latin, and his teacher tried him with Virgil; after many lessons he asked him something about the hero.
“Said the sailor: ‘What hero?’
“Said the teacher: ‘What hero, why, Aeneas, the hero.’
“Said the sailor: ‘Ach, a hero, him a hero? Bigob, I t’ought he waz a priest.’ ”
There is something unbearably pious about the whole book.
And I’ve tried different translations; none helps. Pound himself recommended Gavin Douglas, from 1513 — the earliest translation into English — or at least the English of the 16th century:
The batalis and the man I wil discrive,
Fra Troys boundis first that fugitive
By fait to Ytail come and cost Lavyne ;
Our land and sey kachit with mekil pyne,
By fors of goddis abuse, from euery steid,
Of cruell Juno throu ald remembrit fede.
Pound always did like the feel of quaynt angelisch on his tongue, but it doesn’t help Virgil move along any more swiftly.
I favor the 1697 couplets of John Dryden. It flies along, but doesn’t put any more blood in its hero’s veins.
Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc’d by fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore …
The problem is that Virgil was willing his epic into existence. It is a great artifice, top to bottom, and written not with the experience of life, but with the knowledge of a catalog of literature. When Homer wrote, he set down life as he knew it; Virgil set down verse as he had read it.
As Pound says, “The sheer literary qualities in Homer are such that a physician has written a book to prove that Homer must have been an army doctor. (When he describes certain blows and their effect, the wounds are said to be accurate, and the description fit for coroner’s inquest.)”
It continues to astound me that the first surviving books of Western literature — the Iliad and Odyssey — should two-and-a-half millennia later, continue to be the best books in the literature. I read them both — but especially the Iliad — with unfettered pleasure each time I pick them up. They are so descriptive, so lively, so human, so lush, that I practically smack my lips while reading.
Then I try my hand at Aeneas, and I feel like I’m looking at a bas relief, carved from unmoving stone, a marmoreal puppet show. A hero? Bigob, I t’ought he waz a priest.
When I was young, I was guilty of much the same sin. In high school, I wrote a play for a drama class. I had just read John Updike’s The Centaur, and my play imitated the novel shamelessly, updating the story of Antigone and the Seven Against Thebes into a high school setting. Pretentious as hell and pure drivel. Because the story involved suicide, it was banned from performance by the school principal — but I suspect it was banned as much for its stilted artifice as for its content.
Later, in college, I wrote a poem about a Klan rally I had attended with some fellow students in Liberty, N.C. We had wanted to see what the real thing was. The “show” was as ugly as anything you could imagine: The evening’s featured speaker was the sheriff of Forsyth County and he went on about how African mothers fed their babies to crocodiles and how those of African descent (not the words he used) had the remains of a tail under their britches. It was astoundingly ignorant, demogogic and reeked of alcohol. Pickup trucks filled the farm field where the rally was held. The women’s auxiliary held a bake sale. It all came to a head with the white-sheeted Klansmen circling the 30-foot cross, made of a couple of old phone poles lashed together, raising and lowering their torches to the sound of The Old Rugged Cross blaring from a tinny PA system and finally they all threw their kerosene-soaked torches toward the base of the cross, which slowly caught fire and burned in the night. I have never seen so much bigotry and so much slurred speech together at one time bound together with missing teeth.
The poem I wrote was imitation Eliot — all college poetry at the time was bad Eliot — and instead of saying outright what I had witnessed, I larded it up with arcane references to ancient myth and James Frazier. I even had footnotes, a la The Waste Land. It was one learned piece of goat custard. Nevertheless, I was proud of it, and showed my professor, whose response was, “Don’t you think it might be a bit … literary?”
At the time, I thought, yes, of course: I meant it to be literary. But I couldn’t gainsay the obvious criticism he was expressing both in the tone of his voice and his facial expression — a bit like the face you make the first time you open a gorgonzola cheese. Perhaps literary wasn’t the be-all and end-all I thought it was.
Years later, after many reams of paper wasted on bad literary writing, I came to know a friend who wanted to be a novelist. He had written one manuscript, which I read and enjoyed, and he was then working on some pornography. He needed some quick cash and had a contract for a book, which was to be called Sixty-Nine In-Laws. He slaved away every night after dinner on his typewriter, with a cold beer nearby, and taped to the desk was a list of every euphemism and dysphemism for every body part and every sordid act the human body was capable of. “I go down the list so I don’t use the same word too many times in a row,” he said. The book took him two weeks to pump out and when he sent it in to his publisher, the publisher sent it back and requested a few changes: Please change the main character from a man into a woman, and change everyone else’s gender to accommodate that fact; and further, please take out all the humor — “Our readers don’t want jokes,” they said. All this my friend did and resubmitted it, whence it was published. In paperback.
The lack of diva-ish proprietorship he exhibited in the writing and editing was the opposite of my high-minded insistence on the writerly prerogatives and the sacred calling of literature. The difference between us was this: I wanted to be a writer; he wrote. The one is a noun, the other, a verb. It is a lesson I eventually learned and it served me well writing two-and-a-half million words for my newspaper.
We change over the years. It isn’t just maturity, or growing up: It is the accumulation of living. When Pound was a young poet, he was full of literature. When he wrote of nature, it was as if he were writing a concordance to literary history — all his birds were larks and nightingales. All perfume and lace. But after he made a fool of himself with il Duce, and was imprisoned after the war in an outdoor cage in Italy, captured as a traitor by G.I.s, he wrote his Pisan Cantos, which finally in his life, have real crows in them. The crows he saw from his cell resting on power lines like quarter-notes on a music staff. You can almost forgive him in his humiliation.
And now that I am retired, I see the larger pattern all this played out over the years. When we are young, if we are in love with art, literature and poetry, we are awed by the productions of the gods — the Yeatses, Picassos, James Joyces and Prousts, and we measure our puny lives against those books, paintings and plays to see whether we measure up. They are the great ones; we are the lowly aspiring to their Parnassus. We write in imitation of their words, their sentences, not their lives.
But when we are older, and have lived enough of life to have a divorce or two under our belts, and maybe a few traffic tickets, suffered several years in a treadmill job, or see “a girl who knew all Dante once live to bear children to a dunce” … then we instead look to see whether the literature we read lives up to our experience of life. The tables are turned, and we are now capable of recognizing those books that accurately tell us something about life and those that are pious palaver. Instead of judging ourselves against the books, we judge the books against ourselves, rubbing them between our fingers to feel whether they are true, or whether, like Virgil’s vast artifice, a pile of learned dust.
Still, I think I’ll give Virgil one more try to see if I can struggle through. One finds there are always new things to discover.