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A Dog, Ovid, and Poetry

Prologue

Sometimes things connect. I find this frequently in my teaching life, my reading life, and my life life. Suddenly lots of themes and ideas keep recurring. I can’t connect the dots among the areas I’m about to describe. I’ll just describe them, and we can all reflect on the uncanny connections.

The Dog

In the midst of a February snowstorm, we found a little dog darting around in traffic on a busy street near us. I coaxed her to me, sent my husband on to the movie we were en route to, and took her home. She had no identification. Her fur was covered in ice, and she was shaking badly.

In the subsequent days (after warming her up, of course), we looked for her owners, to no avail. I bathed her and took her to the vet (7-pound Maltese mix, 1-3 years old, unspayed, possibly a breeding dog from a puppy mill, healthy), followed up leads, passed out flyers, talked to neighbors. No one claimed her.

To sum up, though we didn’t want a dog (that’s the topic for another post), we have a dog—a sweet, well-behaved, affectionate and tiny dog. We took many weeks to name her, because we didn’t know we were keeping her. And we’re not good at making decisions.

Ovid

We’re reading some of the mythological stories from the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses this semester in my upper-level Latin class. I love Ovid and first fell in love with Latin while reading him in my third-year high-school Latin class.

My students are a little suspicious of poetry and are not fans of love-related, nature-related, prettified subjects. One of them told me bluntly, “I’m not lying. I want violence.” Ovid has that aplenty, and so I assigned them to read the story of Actaeon, who accidentally witnesses the goddess Diana bathing in a forest glade. She punishes him by turning him into a stag. His own hunting dogs then turn on him and tear him to bits. That’s what you get for looking at a naked goddess.

In the course of the story, Ovid picks up the epic tradition of the catalogue, a long list of proper names. Scholars debate the purposes of these lists, which slow down the story for modern readers. They probably are intended to preserve some history and, in fact, to entertain the listeners (because ancient epics were recited) with the poet’s virtuosic skill in incorporating these names into a rhythmical poetic line. Homer catalogues ships’ names, and Vergil catalogues warriors’ names. Ovid, whom I often describe as a smart ass, catalogues the names of the dogs who attack Actaeon. He’s carrying on the epic tradition—I call it an epic meme–and playing with it at the same time.

Ichnobates, Pterelas, Harpyia, Dromas, Tigris, Leucon, and so on—the names go on for about 30 lines, all fitting in Ovid’s artful lines. Translators have lots of fun. Sometimes they retain the names (mostly from the Greek), or sometimes they translate them into related English words when possible. My favorite translator, Charles Martin, uses Blackie, Shag, Yipper, Brownie, and Buster, among others.

Naturally, my students suggested I borrow one of Ovid’s dog names for our little Maltese mutt. Melanchaetes or Therodamas. anyone?

Poetry

In March, my book group had decided to depart from our customary novels and nonfiction and try some poetry, coinciding with a visit to Cleveland by Robert Pinksy, former poet laureate and current advocate for poetry, on April 8th. Someone suggested we read a new Pinsky book, called Singing School, which purports to introduce readers to poems.

In fact, the book turned out to be a sort of handbook for would-be poets. Its offerings were difficult, and Pinsky’s brief comments obscure, for everyday readers who want to understand and enjoy what they read. For example, Pinsky includes Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House,” which goes on for thirty pages. Even the English teacher in the group, i.e., me, didn’t get through the whole thing.

So most people didn’t read much of the book. I was glad we used it, though, because I learned a few things and had fun deciphering the challenging poems, looking some of them up online for extra help. I worked my way through “Church Monuments” by George Herbert, whom I studied in grad school.

These efforts reminded me that great works are not always accessible immediately. Frequently, they require some labor, which frequently pays dividends. Understanding how things are made explicates their meaning. One appreciates the work that goes into an Emily Dickinson poem by discerning that her lines alternate between four iambic feet and three iambic feet. Unraveling the grammar of Herbert’s dense sentences helps clarify their intent.

This principle applies in all the arts. Knowing that Michelangelo took four years to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling (not really all on his back, but still) helps us appreciate it more fully.

Summary

Dogs need to be named. Our dog’s name is Roxie.

I learned to love Latin poetry by plowing my way through Ovid’s gnarly dactylic hexameter lines, day after day, when I was a teenager. Sometimes you want to tear your hair out, but you have to love a guy who names a dog Oresitrophos.

2 Comments

  1. Jamie Kaplan wrote:

    Kathy,
    Have you ever read David Malouf’s imagination of Ovid’s exile, “An Imaginary Life?” I highly recommend it. Also, I did read that new book I mentioned earlier, “My Life in Middlemarch, and liked it a lot (by Rebecca Mead).

    Friday, April 4, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  2. Kathy wrote:

    I haven’t read either one, but have now requested them at the library :–)

    Saturday, April 5, 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

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