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First-Day Catullus

August 20, 2014

This summer, I’ve been creating a syllabus and preparing for one of the courses that I’m teaching this fall, World Literature I: Ancient through Early Modern. The syllabus can be found here, and I’ve decided to use the The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Package 1: Beginnings to 1650 (vols. A, B, C), since it has great breadth and I like most of the selections it includes. But more than creating the syllabus, I’ve also been thinking about how to teach some of the readings, especially since (being a medievalist, focused primarily on British literature) it will be my first time with several of the texts.

Catullus

One thing that I’m looking forward to is using the first day (tomorrow) as an introduction to the course and some of its themes–and to do this, we’ll read some poetry by Catullus (c.84-54 BCE) in class to discuss some of the common threads that we’ll encounter throughout the semester. One of Catullus’ poems that we’ll discuss on the first day is Poem 16, his response to contemporary critics and personal enemies.

What is so striking about Poem 16 is the audacity of Catullus’ words: he smacks the reader with them, bringing the full swing of his word-feud into effect. His obscenity comes into play, but also much more. I’ve been a fan of this translation by two colleagues of mine while I was at UConn since they first showed it to me. Revisiting Poem 16 again, it dawned on me how analogous it is to modern rap battles. I don’t know much about rap, but I do know that rap battles are a major part of the general culture. Catullus’ poem seems perfect for discussing intersections. So we’ll be watching this selection of scenes from the movie 8 Mile (yes, I realize that it’s 12 years old, but it’s still a great example) as a way to think about Poem 16.

Moving beyond the surface level of the shock factor, what else comes out in Catullus’ poem? What’s at stake–for the poet and for modern readers? A number of things come to mind: authorial voice, authenticity, historicity, gender and sexuality, poetic creativity, publication, translation, reception, even literary criticism and its discontents. All of these themes necessarily pervade a course on literature–especially one so wide-reaching as World Literature from the beginning of writing up to the early modern period. In this way, Catullus is an apt introduction to bring modern readers into the world of past literature.

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