The commonplace sublime, John Davidson

The Commonplace Odes
Ian Wedde
Auckland University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 1869402480

The Commonplace Odes is Ian Wedde’s first collection of  poetry to appear since The Drummer (1993), and to a significant extent it owes its existence to the Roman poet whom we know as Horace. A number of other leading New Zealand poets, of course, have flirted with Latin poetry to a greater or lesser degree, and hints of the same attraction on Wedde’s part are evident at least as early as Made Over (1974), where Horace’s famous insight beatus ille qui procul negotiis (from the second of his so-called Epodes, published before the more famous Odes) is quoted in parenthesis in the course of one of “The Gardener’s Messages”. Then, more directly, the collection Georgicon (1984), both through its title, and through specific allusions, points to Horace’s contemporary Virgil, poet of the Georgics and Eclogues, as well as of the Aeneid.

The Commonplace Odes, however, goes much further than this. Its title is immediately reinforced by an epigraph from the second poem of Horace’s fourth book of Odes, in which the poet, drawing a pointed contrast with his Greek lyric predecessor Pindar (who is imaged as a swan), likens himself to a hard-working bee. The first poem of the collection is then entitled “Epode: a conversation”, which draws attention to Horace’s Epodes, in particular “Epode 2”, and which, through its similarly different metre and structure, offers a contrast with the following “Odes”. There are then five “books” of Odes, each consisting of five poems (Wedde’s decision to add a fifth “book” to the Horatian four is interestingly felicitous, given the precedent of Kipling’s and Charles Graves’s parallel fifth “book” back in 1920). Furthermore, an “Epistle” follows both “Book 2” and “Book 4”, and, most appropriately for the millennial cross-over, “Carmen saeculare: for Carol and Abe” concludes the collection. There are frequent invocations of Horace throughout, and allusions to Horatian passages. In a note at the back of the book, Wedde acknowledges a large debt to the mediating role of David Ferry, whose translation of the initial epigraph is also quoted.

It seems that it was Horace (or Horace through his translators, especially Ferry) who was the poetic impulse anyway which brought Wedde back to writing after a number of “dry” years. In “2.3 To Leone II”, Wedde writes of “The innocence we lose as we accumulate / Adult qualities like irony”, a loss which entails “an admission that language can be / Completely insincere”. Language indeed can be seen as

a kind of virus which infects whatever
It was I was trying to say. Of course there’s only one
Antidote for this, and it’s love.

 

Further insight into this issue is provided by Wedde’s statement on the outside back cover of the book, where he speaks of having become bored with “writing as small talk” on the one hand, whereas he “choked on the grandiloquent” on the other. What he apparently rediscovered, with a little bit of help from Horace, was “the grand themes in ordinary details: the emotional truth of the commonplace”. It seems to be a matter of positioning oneself, so as to be able to express an appreciation of everyday life, friendships and relationships, and something of the tranquillity which can flow from this, while also capturing the timeless questions of human existence. This is certainly what Horace achieves, with his enviable knack of investing what in lesser hands might simply be the banal with poignancy and emotional overlay. Wedde does not quite display the curiosa felicitas of Horace as far as word choice is concerned, but he certainly presses some of the same buttons as his mentor.

2

The whole feeling of The Commonplace Odes does seem different from much of Wedde’s writing as it had been developing in the 1980s and early 1990s, the tone now being more relaxed, more sensitive, more measured. Gone is the often helter-skelter, almost breathless approach. Gone too is that occasionally frustrating inaccessibility, the sense that language had become an end in itself, so that one wondered at times what exactly it was that Wedde was trying to say. The poet is now consistently speaking to the addressees of the poems, whether these are people or things, and communing with Horace, as well as with himself, so that the engagement of the reader becomes assured. There is a maturity in the handling of the direct address, and a greater intimacy is achieved than in the various “odes” of The Drummer.

The opening “Epode: a conversation” introduces a range of themes and ideas, alluding to the “life” of both Horace and the modern poet, which are picked up in subsequent poems. Its first lines are heavily programmatic:

In these days of late autumn I know the poet only
As the fortunate man who
Free from cares on cool mornings
Praises the commonplace world.

 

This is beatus ille qui procul negotiis redivivus, the ideal championed by Horace, who is himself evoked in terms of “The equitable voice of the poet, winecup in hand, / Conversing with his muse / While her green earth sweats to loose its young.” Indeed, the vision of the poet as bon vivant who yet works hard at his craft in the context of the natural cycle of nature becomes something of a leitmotiv. Thus, the pleasures of the “shady sofa on the deck” are qualified by the melancholic reminder: “The simple facts are these: know it’s all dust”, but are even more to be sampled for this very reason.

Key words and phrases of “Epode” are repeated verbatim in “1.1 To the Muse” : “winecup in hand”, “It’s Quintus Horatius Flaccus I invoke”, “basket bedecked with laurels”, “friend and lover”, “green earth sweats”, “digesting its dead”, “that great sac”, “bulging with death, from which nourishment crawls”. These echoes reverberate through the book, as do other verbal patterns as they are introduced. Another feature, too, which serves to bind the collection together, is the picking up, at the start of a new poem, of the idea of the closing line of the preceding one. The effect is similar, if on a different scale, to that of the stichomythia of Greek tragic verse.

As well as underlining the Horatian impulse of “Epode”, the poem “1.1 To the Muse” focuses on specifics of the present poet persona’s life:

                     Tomorrow is Saturday. I plan

To start the restful weekend with the lovely woman
Who is my dear friend and lover but not my muse
Because she’s alive…

 

Thus “Art” and “Life” rub shoulders, in company too with the “wry spirit at the edge / Of my vision, where he’s been for decades”.

3

“The lovely woman” is one of a series of figures, both living and dead, whose presence permeates the book, and whose lives have contributed to the poet’s identity. Friends feature, especially in connection with significant occasions like birthdays, just as in Horace’s Odes, and there is a similar emphasis on the preparation for, and enjoyment of, meals. Horace apparently had no siblings or children, and it is in the Satires that we hear about the shaping influence of his father (there is total silence about his mother). The poet of The Commonplace Odes, however, has more material at his disposal: “How can I talk to you when we have forgotten our language? Where / Can we meet now that our mother is long dead?” (“1.4 To my twin brother”). And again: “It’s great to be home / Again, say our wandering sons, as they wave goodbye” (“4.5 To my sons”), the sons’ restlessness replicating the wanderlust associated with their grand-parents.

There are especially poignant evocations of the poet’s father, often associated with the lack of much photographic record of him. He is present in the memory and, by associ-ation, present in pictures taken in many parts of the world. But he is also absent both because he’s generally missing from the pictures and because he’s dead: “How could our father // Be in the picture when he was always taking it?” (“1.4 To my twin brother”). And again:

He survives in roguish snapshots taken in restaurants.
A plate of quail in Damascus. But never in the tin
Trunk of photographs, because he took them all.
(“4.1 To the tin trunk of images”)

 

Then, the opening lines of the immediately following poem (“4.2 To Death”) pick up the point, with subtle word-play:

Death takes them all, that’s why
We never see it. Death’s never in
The picture. But everything we see, we see
Because death has. Death took the pictures.

 

Thus Wedde captures something of Horace’s constant awareness of human mortality, even if his Death is slightly less obtrusive than Horace’s often is – there’s nothing, for example, to match the icy pallida mors … pulsat!

4

Photographs, mirrors, reflections, images, memories, nostalgia. It might be thought that this could be the formula for an over-indulgence in maudlin sentimentality. Not at all. Wedde doesn’t fall into this trap. There is questioning, some sadness and poignancy, but what we have is primarily an affirmation of life and art and of the “mitred peaks” of nature. The poet’s aspirations are directed towards his own modern version of Horace’s Sabine Farm, where he can be freed from both artistic pretentiousness and from the need to sit “in meeting rooms filled with nodding / Heads” (“2.1 To my mirror”) – an expression echoed in the somewhat waspish “Epistle to a Virtuous Lieutenant” -– or “at the high table, to learn the secret / Handshakes of power and the muscular exercises of gate- / Keeping”.

The “dry years” were worth the wait. The Commonplace Odes is a welcome addition to Wedde’s poetic corpus, and a fine example of successful engagement with a classical poet, specifically as mediated through David Ferry. Among many of the other poems which might be singled out for special comment, I will only mention “5.1 To Taranaki” with its highly apt museological imagery, and its pyramids and oblivions. This clearly evokes Horace’s Exegi monumentum aere perennius, the opening line of the final poem of the collection of Odes published in 23 BC in which the poet makes his bid for immortality. Wedde’s final poem (“Carmen saeculare: for Carol and Abe”), however, is very different. We are left with a burning candle in memory of a dead child, the living children and the future they promise, the beauty of the natural world, the hint of human friendship and conviviality (Abe’s wine): in other words, life as we experience it as human beings, all summed up in the final phrase of the collection, “The sublime common place”.

 

John Davidson teaches in the Department of Classics at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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