In 2015, my colleague Dr Rachel Mairs and I organised an international workshop that we called ‘Materialising Poetry‘. I have very fond memories of the day, and the theme that we got to discuss with our colleagues and students has been on my mind for a long time.
One contribution that particularly resonated with me was that of my colleague Prof. Peter Robinson – a rare insight (rare to me, anyway) into the creative processes that make poetry materialise from the perspective of a creative poet.
I don’t consider myself a particularly creative (or even remotely inspired) person. I may have a certain talent to appreciate art and its aesthetics; but I don’t seem to have a natural gift to create art – be it verbal, musical, or otherwise creative.
Peter gave us the opportunity to re-live, and thus to comprehend, how he crafted a little poem called Sein und Zeit (it is discussed here). I was particularly struck by the reproduction of Peter’s original composition (the thing that scholars call autographon):
Very much in the way in which one may witness a painter or a sculptor in the process of applying touch after touch to a complex piece of art, here – I thought – one gets an immediate sense of the creative processes that resulted in something that, in the end, looks perfectly polished and as though it was always meant to be in its final form.
When it comes to the Roman world and my professional interest in the poetry of the Romans, this is precisely what I am missing – I get to see the results (often in a copy of a copy of a copy), but I hardly ever get to appreciate the process.
Would it not be amazing to get an idea of how ancient poets worked?
Sometimes there are flippant remarks that give an idea of a poet’s ethos and attitude, but these are not a glimpse into their workshop.
Ovid, for example, famously claimed that, whatever he said, automatically came forth in verse form. Vergil, in turn, is reported to have drawn on the peculiar idea that existed in the ancient world that bears would give birth to shapeless lumps rather than fully-formed cubs – lumps which they subsequently licked into shape: just like that, an ancient biography of Vergil claims, the great poet wrote his poetry.
But is that really how it worked for them?
More recently, I was struck by two passages that describe creative processes almost in passing – passages that seem to be a lot closer to the reality of creative writing nowadays (and, quite possibly, to the way poetry came about in the ancient world as well, at least in times in which writing was the preferred modus operandi).
The first piece that caught my attention is from Tacitus’ treatise Dialogus de oratoribus. Here, one of the interlocutors, Curiatius Maternus, is introduced as a poet who writes tragedies on Greek and Roman subject matters, with a certain (dangerous) gift to produce dramatic pieces that are potentially relevant and even dangerous within the political framework of his own time.
When asked if he wanted to reconsider some more problematic bits parts of his recently produced piece Cato, Maternus says (Tac. dial. 3.3, transl. W. Peterson/M. Winterbottom):
Tum ille: “Leges tu quid Maternus sibi debuerit, et adgnosces quae audisti. Quod si qua omisit Cato, sequenti recitatione Thyestes dicet; hanc enim tragoediam disposui iam et intra me ipse formavi. Atque ideo maturare libri huius editionem festino, ut dimissa priore cura novae cogitationi toto pectore incumbam.”
To this he rejoined, “The reading of it will show you what Maternus considered his duty to himself: you will find it just as you heard it read. Yes, and if ‘Cato’ has left anything unsaid, at my next reading it shall be supplied in my ‘Thyestes’; for so I call the tragedy which I have already planned and of which I have the outline in my head. It is just because I want to get the first play off my hands and to throw myself whole-heartedly into my new theme that I am hurrying to get this work ready for publication.”
Here, Tacitus has his Maternus describe the creative planning process of a substantial piece of poetry – an entire drama, in fact – with the remarkable words disposui iam et intra me ipse formavi, I have it already arranged and given it its shape (forma!) inside of me. (The visual, tangible, material aspect of poetry should not ever be underestimated, I think – as well as its potential for transformation(s).)
The second passage that seemed remarkable comes from Suetonius’ Life of Nero, in which the author reports what he discovered with regard to the infamous emperor’s poetic production (ch. 52, transl. J. C. Rolfe):
Liberalis disciplinas omnis fere puer attigit. Sed a philosophia eum mater avertit monens imperaturo contrariam esse; a cognitione veterum oratorum Seneca praeceptor, quo diutius in admiratione sui detineret. Itaque ad poeticam pronus carmina libenter ac sine labore composuit nec, ut quidam putant, aliena pro suis edidit. Venere in manus meas pugillares libellique cum quibusdam notissimis versibus ipsius chirographo scriptis, ut facile appareret non tralatos aut dictante aliquo exceptos, sed plane quasi a cogitante atque generante exaratos; ita multa et deleta et inducta et superscripta inerant. Habuit et pingendi fingendique non mediocre studium.
When a boy he took up almost all the liberal arts; but his mother turned him from philosophy, warning him that it was a drawback to one who was going to rule, while Seneca kept him from reading the early orators, to make his admiration for his teacher endure the longer. Turning therefore to poetry, he wrote verses with eagerness and without labour, and did not, as some think, publish the work of others as his own. I have had in my possession note-books and papers with some well-known verses of his, written with his own hand and in such wise that it was perfectly evident that they were not copied or taken down from dictation, but worked out exactly as one writes when thinking and creating; so many instances were there of words erased or struck through and written above the lines. He likewise had no slight interest in painting and sculpture.
Little of Nero’s poetic production survived, and what did survive, does indeed reveal a certain talent.
More importantly, however, the passage seems to show that in the Roman world creative processes in the medium of language – poetry and the production of poetry – were not necessarily altogether different from how they tend to be now.
The general absence of evidence – i. e. author’s original copies and notebooks that would allow us to appreciate the way in which they composed their works – is not evidence for absence.