Thinking Trifling Thoughts

In my last post I mentioned the conference that one of my good colleagues, Paul Martin, and I are organising for the 2nd and 3rd of May. As I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about that conference, especially what I’m going to be saying at it, I thought it’d be nice to put some of those initial thoughts to paper.

The conference itself is titled Trifling Matters: Nugatory Poetics & Comic Seriousness. In a nutshell, the conference aims to examine a variety of literature from across antiquity and into its reception that brazenly broadcasts its pointlessness to the reader/audience. These texts, which Paul and I have termed “nugatory” from the Latin term nugae (trifles/rubbish), are particularly interesting because, while they profess their lack of quality, they often hint at a level of self-importance or realism that trumps those texts that frequently win the title of the Best-Genre-Of-All-Time (e.g. history, tragedy, epic poetry, oratory). So what do these texts have to gain from defining themselves as trifling matters while also claiming that, to some extent, trifling matters?

Rather unsurprisingly, I’ve come towards nugae from Martial, whose first preface is an exercise in literary pointlessness. After warding off malign readers who would write the wrong kind of meaning into the poet’s work, Martial explains how he can get away with writing nasty, rude, and crude little epigrams:

I would excuse the playful truth of my words (i.e. epigram’s tongue) if the paradigm was mine: but thus wrote Catullus, thus Marsus, thus Pedo, thus Gaetulicus, thus whomever is read through. Yet if anyone is so ostentatiously severe that it is not sanctioned to speak Latin on any column in his presence, he can be content with the letter or rather the title. Epigrams [or “The Epigrams“] are written for those who usually watch Flora’s games… (1.praef.9-15)

So Martial pretends to be writing silly little poems that shouldn’t have people reading too much into them, but in these lines he specifies that he belongs to a long pedigree of other nugatory writers. For Martial, Catullus et al. represent a chain of succession to be joined, a canon to be written into. The epigrammatist emphasises that these poets are read all the way though as a mark of the readers’ respect for them, a respect that he desires for his own poetry elsewhere in the Epigrams (such as in book 2’s preface and opening poem). To Martial there is a long list of pointless paradigms who exemplify all that is good about epigram. On the one hand this offers him the chance to pass the buck for writing rude poems (“don’t blame me, blame that famous love poet, Catullus!”), but on the other it also lets him suggest that he too can be deemed part of this canon. Martial is pointing out his own (self-)importance even as he deprecates his own literary worth.

It’s probably not for nothing that in the first numbered poem of the collection that he then proceeds to announce his worldwide renown. Elsewhere he puffs that while readers claim to prefer lofty epic its his little epigrams that they always love. It’s a cheap shot, but when you write something that the nobles of literature sneer at it’s the cheap shots that count. Despite writing poems of a low genre, Martial claims an astonishing level of self-worth.

I could ramble on about Martial for quite some time, but for the conference I thought I’d move into pastures new (not least because two other people want to discuss my favourite poet at the conference…). While Martial might focus on flipping genres in his own poetry for his own work’s benefit, I decided to turn towards prose authors for my own paper. In particular, I want to look at Pliny the Younger, the well-known letter writer and orator, and see what he has to say about trifling poets. Pliny is interestingly situated in this mess of genre-interplay, as he writes little hendecasyllabic poems on the side (which no longer survive), but he also has a very important day job as a lawyer.

What I’m interested in exploring further, once I’ve found the time to look into it more deeply, is how Pliny characterises his own poetry given its complicated relationship with dialogues of literary worth in contemporaneous Latin prose. It’s one thing for a nugatory poet to make claims about nugatory worth, but how does a self-respecting senatorial orator get away with it? Both Quintilian and Tacitus (in his Dialogue of the orators) stress that oratory is the most important thing for a senator to involve themselves with at Rome. Poetry is for boys and people with too much time on their hands, while manly orators serve the state by doing something useful for a living. (It all sounds a bit like the sciences versus humanities debates we hear so often…).

So how does Pliny reconcile these generic differences? My initial thoughts are that he writes himself into both canons, while emphasising his own (self-)importance as an orator; his poetry is written in times of leisure, which lets him relax enough to be an effective statesman. By pondering on Pliny’s pointless poetry, I hope to pry apart these generic games a bit further and demonstrate how self-serving the discourse is on the higher and lower ends of the generic ladder. I’m also keen to talk to other disciples of the nugatory, and see how Pliny, Quintilian, and Tacitus slot into the broader discourse of nugatory poetics across antiquity (and beyond).

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Post-Viva Update

Confession: it’s been a while since I’ve updated the blog. Sorry! I successfully passed my viva with minor corrections in early January (woohoo!), and bizzarely I’ve been kept busier than I was before submission with a mixture of article writing, teaching, job applications, and part time work. On the side I’ve also begun to organise a conference with a colleague that will take place in early May entitled “Trifling Matters: Nugatory Poetics and Comic Seriousness‘ (for which a rudimentary website can be found here, and which will be updated as plans progress). In fact, I’ve effectively become a part time researcher, which feels very strange (I have half a day here and there, a few hours between teaching, that sort of thing), and makes it difficult to feel like I’m getting much ‘work’ done.

But anyway, today I thought I’d discuss the viva itself and how to approach life post-viva.

The viva itself is an arcane beast. After three (or more) years of hard research, thinking, and articulation of those thoughts through writing, the finished piece of work is subjected to two (or more) hours of oral examination. There are lots of self-help guides out there, but it’s hard to know what to prepare for and how. (I read How to Survive your Viva by Rowena Murray on a friend’s recommendation. It’s a bit basic at points, but it does take you through every possible stage of the process, and gives some food for thought.) I think the key issue I found was that I wanted to know what the exam would be like, and how I could ace it – essentially, I wanted to treat it like I’ve treated every other [written] exam I’ve ever taken.

But the problem of the viva is that it’s impossible to prepare for. To an extent, at least. Just as everyone’s PhD is a different entity, everyone’s viva voce involves a different subject and different examiners. Because of this I overprepared in some areas and underprepared in others, as I realised pretty soon into the process! While I had focused quite a lot on rereading the chapters and stitching together the overall argument of the thesis (an important thing to do, of course), my examiners were more intent on teasing out some of the bigger picture/blue skies thinking. And that made things quite uncomfortable at times. That’s not to say I hated the viva – I found it very discomforting emotionally as I dislike being put in the spotlight and poked and prodded at, but I also had the brilliant opportunity to discuss my work with a captive audience (and a very captive me).

In particular my examiners were interested in my methodological chapter, and some of the issues in how I drew several theoretical approaches together. There were disagreements, works I hadn’t read before came up (but I was honest about this), and by the end of the detailed discussion of this section I felt pretty thoroughly worn out. My examiners had told me at the start of the viva that they reckoned I would pass, but I was beginning to panic about major corrections (heaven forfend) by this stage. But everything was fine, and now the corrections have come back the majority of what we discussed is potentially shelved for ideas about The Book (cue dramatic music), which I think is a discussion for another day.

I think the main issue with the viva is that it can feel like a massive anticlimax. Three years of blood, sweat, and tears is compacted into two hours of non-stop discussion. It’s draining. I felt like an idiot for being so nervous I could barely string a complex sentence together. And when I found out it was minor corrections I thought “wait, really? After all that?” But it is what it is, and it should be celebrated for what it represents. It’s the end of a very long road, or at least a major stopping point along the road, because it’s important to note how much work there is still to do to turn the thesis into articles and/or a book project.

So life post-viva has been relatively idyllic. To an extent. I’ve taken up more hours at my part time job, and I teach more often now, and I can focus on other bits and pieces that I’ve neglected (like this blog, *cough*), so I’ve been kept happily busy. I’ve also taken the time out from the thesis to ‘recover’ from the viva, and to get my thoughts into order about the job market, book projects, what to do with this year. That sort of thing.

I think as a final note it’s important to reflect on what the PhD journey has been like. Like many, I was pretty naive when I entered the PhD programme. I thought it’d be like the MA, but more “PhD-y”, whatever that means. It’s been hard. I felt like quitting I don’t know how many times. Most of all it’s felt like I’ve been pulled apart and put back together again multiple times, but with (mostly) positive results. I always give a quick “warning Spiel” to wannabe PhD students about how difficult and isolating a PhD can be, but the positives far outweigh the negatives.

So while the PhD has been up and down I’m looking forward to the road ahead, and where it leads. Fingers crossed someone will pay me to teach and research Latin literature, and soon I’ll be published (woohoo!) in a few places. Here’s to making it this far, and to wanting to carry on.