Episode 70

Drinking Ode by Matthew Buckley Smith

 

Matthew Buckley Smith reads ‘Drinking Ode’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

Midlife

Homunculus book cover

Available from:

Midlife is available from:

The publisher: Measure Press

Amazon: UK | US

Bookshop.org: US

 

Drinking Ode

by Matthew Buckley Smith

for R

Drink with me, old man — there’s no time
And no use trying to be good.
Our flesh was supple, our thoughts sublime,
And now death eats us alive, and should.
The gods aren’t missing any sleep
Over the altar lights we burn
To honor afterlives we keep
Pretending we might someday earn.
The king, the peasant farmer, even
You and I and everyone,
Can pick the suit we’d like to leave in
But not the day the tailor’s done.
So cowards survive the battlefield
And bullies fill the lifeboats first
And rich kids get their records sealed,
But some verdicts can’t be reversed.
Men say a river worms around
The grove where dead souls speak again,
But that black swamp has long since drowned
Both ferryboat and ferryman.
Your land, your house, your tender wife,
The plum trees planted by your hand —
You’ll leave them when you leave this life
For a ditch beneath a cypress stand,
And the man who takes your place will spill
Your choicest vintage wine onto
The white jacquard chaise longue you still
Believe somehow belongs to you.

 


Interview transcript

Mark: Matthew, where did this poem come from?

Matthew: So this poem is a, I know a lot of translators, I always hesitate to say translation. It’s not a translation from Horace. It is an imitation or admiration of a very famous poem by the Roman poet, Horace, who was always writing to his friends saying, trying to offer some kind of consolation. I fell in love with Horace in my mid-20s in the pit of a really, probably one of the worst depressions of my life. And it was a book of poems that my friend, Ryan Wilson, also a poet, gave to me, the Odes of Horace, in this case translated by David Ferry, that I went to in that time. And I read and reread and he had marked pages with all of his favorites. And this was certainly one of them.

And what initially drew me to Horace, I mean, there’s a lot there to love. And my classicist friends tend to prefer other translations, but what I really found congenial about him was his willingness to address really bleak questions always with good cheer and a very level head.

I think some people think of Horace as a kind of a poet of conventional wisdom, and he does have a lot of conventional wisdom. In fact, all of his wisdom is pretty much conventional, but I don’t see these as poems with lessons or morals, so much as poems that are sort of human reminders, or even in their way, like letters to friends. When you reassure a friend, when you write to a friend or you speak to a friend about who’s having trouble, it’s not like you’re coming up with these pearls of wisdom for him. It’s not like you’re the one who coined there are plenty of fish in the sea, but it’s your role in part to be the one who is steady and who is reliable when their own life is tumultuous.

And Horace is, among many other things, as I said, among his many virtues, he has played that role in my life, even though he’s been dead for 2,000 years. So that’s broadly where this poem came from, and it is dedicated to Ryan, and it is addressing him, who has long been both a poetry friend and a drinking friend.

Mark: You’ve got quite a lot of classical references in your book Midlife.’ Are you able to read the original or is this purely via translation?

Matthew: Oh, I’m a total dilettante. I mean, I like having the en face, the facing translation where you can see both the original Roman or Greek in some cases and the English. I can pick up here and there snatches of Latin, but I certainly don’t know it at all. I have a lot of good friends who are very good classicists. And I like to read translations. I like to read translations of the same poems by lots of different people as well, which does help give you a slightly better sense of the original. But no, I am in no way a Latinist or a classicist really at all.

Mark: And his odes are numbered, aren’t they? Could you give us the number so if anybody’s listening…

Matthew: So this is 214, which is sometimes given the subtitle ‘To Posthumous’, which was a guy’s name in addition to being a word for us, posthumous meaning after the death of, after the burial of. And presumably posthumous then was the name of a guy who was born after his father died. I assume that’s what that name would have meant. But who knows?

Mark: So can you give us a quick sketch then of this Horace poem and what it meant to you before we then look at what you did with it?

Matthew: Yeah, I am very unoriginal as a poet in being obsessed with death. When my daughter was in fifth grade…

Mark: One of those things that never goes away.

Matthew: Right, yeah, yeah, yeah. No, when my daughter was, not in fifth grade, five, she had a show and tell at school and she had to tell the teacher. There’s something she had asked for specifically, but she said, ‘Well, it’s blue and it looks like an object. It looks like part of the human body.’ And the teacher said, ‘What does it do?’ She said, ‘Oh, it reminds you that you’re going to die.’ The teacher said, ‘Is it a memento mori? Is that what you brought to class?’ Which it was. So yeah, this poem is a memento mori. I mean, a lot of Horace’s, Horace is probably most famous in the culture at large for the two words ‘carpe diem’, ‘seize the day’, or in the original, ‘pluck the day’. And the advice of many of his poems, this one included, is whether implicitly or explicitly, we’re not going to be around forever. Enjoy what you have right now. And so it is a drinking poem. It is an invitation to drink and the closing image of it, which I have preserved with a little bit of embellishment for Ryan’s sake, because he has a white jacquard chaise longue he’s very proud of. And so I had to envision it getting wine spilled on it.

But the closing image is basically that, whoever inherits your property when you die, will inherit your vast wine cellar with all of this Caecuban wine, this precious wine. And he’s not just going to drink it. He’s going to be throwing a party and spilling it on the floor. Which is to say, why don’t you open a bottle for us right now? Because somebody’s going to eventually.

So I mean, I think that the broad outlines of the poem in which he enumerates, he gives more examples from mythology in his version, but he enumerates that all of our efforts to preserve our lives, all of our efforts to distract ourselves, all of our efforts to predict when we will die are all basically in vain. And lots of other people have attempted them before. And all of us end up in Kassetus, and one of the many deep black rivers down in the underworld. Hell for the Romans and Greeks was not hell for the way we imagine it, Christian, the people in Christianity and after Christianity imagined it. It was a little more universal and a little more gloomy, but not necessarily full of torment. Though they did have a spot for that, for the real bad guys.

Mark: Okay. And so he didn’t try and cheer his friend up. I mean, he’s not trying to take his mind off it. He’s confirming it and saying, ‘Yeah, this too shall pass.’ And that’s exactly why we should savour the moment.

Matthew: And I think that was part of what really appealed to me because I couldn’t… I mean, it was a time in my life when I came to him that I really just couldn’t stop in every second. For me, it’s like, I think about death every hour or so, but then it was, I think about death every minute. And so it was good to read something that did not look away, that didn’t come up with any pretences and that just said, all right, so let’s stare it right in the face and still open a bottle of wine.

Mark: Right.

Matthew: I named it ‘Drinking Ode,’ his original poems don’t have titles properly, they just have numbers. And it ends with wine and I believe it, I can’t remember, I may have put the wine in the beginning as well. I don’t know if that’s in the original, but the other real comfort this poem is of course about is friendship. That’s the chief consolation. The wine is here now, but the wine’s going to be here later if you leave it. We’re here now.

Mark: Yeah. Yeah, I love that.

Matthew: And so, yeah, this is my clumsy, stiff, American, heteronormative way to write a love letter to my friend, Ryan.

Mark: And it’s a lovely thing to do, I think. I mean, just picking up on your point just now about, I mean, I’ve suffered from depression myself. I used to be a psychotherapist, so I spent a lot of time talking to people dealing with depression. And I know from first and second-hand experience, looking in the face and saying, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to sugarcoat it.’ That can actually be very consoling in and of itself, because you’re not invalidating somebody’s feelings or their state of mind.

And once you do that, then other possibilities come to light. Like, I think it’s a lovely point that you make that it’s not just about the wine. Wine is really, way back in our civilisation, is really kind of a lubricant for friendship, a social experience. Because it would be a completely different experience if it was, ‘I’m going to sit here and drink this on my own’.

Matthew: Right, yeah. Yeah, I mean, and there’s a fine line between drinking so you can talk with a friend and having a friend over so you can drink. [Laughter] I mean, it’s a lubricant, it makes us less inhibited. I should also mention, I don’t drink anymore.

But yeah, the real occasion is the friend’s presence and the friend’s life. You know, in some ways, it’s a harsh poem because he’s basically saying there’s no escape. Everything you cherish will pass, or will pass from your hands into somebody else’s hands. And we’re all going to end up in the same place. But it is in a backhanded way. And the Romans were, in some ways, not unlike Americans in that they had a little bit of a constipated, stiff upper lip masculinity to them. But it is a way of saying, of celebrating that his friend is here. But all of the lines that say, ‘You will die,’ are also lines saying, ‘You’re alive.’ And I’m, and he’s, you know, and he’s, like, as much as he teases him, he’s writing to his friend, and this is his second book. I mean, he’d written his first book, made an impression. He knew this was not to throw away. He knew this was a significant thing, and he was dedicating it to his friend.

Mark: So that’s what Horace did, and that’s what Horace has meant to you. Now tell me a bit about how you approach this poem.

Matthew: Yeah. So you mentioned before we started recording that writing in form, that is writing, usually, when people casually say writing in form or writing formal poetry, I guess we mean with metre and rhyme, because there are plenty of other varieties in form, including in this book, in this poem, actually. I do spend a lot of time revising. I spend a lot of time tinkering and fiddling with lines. But even more than that, I spend a lot of time writing out drafts and then throwing almost all of them away. So I love reading old poems. I love sort of thinking big, complicated thoughts about poems and how they fit together and making plans and coming up with sketches. But in the moment of writing, I am very seat of pants.

And so this poem really just began with the first line, which is how most of my poems begin, and which is the line that is not really a rendering of any line in the poem, exactly. ‘Drink with me, old man — there is no time,’ which isn’t even right. Is that a sentence? What is that? It’s like two sentences, two independent clauses. I just put a dash in the middle because I didn’t know. But it felt like a thing that I would say to a friend. It felt true enough as an utterance. It doesn’t really scan, meaning that you can’t really make any good metre out of it when you try to break it down. But it’s eight syllables, and I thought, all right, well, the shorter the line of verse, the less it matters so much where the stresses go. [Laughter] You know? Like you have like, especially with the tetrameter and trimeter, they kind of, they get a little mushy at times.

And so eight syllables is roughly four beats. And so what if I just wrote this poem with four-beat lines and then this first line would fit? So that was really where it started. And as with most poems, I just gave it a try with the assumption that I would throw it away. And this is when I ended up hanging onto and tinkering with a good bit more.

In addition to Horace, one of my other great nerdy poetry loves is the also very uncool English poet, A. E. Housman, who wrote a lot of poems in short four-beat lines in quatrains, which is this poem is printed in a big column, but it’s written in quatrains, meaning little four-line units, it rhymed every other line rhyming. And which is, he wrote many, many, many poems in that form. He wrote about the most perfect little tetrameter quatrains that have been written in English. His poems are as effortless and spotless as pretty much it gets.

And something he did that I only noticed around the time I was working on this poem, which was also a time when I had this particular ode in my head, was he borrowed something from really, really old English poetry. Before we had proper rhyming and before we had even proper metre in Anglo-Saxon poetry, we were just sort of hammering out these thudding four-beat lines without metre in any regular sense. Sorry, it is regular. It’s not regular with the smooth regularity of post-Norman invasion poetry.

Mark: Well you’re not counting all the syllables in Anglo-Saxon verse.

Matthew: Exactly, yeah, you’re only counting the stresses.

Mark: And the syllables can go here, there and…

Matthew: Yeah, in a way, it’s a little closer to sprung rhythm or it’s a little closer to, it’s actually what it’s very close to in some ways is the prosody of, I mean, the metre, the syllable stress counting of rap, which is conventionally a four-beat line. And part of what is fun about rap is that you can fit as many syllables as you can say smoothly. It’s up to you to deliver it in a credible way, but you get four beats. And so however many syllables you can fit into those four beats and make it sound good, that’s what a line is. So it’s a little closer to that. And the thing that the Anglo-Saxons did, they didn’t use rhyme in a regular way. So rhyme links two lines or more together to each other.

They used alliteration to link a line to itself. So every line had two halves, as you know, and they would sort of staple those two halves together by having a stressed sound in either of them or more sometimes begin with the same letter sound. So they would have, there’s a line, oh, I don’t want to quote it because it’s copyrighted. But this is how they would link their lines together. And it’s something Housman does all the time, even though he also writes in these sort of pristine rhyming perfect, accentual-syllabic quatrains. He would often, the front end of a line and the back end of a line would have a stressed syllable that began with the same sound. And so he would sort of, his lines would be themselves stitched together with these little additional alliterative links, as well as having this sort of chiming, beautiful, series of quatrain rhymes.

Mark: And Horace does this too, doesn’t he? He’s got these, as I understand it, very tight, metrical units in his odes. That was fairly typical.

Matthew: The thing, yeah, so I, as a dilettante and a heathen, I like Horace in part for his tone and his management of argument. And by argument in poetry, it’s not at all like argument in a debate club. Logic is very secondary. It’s an emotional argument. My classicist friends, if I had to boil their love of Horace down to one word, it would probably be syntax. You know, Latin has very different grammar rules in English, of course. And what they often love most about Horace is the way that he arranges the order of the words. And he’s famous for these long sentences that you have to get all the way to the end of before you get the verb that makes it all make sense. And they cherish the way that he drops information out in this very deliberate way across the length of that long winding sentence. That is beyond my canon. That is something I don’t know.

Not knowing Latin, I’m a, I come to it in my barbarian way, liking the gist and the, yeah, he wrote very, an ode in the Horatian sense is a poem written in a series of regular stanzas. So he wrote these different units of lines and every unit would have the same metre, the same length number of lines. And it would sort of be the same unit on the page. And he would write the poem stacking a bunch of those in a row and they were all symmetrical. And that sort of formally was what he did as an ode. But ode has meant a lot of different things at a lot of different times.

Mark: And so you’ve clearly, you’re channeling that in your drinking ode. Does he also have this rather dark humour that you’ve got where you’ve got lines like, ‘Now death eats us alive?’ And ‘You and I and everyone, / Can pick the suit we’d like to leave in, / But not the day the tailor’s done’. And obviously the unforgettable chaise longue at the end. Has he got thatmordant humour or is that your kind of…?

Matthew: I think he does, I mean, he does at least as I read him having it. I mean, it is often making fun. I mean, he is a great, he’s like in the long tradition of poets and standup comedians and bards, he is great at simultaneously boasting and mocking himself. And he has poems in which he makes fun of what a bad soldier he was when he was a soldier. He famously, he had a tumultuous life early on. His father was born a slave and then sort of came to freedom. Slavery was very different in ancient Rome than it was in other parts of the world at other times. But he then joined the wrong side of the Roman civil war. He joined the Brutus side, lost. Supposedly ran away from that, was not a good soldier. But in losing, he then had all of his property and his father’s property confiscated.

And then later, because he was friends with Virgil and Virgil was friends with Maecenas, he became a favoured poet under Augustus. And so he sort of had his fortune taken away and then given back to him. And he famously was given a Sabine farm where he lived and loafed and wrote his poems. But he was always aware that things could turn.

He has a poem in which he, it’s a poem about how a tree almost fell on him. And he’s just cursing the tree with fury. He’s so mad at this tree. And he’s so mad at the person who planted this tree that almost fell and killed him. And then he imagines dying. And if he had died, he imagines he would have gone down to the underworld and he would have been listening to Sappho and Alcaeus, these ancient Greek poets he revered. And so the end of the poem is strangely wistful. I think he is very, yeah, very much a, he’s very attuned to life’s ironies and turns.

And this was, I should say also, in being a poem in part about my friend, Ryan, around the time… I was raised very conservatively and very Catholic and really lost my faith later in life than some people do. And around that same time, my friend Ryan converted to Catholicism. I mean, he was born Catholic, but he sort of, he had an adult awakening and he became a very devout Catholic. So we sort of traded places. And I think that has been part of how we’ve related to each other and talked to each other since then.

So he gave me this book and I was sort of giving it back to him in my pagan atheist hopeless way to his freshly believing and faithful and hopeful self. So yeah, that’s all, yeah, that tension and that awareness of change is certainly part of Horace and part of my own outlook. I’ll mention, the tailor line is in part a quiet teasing of Ryan who’s always been very particular about how he dresses and is a big believer in men should wear suits. When I’m around him, I tend to dress up more because I feel self-conscious. I want to look correct, but yeah, I had to give him a little grief over that.

Mark: But that’s, again, it strikes me that’s another nice thing that you’ve channelled from Horace is the spirit of friendship, the give and take, the exchange, the reaching out, the teasing, but at the same time the consoling. I mean, it strikes me as almost quite a British tone you’ve got here that it’s very dark and very humorous, but at the same time, there is consolation in there if you look at it.

Matthew: Oh, yeah, I believe so. I think that’s certainly, I think it may be more native to male friendship, though I think it not exclusively. Part of the friendship is playful abuse.

Mark: Well, it’s certainly very characteristic of male British friendship, I can say. So yeah, I found that very congenial. And there’s an interesting kind of just thinking about this in the context of the book as a whole. You’ve got this kind of, like I say, there’s a lot of classical references or classical games. Like there’s a hilarious one about the version of Achilles who didn’t go to the Trojan War.

Matthew: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Mark: And we were talking about Auden before we got started. I think the tone and the way you handle it is very Auden-esque. You have a lot of anachronisms as well. You know that famous line in Auden, ‘Caesar’s double-bed is warm.’ I mean, of course he doesn’t have a double-bed, but in the Auden version he did and it kind of makes sense.

Matthew: Yeah, and the clerk is writing on the pink form, ‘I do not like my work,’ in that same, maybe in the same stanza.

Mark: That’s right, yeah, yeah, yeah. And you’ve got that kind of feel. And I really mean this as a very high compliment that it makes me think of that Auden-esque, urbane, classical, humorous, ironic, but also formally very accomplished. Was Auden, was he a presiding spirit for you or is this?

Matthew: Oh, I mean, I love Auden. He’s, yeah, I mean, I still think he’s responsible for, what I get grief for this, but I would argue is the most beautiful love poem of the 20th century, which is ‘Lullaby.’ The opening two lines are, ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love, / human on my faithless arm,’ which is just about as perfect as it gets. But yeah, I mean, I love, and I think ‘The Fall of Rome’ and ‘Shield of Achilles’ are two that stand out as being particularly present.

But I think for, you’re right about the anachronisms and the way I read the anachronisms or the kind of the inclusion in a way in both directions of new things, things that didn’t exist back in poems about old times or vice versa, that it is in part a way to make a joke, but it’s also in part, I think, a, it’s almost literary realism in the sense that if you write poetry, then you’re living with these guys. You’re living in the same, you’re sharing, that they know, at least some of them know, Horace certainly, says in one of his poems, ‘I’m building a monument more permanent than bronze.’ And, Dante was not shy about including himself in the among the circle of the immortal poet, there was only like four or five best poets in history. And he was like, oh yeah. When he walked into the room, they were like, ‘Oh, finally you’re here.’

So like, I mean, plenty of poets have called their shots. Shakespeare says, ‘So long as men can breathe, their eyes can see, so long lives this and this gives life to thee.’ So a lot of these guys knew that not only are they responding to poets who lived before them, but they’re speaking to poets who live after them. And even Eliot says that, you borrow from the tradition, but you also reorder the tradition every time you contribute to it.

So, I think of a, there’s a Spanish grad student I knew in, when I was in grad school, who, he walked into a bar, went to, of course we were always studying in bars. And I made some crack about, I said, ‘Oh, all of Ryan’s friends are dead.’ Meaning all of his friends are, you know, wore togas or fluffy collars, and Manuel’s response is, ‘They are not dead.’ Which I think is right. And it’s how I feel with all of these old guys, whether it’s Auden or Horace, who are, lived in radically different times, but they are both dead and they’re both very much alive.

Mark: And isn’t that a lovely thought to carry into, maybe we can hear the poem again and just think about that, because it’s a poem about the inevitability of death. And yet what you’ve just said is in a sense, they’re not dead at all.

Matthew: Yeah, that’s the, that is the, that is the simultaneously generous and egomaniacal promise of poetry. We want to preserve the things we love and we want to live forever. And we go to poetry, sometimes to… I think of Ben Johnson writing about his daughter’s death and, it’s not, it is once that, oh, sorry, not, well, his daughter, he has a beautiful poem about his daughter, but I was thinking of the poem about his son’s death, which is ‘a child of my right hand’, speaking of his son, Benjamin, which is the meaning of the word Benjamin. ‘Here lies Ben Johnson, his best piece of poetry’ that, you know, poetry is, yeah, I think writers, poets are, to some extent, always vampiric, always self-serving, but also, at our best, maybe have a service to offer out of love to the world that we encounter, however briefly and tipsily while we’re here.

Mark: I can’t top that, Matthew. That’s the perfect place to end. Thank you very much. Let’s hear the poem again.

Matthew: Great.


 

Drinking Ode

by Matthew Buckley Smith

for R

Drink with me, old man — there’s no time
And no use trying to be good.
Our flesh was supple, our thoughts sublime,
And now death eats us alive, and should.
The gods aren’t missing any sleep
Over the altar lights we burn
To honor afterlives we keep
Pretending we might someday earn.
The king, the peasant farmer, even
You and I and everyone,
Can pick the suit we’d like to leave in
But not the day the tailor’s done.
So cowards survive the battlefield
And bullies fill the lifeboats first
And rich kids get their records sealed,
But some verdicts can’t be reversed.
Men say a river worms around
The grove where dead souls speak again,
But that black swamp has long since drowned
Both ferryboat and ferryman.
Your land, your house, your tender wife,
The plum trees planted by your hand —
You’ll leave them when you leave this life
For a ditch beneath a cypress stand,
And the man who takes your place will spill
Your choicest vintage wine onto
The white jacquard chaise longue you still
Believe somehow belongs to you.

 


Midlife

‘Drinking Ode’ is from Midlife  by Matthew Buckley Smith, published by Measure Press.

Midlife cover

Available from:

Midlife is available from:

The publisher: Measure Press

Amazon: UK | US

Bookshop.org: US

Matthew Buckley Smith

Matthew Buckley Smith portrait photo

Matthew Buckley Smith is the author of the poetry collections Midlife and Dirge for an Imaginary World. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and daughters, and he hosts the poetry podcast SLEERICKETS.

And if you haven’t heard Matthew’s podcast Sleerickets, I heartily recommend it. It’s a very insightful as well as funny treatment of what he calls ‘poetry and other problems’. He interviewed me on his podcast a couple of years ago, and we had a great conversation about poetic form.

MatthewBuckleySmith.com

A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

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The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

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