‘Economics of Poetry’ Conference: Rome, April 28-30 2016  

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Used with permission from the ‘Economics of Poetry’ conference organisers.

Tara Auty reflects on the recent ‘Economics of Poetry’ conference at the American University at Rome.

Held on the grounds of the American University at Rome (AUR), from April 28-30 2016, the ‘Economics of Poetry’ conference was an academic gathering to discuss and advance the study of ‘efficient techniques of producing neo-Latin verse.’ Organised by Paul Gwynne of the AUR and Bernhard Schirg of the Freie Universität Berlin, and funded jointly by those institutions, this conference brought international scholars together to share their research into the practices of efficiency that were intrinsic to the production of Latin poetry in the early modern period. This approach ‘analyses the techniques authors employed and developed to reduce the effort of poetic composition, streamline its production, and facilitate its presentation when time was a crucial factor for success.’ What follows is a brief summary of some of the insights that came to light over the course of seventeen varied and dynamic presentations that were particular helpful or novel to me, but the full listing of the abstracts can be found here.

Susanna de Beer launched the conference with her keynote presentation, Reveal, Reuse, Recycle! How Digital Tools Can Help Detect Efficiency in Giannantonio’s Campano’s (1429-1477) Poetry. Dr. de Beer’s paper questioned the very paradigm by which neo-Latin poetry has thus far been judged, and invited the attendees to consider repetition and self-referencing within the corpora of early modern Latin poets not as ‘laziness’ or ‘insincerity,’ but instead as well-developed strategies to meet the demands of the patronage system. One of the major contributions that the concept of ‘economics of poetry’ is making to the field of neo-Latin criticism is that it is encouraging scholars to reassess intratextuality (i.e., self-repetition and self-allusion), which has traditionally been devalued in contrast with intertextuality (i.e., repetitions from and allusions to other authors’ works, usually already well-regarded and known) as a viable and significant practice in literary production.

In a period where competition for patronage could be fierce, and an author’s livelihood depended on their ability to adapt, the capacity to reuse pre-fabricated material was a great benefit and was not necessarily viewed as a lack of originality. Paul Gwynne’s paper, The Economics of Eulogy: Johannes Michael Nagonius (c. 1450-c.1510), highlighted the ways in which Nagonius continuously revised his poetry to reflect developing political situations, with particular reference to a funeral song derived from an original pseudo-Ovidian source that he repeatedly adapted to mourn different significant personages. In Spamming the Council of Milan: Pietro Lazzaroni (c.1420-c1497) Spreading His Poems to Lombardian Patricians, Bernhard Schirg pointed out that these instances of self-repetition can be viewed as variations on a basic template, and allowed the extremely prolific Lazzaroni to engage in ‘cold-calling’ potential patrons by show-casing the kind of work he was capable of adapting to them specifically.

As well as reusing existing models within a given genre, authors also engaged widely in intertextual borrowing across genres and across languages. Elena Dahlberg’s presentation, String Your Lyre Promptly! Magnus Rönnow’s (1665?-1735) Latin Poetry from the Great Northern War, foregrounded the variety of sources used by the Swede neo-Latin poet in his coverage of contemporary military events. Detailed textual comparison showed that Rönnow used printed news sources alongside literary accounts of the conflict, so that his own poetry ‘blurred the boundaries between truth and fiction.’ Authors using these contemporaneous sources had to find linguistic strategies to render their material into neo-Latin, and these strategies in themselves can be viewed as part and parcel of the practice of ‘economics of poetry,’ wherein textual sources are the bare resources of poetic production, subject to the labour of the author to create a viable end-product.

Repetition in and of itself does not necessarily equate to less literary labour, and the genre of the Cento further highlights this complexity. The opening keynote presentation by Dr. de Beer invited attendees to question whether ‘repetition can be both efficient and meaningful,’ and in her paper, Riuso ed Economia Nella Pratica della Poesia ‘Centonaria,’ Maria Teresa Galli showed that repetition, far from being a ‘shortcut,’ in fact adds layers of meaning and can prove to be quite an inefficient practice. Assembled entirely from the fragmented lines of another author’s work, laid out in a new order, Cento poems were acts of ‘literary acrobatics,’ and the writing of them was an exercise undertaken by the learned to showcase their knowledge of classical works and to demonstrate the author’s ability to rework and remould well-known masterpieces. The finished product is a multi-layered puzzle, which simultaneously recalls the original stories from which they have been extracted while piecing together a new story, a feat made all the more impressive by the appearance of effortlessness.

This semblance of effortlessness was also a key feature in the phenomenon of ‘fast composition,’ as discussed by Marc Laureys in The Aesthetics of Mourning: Techniques of Composition in Neo-Latin Funeral Poetry from Germany and the Low Countries (16th and 17th Centuries). Speedy writing had long been associated with improvisation and extemporising, and diametrically opposed to polished sophistry. In this model, the latter was associated with guile and superficiality, while the former was authentic, candid and unpolished. Statius’ Silvae provided the key classical exemplar for this idea of ‘spontaneous’ writing, as Professor Laurey illustrated, and was one of the main literary precedents for early modern authors writing Latin funeral poems (who, naturally, had certain time-pressures on their compositions). Fast, unpolished writing is motivated by intense emotion in the Statian model, and the claims to extraordinary speed embedded in these poems were thus part and parcel of the ‘aesthetics of mourning’ characteristic of this genre.

In the final panel of the conference, Elizabeth Sandis similarly addressed the strategies employed by William Gager (1555-1622) to produce a high-quality piece of work in a very limited time-frame in Playing Virgil on Short Notice. Following the orders of the Chancellor of Oxford University to stage an original performance for a Polish dignitary visiting England in 1538, Gager wrote the 1,300 verse Dido in approximately three weeks. This new composition, partly based on his ‘youthful adaptations of Virgil’s Aeneid,’ was developed to serve a propagandistic purpose and highlight the beneficent generosity of Queen Elizabeth I to the foreign ambassador. One of the most salient points made by Dr. Sandis in this presentation was that the success of this performance relied on a shared knowledge of the story of Dido: by choosing an iconic text as a base model, Gager efficiently creates meaning by drawing on the audience’s assumed collective memory of the original story.

The question of how to detect efficient techniques of poetic production was one that was addressed to varying degrees by some of the papers, but the most practical guidance was given by Dr. de Beer in her keynote speech. Various digital tools have emerged, and are continuously emerging, that allow scholars to not only access Latin texts in their entirety, but also to quickly detect intratextual and intertextual relationships by enabling searches for individual words, phrases and motifs. Two examples are ‘Musisque Deoque’ and Dr. de Beer’s own project, ‘Mapping Visions of Rome.’

This is no doubt only the beginning of what is already proving to be an extremely fruitful and innovative movement to reassess particular features of neo-Latin poetry, and its usefulness in literary criticism and history will surely become evident to scholars working on material in other languages, genres and periods. Under the editorial guidance of Paul Gwynne and Bernhard Schirg, the findings of this conference will be further developed into a collection to be published by Peter Lang in late 2016/early 2017.This will be the largest contribution thus far to the growing body of ‘economics of poetry’ material already published:

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