Meeting a Poet

This weekend I met a fascinating gentleman by sheer chance when I visited a bookstore in Austin, Texas, specializing in rare, out-of-print and antiquarian books.

It’s not every day that you meet a British scholar of Germanic Languages and Literature. If I believe Wikipedia, he will be 87 this year. I hesitate to mention his name because he seems too distinguished to be the subject of one of my blog posts, and it’s not like he agreed to an interview. His letters, including correspondence with well-known figures, are archived at the Harry Ransom Center. (Julia Childs, for example, according to someone present.)

Anyway, he was a soft-spoken, white-bearded gentleman with a cane and a British accent who had studied at Oxford.  To an audience of two booksellers and myself, he read a passage from a poem he had translated. It was by the Roman poet Catullus, and he drew attention to the subtle sexual references, smiling and gently laughing in a most amiable fashion. One bookseller was seeking his signatures for two copies of his work.

The good professor’s own poetic efforts never attracted the recognition he sought to attain, and I could tell he had some regret. Earlier in the conversation, he lamented the Austin Symphony’s decision to collaborate with slam poets, which immediately won me over. I told him how impressed I was to learn of his presence in the Harry Ransom Center, and I stifled the urge to Google him on the spot.

“I mean, the Harry Center!  They have a lock of Milton’s hair. I saw Aldous Huxley’s manuscript of Brave New World there. That’s good company.” I would say it’s somewhat similar to being filed away in the Smithsonian. (I was sensitive enough not to use the phrase “filed away.”)

After some talk about Germany, Nietzsche came up in conversation. I pointed out that Nietzsche wanted to be a poet. Thus Spake Zarathustra, I said, had some poetic passages; he thought the book was pompous, to which I quickly nodded in agreement. (When you write a philosophical manifesto in the imitative style of a Biblical prophet, you can’t help but come off that way.)

I told him I went through a phase of reading Nietzsche, and that I have a book containing a selection of his letters. I confessed I hadn’t really read it, just paged through it, and purchased it after coming across one letter where Nietzsche thanks his mother for sending socks and sausages. It’s funny to contemplate the great Zarathustra, the herald of the coming Übermensch (Overman, or Superman) thanking his mom for a care package.

Well, it turns out the good professor had translated that very book! He took no offense. It’s great to meet a serious scholar who doesn’t take himself too seriously. I hope I can see him again.

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