After the publication of his early work Childe Harold, Lord Byron (1788--1824) memorably said that he “awoke one morning and found myself famous.” He became, in fact, something of a global superstar, adumbrating the kind of fame later reserved for the likes of Sinatra and Elvis, who weren’t even poets. English lit students will remember his club foot, his incestuous affair with his half sister, his invention of “the Byronic hero,” his death at age 36 while fighting for Greek independence from the Turks. His great masterpiece is, of course, Don Juan, a poem of more than 2,000 stanzas of ottava rima, a nimble 8-line vessel that rhymes abababcc and is borrowed from the Italians. This extraordinary poem, which Byron called an “Epic Satire,” remains funny, biting, and highly readable. The “Fragment” that usually begins texts of the poem includes these lines:
And for the future—(but I write this reeling,
Having got drunk exceedingly today,
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
I say—the future is a serious matter—
And so—for God’s sake—hock and soda water!
He is, he writes later, “fond of fire, and crickets, and all that,/A lobster salad, and champagne, and chat.”
I loved reading Byron long ago when I was a student, but my impression has been that his fame has waned, his influence abated, in the 187 years since his death. At least that was my feeling until I came upon one of the most impressive and audacious long poems of our time—Elinor Nauen’s So Late into the Night (Rain Mountain Press, NYC), some 625 stanzas of ottava rima containing a poem that is at once a homage to Don Juan and a completely contemporary comic epic in its own right. Like Byron’s, Nauen’s poem is full of acute observations, wry reflections, loves, resentments, and silliness. You will learn about her two romantic obsessions (Derek Jeter and her husband Johnny Stanton), her thoughts on poetry, politics, even cars:
The fastest car I ever drove (versus
The car I drove fastest) must have been Paul
Stallings’ Ferrari. Slowest? The worst is
My ’70 Datsun 510, which qual-
Ified for many unkind curses
Each time it wobbled. Not a car to haul
Ass in! I loved it, though, as I did my
Every vehicle. Till we said goodbye.
...I can’t seem to endorse
A stance on the presence of God or soul.
I’ve resolved to assign whatever force
Is the reason for existence the role
And name “God.” It’s how to live in the presence
Of the mystery that tests my essence.
Part of the narrative of So Late into the Night involves a road trip, but, really, the language of the entire poem has unrelenting drive and acceleration, a rollicking momentum that gets you home right before the poetry curfew kicks in. Byron and ottava rima, Nauen says in her introduction, gave her the means to “contain, shape and propel everything I could possibly want to say—narration, social commentary, description—in a persona I could both reinvent and stay true to. I knew I would discover more and more ways to live inside this form.” She has certainly succeeded. Next thing you know, she’s going to wake up famous.