What is a Reedie, Anyway? (continued)

Photos by Matt D’Annunzio

Joseph Conlon


Hometown: Pleasantville, New York

Adviser: Wally Englert

Thesis:Poetics and Genre in Virgil’s Georgics

What it’s about: Georgics is a poem about farming in the Italian countryside, which includes philosophical musings about the cosmos, elegiac longings for Saturn’s Golden Age, and even an epic about a beekeeper. My thesis explores how the Georgics pushed the limits of its genre, and how poetry functioned in Augustan Rome.

What it’s really about: The nature of poetry and the poetry of nature.

Who I was when I got to Reed: I came to Reed from a Jesuit high school in Manhattan. I had no idea what to expect.

Influential book: I read the Iliad 10 times the summer before I got to Reed and then 4 or 5 more times in the first two weeks of class. The beauty of Homer’s verses and the magnificence of his world are what inspired me to teach myself Greek.

Favorite spot: The canyon has been a great escape.

Random thoughts:  It’s amazing that someone like me, who comes from a pretty modest background, can go to a place like Reed. I wouldn’t have been able to come if it weren’t for financial aid. I feel incredibly blessed. Increasingly, the arguments put forth to justify a liberal arts education are falling on deaf ears. People don’t want to hear about enriching the self through literature—they want to see scientific and economic progress. But I know this is knowledge worth having. I don’t know exactly where it’s going to benefit society in the larger picture, but I do think that I’m a better person for having studied Latin and Greek. It’s something I want to pass on.

Cool stuff I did: Studied Greek, Latin, Russian, Chinese, and Quenya (a variant of Elvish). Squash. Softball. Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Missed the first semester of first year Greek and taught myself the material over winter break, studying every day for 12 or 13 hours. Memorized every rule and every form. (Wally adds, “He joined the class halfway through and ended with an A+ for the course!”) Class of ’21 award.

How Reed changed me: At Reed there is a constant demand, both from your peers and your professors, for clarity of thought. Reed has sharpened my ability to express myself in writing and in conversation and in so doing has fostered a pursuit of truth and learning.

What’s next: Begin work on PhD at Princeton in Greek poetry.

Thesis close-up: 

Virgil the Innovator

Virgil published the Georgics about the same time the Augustan poets were beginning to feel a sense of their own independence from their Greek predecessors, from the Alexandrian and Athenian traditions. They were coming into their own and questioning what it meant to write Roman poetry, to use the Greek poetic forms in a Roman context.

Latin is a pristine, structured language, very efficient. If something doesn’t need to be there, it’s not there. Every word is placed very carefully in a sentence, and the development of the language coincided with the Romans’ drive to structure the world. As the empire grew, they built these roads that were straight for miles. You see an analogy between the way these people were constructing the world around them and the way their language changed at the same time.

Greek, on the other hand, is a much more flowing language. There are fewer rules about how to spell words. Letters change to sound more beautiful as you’re reading a poem. And the language developed a more philosophical bent. Greek is much more adept at discussing philosophy, music, and poetry than Latin, which has the vocabulary to talk about politics, economics, and the affairs of the state.

Virgil’s plot is pretty dry. He doesn’t always pick the most captivating tales. But the poetry itself, when you read it in Latin, is so powerful. At its heart poetry is trying to come head-to-head with the human experience. It is an exercise in exploring the limits of language and the way in which we can construct metaphors. It’s very appealing to work through a poem and see the way the poet is innovating. Using language in a new way is required of every poet. If you’re not pushing the limits of each word and the limits of the grammatical structure, then you’re not writing poetry, you’re writing prose in columns.—JC