Against Progress: Pastoral and Innovation in Medieval and Renaissance Poetry

A Roundtable at the 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, May 12-15, 2016.

Abandon then the base and viler clowne,
Lyft up they selfe out of the lowly dust:
And sing of bloody Mars, of wars, of giusts.
Spenser, The Shepheardes Calender (October, 37-39).


In the introduction to Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, William Cronon writes, “‘[N]ature’ is not nearly so natural as it seems. Instead, it is a profoundly human construction.” This panel seeks to extend Cronon’s observation to the “pastoral,” with papers that mark and comment on the pastoral as one of modernity’s key innovations. Usually seen as an archaizing and nostalgic mode, we seek to explore pastoral’s experimental dimension, which, to borrow Lucy Munro’s definition of archaism, “unsettles relationships between past, present and future even as it seemingly attempts to inscribe them.” This is a fitting way to think pastoral’s lyric playfulness and its startling ambition, exemplified by the rustic sublimity of The Second Shepherds Play and the critical scope of pastoral satire. Virgil’s use of the pastoral is perceived as a strident cry against the “progress” of empire and the encroachment of urban civilization, a kind of nostalgia for the stasis of agrarian life. Later critics and poets saw pastoral verse as a “clownish” jumping-off point for more “mature” and “sophisticated” forays into epic poetry. This panel will elucidate the ways in which the pastoral itself -– both the rural, idyllic scenes it describes and the modes of verse that pastoral increasingly maps out –- is rife with forward-thinking experimentation and innovation. For example, pastoral poetry (following Virgil’s lead) quickly becomes a locale of moral critique, a place from which to speak truth to power. The homely mask of the pastoral poet shields poets who wish to weigh in on risqué political and religious topics, and the rustic, archaic, “dull” speech associated with the pastoral mode likewise offers linguistic cover. Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender is a stunning example of poetic innovation, providing models of poetic diction that remained highly influential among English poets for centuries to come. The pastoral is thus a place set aside by modernity for experimentation with language, a habitus wherein bodily idleness plays against intellectual flights of fancy and the borders between genders (and genres) become blurred.

This roundtable seeks papers that address the myriad ways in which the pastoral, despite (or perhaps because of) its avowed stance against progress and seemingly backwards compositional scene, actually provides a zone in which poets produced some of the most provocative statements and stunning poetic and linguistic advances of the medieval to early modern period.

Deadline for proposals Sept. 15; contact Will Rhodes ( and David Hadbawnik ( with proposals or questions.

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Pastoral Sketches

A loose “dystranslation” of one of Virgil’s Eclogues, which I’ve been playing around with this month.


“My love’s run off with a beat cop”
goes the cry
from Gallus and everyone
gathers round to listen
even the bees fervently
“like” his status
Apollo himself “shares” it
with a pithy comment
or two
the lament spreads and all the shepherds
condemn Licorice
as a dumb cooze while
demanding to know the name
of this fucking cop
who probably beats her
and even worse
hates poetry–
only Pan chimes in
with a rude remark:
“Do you think Love
gives a shit for your whining
any more than hills are moved
by music or winter chill cares
for your sable coat?
Fuck you, Gallus.”
And Gallus replies
“Fuck you”
and the whole thing devolves
into a flame war with nymphs
and naiads weighing in
and in the midst of it
a voice whispers plaintive
but rough
as envelopes ripping open
or wind snapping on
plastic bags caught
in winter branches–
or the sound of dry reeds
when a small bird
lands causing them all
to shake

Do you think Love gives a shit…”
becomes a meme
that haunts Gallus across
various platforms
shepherds post sexy pics
of Licorice
on Instagram to taunt
him, even
is no safe place
secretly he loves it
misery is the fuel
that stokes poetry
so Gallus curses
poetry’s ineffectual
tropes and hunts for
some new mode of
lament, snapping pathetic
selfies on bridges
with the whole city burning
behind him
all a-riot with Love.
Never mind Licorice
never mind the many
flavors of Icelandic yogurt
they once enjoyed
pomegranate and pistachio
and banana split–
all of it
fodder for some poignant
bit of narrative
a warp in the weave
a woman’s body
only a stitch
a footnote
a rubbed-out mark
on a dry-erase board
a rough draft
for some new

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Reformation Time

Jonny Lohr was kind enough to send me his new chapbook, Reformation Time. Then Asha and I checked it out in the afternoon sunlight in my office…




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World Poetry Day

I didn’t even know this was a thing but apparently it is. A good time to dust off the blog and post a few updates.

First, not too long ago, Jeffrey Pethybridge was kind enough to publish some excerpts from book 6 of the Aeneid as part of a translation feature on Likestarlings. Along with other parts of books 5/6 coming out soon in the Chicago Review and Shearsman Magazine, this represents the last of the work to trickle out this way before Shearsman Books publishes the whole of books 1-6 in fall 2015. More on this soon; for now, I want to express my gratitude to all the editors who’ve helped get this stuff out there, and the friends who’ve offered encouragement and feedback over the years. Special thanks to Dawn Pendergast at Little Red Leaves for her beautiful editions of books 1-4, and to Carrie Kaser for her brilliant illustrations.

Speaking of translations — segue! — Nate Klug sent me his Song Cave edition of some of Virgil’s Eclogues, titled Rude Woods. A completely different take than ‘my’ Virgil but one I’m excited about and envious of.


Now, of the old ways–ships defying
the seas, barriers between towns, ploughs
gutting earth–a few traces will still survive.
So a second Tiphys must be called back;
a second Argo for the Argonauts;
other wars, yes; and another Achilles
off again angering towards Troy.

Meanwhile, last week, I got to see / meet Michael Farrell as he read at the Western New York Book Arts Collective. He seems to flit between modes and styles with an amazing felicity and skill, and while I enjoyed his reading, I’ll admit that a lot of it zoomed by so quickly that I had trouble appreciating it in the moment. Good thing, then, that I picked up a copy of his new book Cocky’s Joy, which allows me to sit with the poems at greater length.


California Girls

With their crotches they could crush, we’re told,
both the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera
House in one turn of a tanning angle–they’ve
done it in Los Angeles before. They walk with
high heels on Venice Beach: they could make any
rock platform sand. At fifty still wearing bikinis
while lecturing on Whitehead, brushing students
from their hair…

Now, I don’t know about this blurb on the back of the book about him being “the most adventurous and experimental of contemporary Australian poets” — seems like a lot to live up to! — but I find an ease and humor in the poems that’s quite welcoming.

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The Novice

Habenicht Press is pleased to announce a new chapbook from John Hyland:


Or holes—but not to slip through, not to be lost. Day rain when one senses things more distinct in the blur.

24pp, saddle stitched; 26 copies hand-sewn, signed and lettered (signed/lettered chapbooks only available from the author).

Shipping to

Limited-edition broadsides, available for purchase with the chapbook:


Shipping to

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Here’s a new chapbook I just made of some of the “sports”-themed poems I’ve written over the years, and which have been published here and there in journals.


Inside: “Baseball–an Elegy,” “Running Diary,” “Football Poem,” and “The Invention of Baseball.”

27pp, saddle-stitched.

Shipping to

And here is a broadside-type thing I made from the plates:


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