University News

Classics professor finds niche with obscure poet Fortunatus

By
Contributing Writer
Monday, September 20, 2010

Associate Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature Joseph Pucci remembers a grad school professor joking, “If anyone wants to make a name for him or herself” in the field of classics, “Fortunatus is the poet you want to study.” Years later, Pucci is now offering what he believes is the only class in the world focusing exclusively on Fortunatus, a medieval Latin poet.

This is Pucci’s third semester offering the class, which he also taught in 2005 and 2008. He hopes to make it a regular part of Brown’s classics curriculum.

“I will offer it regularly as an advanced Latin class,” he said, adding that he now has 28 students enrolled, which is “exciting.”

Fortunatus, a sixth-century poet who lived in Italy and Gaul, is, according to Pucci, “not a canonical author. He’s not on the radar screen” of many people who study Latin authors.

But Allison Kemmerle ’11, a student in Pucci’s course, described it as a very important class to take “if you want to experience Latin as literature.”

Kemmerle, who is also co-president of the Classics Departmental Undergraduate Group, said that she had studied Fortunatus before as part of a survey of Latin literature. “As a Latin student, you get the history,” she said.

For her, though, the major draw of the class was the professor. “For a lot of people who came to Brown for classics, Professor Pucci was the first person we met,” Kemmerle said. “I didn’t want to end college without taking a class from him.”

Pucci recently published the first English translation of Fortunatus’ poems, 120 poems written for the poet’s friends that “make the everyday seem more than common,” according to Pucci. He described one poem in which Fortunatus recalls “waking up, walking into the kitchen and seeing, in the cream on top of the milk, the fingerprints of a good friend.”

Though some of the poems explore the erotic, Pucci said the majority of Fortunatus’ poems were “just focused on how it feels to be alive.” According to Kemmerle, the simplicity of Fortunatus’ themes makes for a different kind of discussion. “You miss the point of literature if you’re beating it to death and trying to pick apart grammar,” she said.

Pucci’s class looks instead at the big picture and “treats the materials as works of art.” This is easier, she said, because of Fortunatus’ focus on “simple daily life.”

But students ready to jump out of their seats and register for Pucci’s class will just have to wait. Pucci said he will not offer the class again until the year after next.

Instead, said Pucci, he will “probably offer a class on another obscure poet” — Alcuin, a Latin poet of the 8th century — thereby securing his own “monopoly on obscure late Latin authors.”