Ovid offers a concentrated-strength dose of a specific type of formal intensity that is rare in English. You would think that the place to look for it would be, say, in the showy rhetorical slipknots of Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, or the tightly-knit couplets of Pope, or the crisp elegance of Tennyson's In Memoriam stanzas--and you'd be right, up to a point. But there's an I-don't-care quality running through, and maybe competing with, the metrical dressing-up, and it makes me think of O'Hara or Berrigan. Maybe Ashbery is a better example, the way he can make you half-think you're reading a polished piece of lyric seriousness just by affecting an appropriately lofty tone and inserting some judicious line breaks, etc. The hollowness that looms just behind the artifice in both cases--Ashbery's and Ovid's--doesn't deflate so much as it creates an added sense of depth, with the sense of space that word suggests.
The first four lines of Amores I:
arma graui numero uiolentaque bella parabam
edere, materia conueniente modis.
par erat inferior uersus: risisse Cupido
dicitur atque unum surripuisse pedem.
[I was setting out to relate arms and fierce battles, in somber meter, so that the content accorded with the form. The second line would have followed suit, had Cupid not laughed, and as one might say, snatched away one foot.]
The joke here is that if the poet had followed through on his plan to write a serious epic poem, he would have continued in the six-foot heroic meter of the first line (dactylic hexameter), but when we get to the second line, we see that the poem is in elegaic couplets,* a form associated with, among other topics, erotic matters. The rest of the poem plays in this vein with the supposed indecorum of mixing amatory and martial forms. Much of the pleasure of reading these verses comes from Ovid's skill in playfully foregrounding the mechanics, materia conueniente modis, as he says. Thus the pure dactylic regularity of the first line, with its echo of the first line of the Aeneid, and then the four-word drama of the second line, where edere stands at the fore like a little professor confronting his unruly pupils materia and modis, which are in turn held at arm's length from one another by the very concept of conueniente that should unite them. It's stuff like this that has historically gotten Ovid the reputation of being a formalist goof-off, not to be taken as seriously as the Roman and Greek lyric poets who preceded him. Obvious parallels with the New York School and so forth follow.
The 30-line poem ends:
sex mihi surgat opus numeris, in quinque residat;
ferrea cum uestris bella ualete modis.
cingere litorea flauentia tempora myrto,
Musa per undenos emodulanda pedes.
[Let my work swell up to six feet, then shrink to five; so long, iron war and your measure! Deck your blonde head with seaside myrtle, my Muse, who are henceforth to be sung in eleven feet.]
Great false start in the first of these four lines: it commences as a very heroic-sounding volley thumpeta thumpeta thumpeta ... then it collapses in the fourth foot with a thump || thump before resuming with a properly epic thumpeta thump thump. Nothing particularly unorthodox about this, even for a real epic, but the caesura nicely marks the division, smack in the middle of the odd spondaic foot, where the erect surging ends and the flaccid residing begins, so that the two parts of the line formally match their corresponding content--once again, materia conueniente modis. And I could go on, for instance about the way litorea myrto is split so as to frame flauentia tempora like an actual wreath, with the verb cingere overseeing the process like edere monitoring materia and modis back at the beginning of the poem.
*One line of dactylic hexameter followed by one five-foot line scanning as two dactyls [for one or both of which a spondee may be substituted] followed by a single stressed syllable, then another two dactyls [same substitutions as above] by another single stressed syllable.