Monday, May 10, 2010

Today's Hippest Poet Is 2094 Years Old

 WHITEMAN, Bruce (trans.). LXXXV. CV. Two poems in five essays. 

I don’t like you but I love you.
Seems that I’m always
Thinking of you.
Oh, oh, oh,
You treat me badly.
I love you madly.
You really got a hold on me

he was unconsciously influenced by the following poem:

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris? Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

What’s that? Missed Latin 101 (and 102, -3, and -4): Amo, amat, amas? Though I've picked up a rough reading knowledge of Latin while on the job, if asked to translate my only possible response would be: Morituri te salutant.

Fortunately, others have studied the language.

The poetry of Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84BC - c..54BC) was, in its time and remains, the most succinct expression of the pleasures and agonies of love to have ever been written. That particular poem, number 85 of 116 extant - as with most of the poetry of Catullus - could have been written yesterday.

Modern bust of Catullus at Sirmione, Italy.

Criticized by Cicero at the time of their writing for being crude, artless, and immoral, the plain language used, the simplicity of construction, the stripping away all rhetorical flourish, and the peeling back of emotions to their core was Hellenistic in influence, and innovative. It resulted in maximum pith, minimal words, huge impact. His style, a deliberate lack of style in the epic tradition, influenced Horace, Ovid, and Virgil. It has influenced just about every modern poet around. And has attracted the attention of translators ever since their rediscovery during the Middle Ages.

In 2006, Bruce Whiteman, Head Librarian at the William Andrews Clark Library in Los Angeles and respected poet, published a slim volume of translations of two of Catullus’ most famous poems, number 85 - as quoted above - and number 105. He essayed five translations of them, each an exploration of Catullus and the challenges of translation.

Here are a few examples of 85 by various translators: 

I hate, and yet I love thee too,
How can that be? I know not how;
Only that so it is I know
And feel with torment that 'tis so.
(Abraham Cowley, 1667)

I HATE and love.
And if you ask me why,
I have no answer, but I discern
can feel my senses rooted in eternal torture.
(Horace Gregory)

I hate and love. Why? You may ask but
It beats me. I feel it done to me, and ache
. (Ezra Pound)

I hate and I love.
Wherefore would I do this,
perhaps you ask?
I do not know. But I feel
that it happens and I am tortured.
(Justin Neil, 2002)

And here is one of Whiteman’s translations: 

I hate and I love. Ask what
drives me to such opposite emotions,
I can’t say. But I feel them roil
within me, and the pain is deep.

Pound’s translation is simply brilliant. With its line break at the colloquial and vernacular “it beats me” it hits forgetting, ignorance, and, broken from its sentence into the final line, torture. It also reflects the mordant playfulness often found in these poems, the majority of which were directed to Catullus’ alleged mistress, Clodia Metelli, a woman from the aristocratic house of the Claudii Pulchri. In his poems Catullus explores the stages of their relationship: the initial euphoria, followed by doubts, separation, and wrenching feelings of loss.

Whiteman works the Latin into modern English with a flair that captures the originals' spirit, and does so with each of his five translations.

He gets down to the bone, as it were, with carmina 105:

Mentula conatur pipleium scandere montem: musae furcillis praecipitem eiciunt.

Big Dick thinks Erato’s
his main squeeze.
“God no,” says Clio. “You’re history.
Get lost.”
(Bruce Whiteman, 2006)

It’s a lot more interesting and true to the spirit of Catullus than the following translation of 105 by English poet Tony Kline:

Mentula the Cock tries to climb the Parnassian Mount:
the Muses with pitchforks toss him out, head first.

But Louis Zukofsky's translation is the wildest:

Meantool reconnoiters Piplea scanning Their mountain:
Muses fork ill ease pry Kip, at him eject one.

In one of his other translations of 105, Whiteman references one of the most famous mentulas/meantools in modern literature.

Why do people continue to translate Catullus?

"Catullus is irresistible," Whiteman notes in his Introduction, "which is another way to say that the poems written 2,000 years ago remain as fresh as ever...I had five goes at each poem because they offer so many possibilities."

I recently asked Bruce about Catullus, these poems, Latin, translation, and the marvelous mentula in question.

Booktryst; When did you learn Latin?

BW: I took Latin in both high school (grades 10-12) and at university (3rd and 4th year). Since then, a long time, I haven’t really kept it up, but do read classical texts a lot. I just read Ovid’s Amores, for example, in Peter Green’s translation, and a complete Propertius is on my desk. Catullus was on the curriculum in my 4th-year Latin class at Trent University, along with Cicero and the Carmina Burana.

Russell Maret last spring published my translation of the Pervigilium Veneris, a 4th-century poem about sex and spring. He designed a new typeface for it, and made a really lovely book. Edition of 100 copies. I think Steve Tabor at the Huntington is reviewing it in the next issue of Parenthesis. I’m really proud of that one, both as a translation and as a handsome book.

Booktryst: Catullus, particularly with the poems to Clodia, had a gift for writing in a deceptively casual and vernacular/colloquial style, expressing psychological verities in a concise and often devastatingly acute and earthy manner. This seems to me to be a very modern approach; Catullus an ancient model. Are there any poets, in your opinion, working today who, in a similar manner, come close to what Catullus was trying to say?

BW: Modern Catulli? Hhmmm. Ed Dorn’s 24 Love Poems, maybe. Tony Kline, the English poet who also translated stuff from the Greek Anthology in Peter Jay’s selection (1981). Maybe me? (Compare this very recent one, for example):

Nullus Amor Tanti Est*

Cynic Ovid got it wrong.
Hard-nosed love is always worth
the vivid pain. Get

me out of here’s a waste
of time, you’re stuck
for good. F**k with hope, with

need, with amorous
expectation all you want,
lover mine, heart’s ease

never dies the death of
fear or loses faith.
Hang on as though your life

pended on it. It really
does. Readjust your sense of
heaven. Heaven is here and this.

* Ovid, Amores II, 5, 1 (“No love is worth that much,” in Peter Green’s version.) 

Booktryst: Guy Davenport noted of Louis Zukofsky’s Catullus, "To translate all of Catullus so that the English sounds like the Latin Zukofsky had to pay attention to three things at once: sound, rhythm, and syntax. The choice of each word therefore involved three decisions. This is of course impossible."

What were your criteria?

BW: My criteria were really just to try out various measures, various styles on the two poems. I admire the Zukofsky very much, though I could never do what he did. Talk about brilliant but wayward! I wanted a contemporary idiom for the most part, but I also wanted to see how GVC would sound in various styles. So call it polystylistic.

Booktryst; You seem to have had a lot of fun with the translations. Was it? You’ve essayed five translations for each poem. Where they done at the same time or separately, over time? I ask because I wonder how much of an influence each had on succeeding essays?

BW: Fun it was. I was stuck on a long flight and had the Latin along with me, so instead of watching a dreary movie, I made all ten versions (as well as others that I didn’t publish) sitting in my United Airlines narrow uncomfortable pew.

Booktryst: The Friendly Skies were indeed friendly! Does Latin provide challenges to translation not found with other languages?

BW: Yes re: the challenges of Latin. Catullus may sound modern in sensibility, but his language is dead and 2000+ years old, so sometimes it’s difficult to figure it out. Even real scholars, which I am not, have difficulty understanding the syntax at times, and some words, known as (in the singular) hapax legomenon, which means they only occur once in the surviving texts, are hard to be sure about. And of course though Latin did lead to the romance languages and to English, the grammar etc. is very different. French is a whole lot easier to translate! (I translated Francois Charron some years ago, a book called After Ten Thousand Years, Desire).

Booktryst; Okay, I have to know: Steely Dan – Wm S. Burroughs’ handy-dandy, keister-pleasin' dildo from Naked Lunch - finds it way into one of your translations of 105. Interesting choice. What gives?

BW: Well, the Latin word is mentula – cock or prick (equally obscene in Latin). It doesn’t really mean dildo, in fact I’m not sure what the Latin word for dildo is if there even is one. (Fascinum was a dildo-shaped object hung around the neck to ward off evil, but it was miniature in size). [The Greeks had a word for it: olisbos]. I just took it to the next level. In the Latin, “the Muses’ mount” is literally the mountain where the Muses live, but of course I could not resist the pun you can do in English on Mount = mons veneris.

"Steely Dan" also references Samson, the huge, the strong, the biblical bohunk of the Israelite tribe of Dan. It's a perfect translation choice for this poem.

Whiteman’s series of translations of these two poems by Catullus is more than that. It is, though he did not intend it to be so, a monograph-by-example on the art of translation.

Catullus died young, at age thirty. In his short life he captured the ecstasy and ache of Amor in a series of innovative poems that have survived not merely as artifacts from the ancient world but as modern art. The hippest poet in ancient Rome, he remains the hippest poet in the modern world.

The volume was produced as a memento to a 2006 joint meeting of the Zamorano and Roxburghe Clubs. It was designed, printed and bound by Wm Erik Voss at the Lyceum Press. The cost of the edition was shouldered by Whiteman along with a local group of Los Angelenos, including rare book sellers Chic Goldsmid, Gordon S. Hollis, Ken Karmiole, and Michael R. Thompson, who are to be commended for their support. Michael R. Thompson Booksellers is the sole distributor.

[CATULLUS, Gaius Valerius]. WHITEMAN, Bruce (trans.). LXXXV. CV. Two poems in five essays. N.p. {Los Angeles]: Lyceum Press, 2006. First edition, limited to 200 copies. Octavo. [2, blank], [13], [1, blank] pp. Coral wrappers with paper title label.

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