Not the Same Old Old

Gaius Valerius Catullus – The Book of Catullus (Carcanet, trans., Simon Smith)
Sextus Propertius – Poems (Carcanet, trans., Patrick Worsnip)

This Catullus translation, by Simon Smith, is incredible. It moves the material right out of the romanticised eroticism of the Roman love poets and into the real, colourful but dirty world of the Romans.

Catullus bangs on about who he’s fucking, animal, vegetable, mineral. It is very direct and the translation amplifies that directness by making it scan for our own time.

Here we have a world where for some the post- of gender was never a question, as long as they could get up it like a rat in a lead Roman bath house pipe.

But the raw sex is often a metaphor for swindling, monetarily, or in terms of reputation:

Oh Memmius, you really fucked me over,
buggered me completely and without concern.
So, the pair of you are stuck, as I see it,
long suffering a similar giant prick,
shafted.

Propertius rubbed up against Octavian – later Caesar Augustus – for rejecting marriage in verse. Ovid would be exiled by Augustus later.

Augustus switched to the old ‘family values’ rhetoric to try to make Rome respectable again. Propertius celebrated Cleopatra, where Augustus wanted that episode to be as over as Anthony: The Tories are much older than the Tories, you know.

A band I admire greatly, Bablicon, recorded a track called ‘Augustus Syphilis’, it plays in my head now.

I have no idea why I feel the need to leave that incidental thought in this review, but I do. And there it is. You could translate it as ‘AIDS to Family Values’.

The Catullus in this translation comes on as just as punk as that:

Nob of Knobs fucks. Fucking nob of knobs? That’s for sure
  the saying goes: If the roof fits, pot it.

Congratulations are due to Simon Smith. But despite surface similarities and a shared epoch, Catullus and Propertius are like oil and vinegar. The former accessible, the latter completely hidden under multiple masks.

Propertius provided a surface that has a very strange relationship with the self of the poet, and the audience – in any time – and rhetoric. It is now viewed as an almost ironic postmodern discourse, but that’s far too facile a reading.

Most people will know the name of Propertius via Ezra Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’, after which come a thousand thoroughly overcooked debates.

I’m not going to get into whether Pound’s translation is sloppy or modernist genius again, but this volume of Propertius shows how appropriate it was for Pound to pick Propertius, and not, say, Catullus.

The ‘I’ in Propertius is already completely unstable, it only takes a little push for it to crumble and slide down the hill. Pound was not just freely daubing the substance of an old masterpiece, he targeted that substance – honed in on it – and amplified it.

I would recommend getting both these books and reading them simultaneously. Together they provide a great lesson in different modes of poetical discourse, different approaches to translation, and a rich meditation on what it is to be – or not to be – contemporary.

But I have long held the opinion that today’s polite litt√©rateurs are so inappropriate in their mode of discourse that they could be considered mentally unstable.

In these two poets – and in Smith’s translation – we might find two opposing rhetorical strategies via which we might begin all over again, in 2018. I believe it is possible to fuse them together proceed.

– Steve Hanson

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