Nutshells – Brief Poems by Robert West

westrRobert West grew up in Henderson County in western North Carolina, and now lives in Starkville, Mississippi, where he teaches in the Department of English at Mississippi State University. His poems have appeared in Christian Science Monitor, Poetry, Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, The Best American Nonrequired Reading (2013), and elsewhere. A recent poetry chapbook is Convalescent (Finishing Line Press, 2011).  Other chapbooks include Best Company (2005) and Out of Hand (2007). A former editor of The Carolina Quarterly and Blink: A Little Little Magazine of Little Poems, he is now associate editor of Mississippi Quarterly:  The Journal of Southern Cultures at Mississippi State University. His edition of  The Complete Poems of A. R. Ammons is forthcoming from W.W. Norton. With Jonathan Greene he is co-editor of Succinct: The Broadstone Anthology of Short Poems (Broadstone Books, 2013).

I first encountered the work of Robert West when I read some poems he had printed in the January 2002 edition of Poetry magazine on the Poetry Foundation site. They seem to me an example of what is best in the modern epigram: witty, terse, rhythmic and memorable. They may be light – some have been printed in LIGHT poetry magazine –  and they may have “little to say” (see the poem Another below), but they are polished nuggets in a tough nutshell. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

 

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Brief Poems by Robert West

THREE POETS

1. THE PLAGIARIST 

Careless of his debts, he never credits
submissions to the magazine he edits.

2. THE TAXIDERMIST 

Her father’s dead at last, the lout—
but now he’s all she writes about.

3. THE ASSASSIN   

His verse means less to the world of letters
than the bad reviews he gives his betters.

***

Echo

A lone
voice

in the
right

empty space
makes

its own
best

company.

***

THREE DIRECTORS

1. THE AUTEUR

He pointedly avoids the few
who pay to see his point of view.

2. THE PORNOGRAPHER

His art? To make a spectacle
of this, then that, receptacle.

3. THE BOX OFFICE KING

Why should he care what critics say?
The lemmings line up either way.

***

Nutshell

I like
my

idea of
you

better than
yours

and like
yours

of me
much

more than
mine

***

Convalescent

You told me I looked well today,
and maybe you were lying,

but every time you look my way
I do feel less like dying.

***

Apologia

If art is long and life is short,
as all the classics buffs report,
then middle-aged as I now am,
it’s “So long, art! Hi, epigram.”

***

Another

I write little poems, having little to say.
Though no less than some who go on and on anyway.

***

Lyric

Beauty be-
comes

you, he
sings

as he
strums

his six
strings

***

AFTER MARTIAL

1. Maybe Then

You always say you will, but don’t.
Just once, you liar, say you won’t!

(II.xxv)

2. Cheapskate

You sent half what I asked you to,
you there with cash to flaunt.
Next time I deal with you
I’ll ask for double what I want.

(IV.lxxvi)

3. Reply

I never send my books, it’s true.
Know why? You’d send me your books too.

(VII.iii)

For more translations of Martial see my brief poems Martial post.

***

“A failing . . . ”

A failing
star

a faded
scar

a three-
quarter-time
phrase

on
a faraway
guitar

***

Matthew 7:1-5

When someone likes to crow “Your problem is . . . ,”
odds are he doesn’t know he’s told you his.

***

Middle Age

Your doctor says you’ve reached it,
but you think he’s full of crap.
Tomorrow you’ll go join a gym.
(Just now you need a nap.)

***

A Crank Bids the Annoying Optimist Adieu

The best, you always said, was yet to come.
And sure enough: you’re finally dead. Ho-hum.

 

 

nutshells

 

LINKS

Robert West on Twitter with links to numerous poems.

The Poetry Foundation page on Robert West.

Robert West’s Professional Biography page on the Mississippi State University page.

Ted Kooser on the poem Echo

Kathryn Stripling’s blogpost on Robert West.

Some Robert West poems in the Alabama Literary Review.

 

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A Muddle of Mice – Brief Poems by Paul Muldoon

muldoon-norman-mcbeathPaul Muldoon (born 20 June 1951) is an Irish poet from County Armagh, Northern Ireland. His father worked as a farmer (among other jobs) and his mother was a school teacher. Talking of his home life, he has said, I’m astonished to think that, apart from some Catholic Truth Society pamphlets, some books on saints, there were, essentially, no books in the house, except one set, the Junior World Encyclopaedia, which I certainly read again and again. People would say, I suppose, that it might account for my interest in a wide range of arcane bits of information. At some level, I was self-educated. 

His poetry is known for his difficult, sly, allusive style, casual use of obscure or archaic words, understated wit, punning, and deft technique in meter and rhyme. According to the Poetry Foundation website, Muldoon’s work is full of paradox: playful but serious, elusive but direct, innovative but traditional. He uses traditional verse forms such as the sonnet, ballad, and dramatic monologue, but alters their length and basic structure, and uses rhyme and meter in new ways. His work is also notable for its layered use of conceit, allusion, and wit. The cryptic wordplay present in many poems has often been called Joycean, but Muldoon himself has cited lyric poets such as Frost, Thomas, and MacNeice as his major influences. 

Muldoon is a widely (and wildly) ambitious poet. Consider his long poem Madoc: A Mystery, extracts from which appear below. It takes its title from a  Robert Southey poem concerning a Welsh prince who discovers America in the twelfth century. This strange poem narrates in 233 sections (the same number as the number of native American tribes), what might have happened  had  Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey actually fulfilled their 1794 plan to go to America  to found a Pantisocratic community (‘equal rule for all’) on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. To complicate poetic matters, which Muldoon is often doing, each one of these sections is named after a philosopher. It incorporates maps and geometric diagrams. In his Irish Poetry since 1950, John Goodby claims it is by common consent, the most complex poem in modern Irish literature … a massively ambitious, a historiographical metafiction. Critical opinion continues to be divided. The Irish novelist, John Banville, one of Muldoon’s admirers, was baffled when he reviewed the poem for The New York Review of Books: I cannot help feeling that this time he has gone too far. Muldoon’s view dismisses such readings, I quite enjoy having fun. It’s part of how it is, and who we are.

Muldoon is always going too far. It is part of his attraction and also part of what is frustrating about his work. Each time a new collection is published I buy it, read it with an initial frustration and perplexity and then find, on a re-reading,  that there is much to admire in his amazing breadth, scope and dexterity. As he puts it himself, The point of poetry is to be acutely discomforting, to prod and provoke, to poke us in the eye, to punch us in the nose, to knock us off our feet, to take our breath away. He has been compared, rightly in my view, to James Joyce. Finnegans Wake may be one of the most frustrating books ever written, but would I be without it? Perhaps William Logan best understands what is both most frustrating and most fascinating about Paul Muldoon’s poetry, he is  in love (not wisely but too well) with language itself. . . . Too often the result is tedious foolery, the language run amok with Jabberwocky possibility (words, words, monotonously inbreeding), as if possibility were reason enough for the doing. Yet Logan also offered this commendation, In our time of tired mirrors and more-than-tiresome confession, Muldoon is the rare poet who writes through the looking glass.

 

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PAUL MULDOON AND THE ART OF HAIKU

The art of poetry and the art of the haiku are not readily complimentary. Many of the best haiku writers today avoid other forms of poetry. And many of the best  poets either avoid haiku or use it sparingly and without great conviction. Paul Muldoon is different. Just as he has shaken, disrupted and reanimated such forms as the sonnet, he has done the same with the haiku.  Not only has he added his trademark use of rhyme and half-rhyme to the recipe, he has also applied his characteristic wit, humour and conceit. He favours the haiku sequence, extracts from three of which appear below. And they bristle and bustle and busy themselves with the minutiae of his daily life, operating not just on an individual level but echoing and re-echoing throughout the sequences. Muldoon has managed to take an often twee form and apply his lucid and ludic skills to invigorating and animating its triadic structure.

 

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Brief Poems by Paul Muldoon

Blemish

Were it indeed an accident of birth
That she looks on the gentle earth
And the seemingly gentle sky
Through one brown and one blue eye.

***

Ireland

The Volkswagen parked in the gap.
But gently ticking over,
You wonder if it’s lovers
And not men hurrying back
Across two fields and a river.

***

Mink

A mink escaped from a mink-farm
in South Armagh
is led to the grave of Robert Nairac
by the fur-lined hood of his anorak.

***

Asra

The night I wrote your name in biro on my wrist
we would wake before dawn; back to back: duellists.

***

Plovers

The plovers come down hard, then clear again,
for they are the embodiment of rain

***

Tract

I cleared all the trees about my cabin, all
that came within range of a musket ball.

***

The Breather

Think of this gravestone
as a long, low chair
strategically placed
at a turn in the stair.

 

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from Madoc: A Mystery

[Empedocles]

The woodchuck has had occasion
to turn into a moccasin.

—-

[Antisthenes]

Coleridge follows a white spaniel
through the caverns of the Domdaniel.

—-

[Theophrastus]

De dum, de dum, de dum, de dum, de dum.

—-

[Archimedes]

Coleridge leaps out of the tub. Imagine that.

—-

[Anselm]

De dum, Te Deum, de dum, Te Deum, de dum.

—-

[Bacon]

Through the hoopless hoop of the black rainbow.

—-

[Newton]

Until it strikes him, as if by some fluke;
this strict, unseasonable, black snowflake.

—-

[Byron]

Again stamps his cloven hoof
as he conjugates the verb ‘to have’,

—-

[James]

The pile of horse-dung at the heart of Southeyopolis
looks for all the world like a dish of baked apple.

—-

[Herrigel]

Through the hoopless hoop of an elk-horn bow.

—-

[Popper]

We last see him crouching in blood like a jugged hare.
As to where he goes? It’s a matter of pure conjecture.

 

three_mice

 

from Hopewell Haiku

II

A muddle of mice.
Their shit looks like caraway
but smells like allspice.

——

V

A stone at its core,
this snowball’s the porcelain
knob on winter’s door.

—-

IX

Cheek-to-cheek-by-jowl,
from the side of the kettle
my ancestors scowl.

—-

XII

For most of a week
we’ve lived on a pot of broth
made from a pig’s cheek.

—-

XVIII

The first day of spring.
What to make of that bald patch
right under the swing.

—-

XXV

A hammock at dusk.
I scrimshaw a narwhal hunt
on a narwhal tusk.

—-

XXVI

I, too, nailed a coin
to the mast of the Pequod.
A tiny pinecone.

—-

XXXVIII

It seems from this sheer
clapboard, fungus-flanged, that walls
do indeed have ears.

—-

XLVI

At my birthday bash,
a yellow bin for bottles
and a green for trash.

XLVII

Sunflower with fenceposts.
Communion rail. Crozier. Cope.
The monstrance. The host.

—-

LIV

An airplane, alas,
is more likely than thunder
to trouble your glass.

—-

LVIII

A small, hard pear falls
and hits the deck with a thud.
Ripeness is not all.

—-

XVI

Two trees in the yard
bring neither shade nor shelter
but rain, twice as hard.

—-

LXXVIII

Fresh snow on the roof
of a car that passed me by.
The print of one hoof.

 

three_mice

from News Headlines from the Homer Noble Farm

II

From his grassy knoll
he has you in his crosshairs,
the accomplice mole.

—-

V

He has, you will find,
two modes only, the chipmunk:
fast-forward; rewind.

VI

The smell, like a skunk,
of coffee about to perk.
Thelonious Monk.

—-

X

Behind the wood bin
a garter snake snaps itself,
showing us some skin.

XI

Like most bits of delf,
the turtle’s seen at its best
on one’s neighbor’s shelf.

—-

XIX

How all seems to vie,
not just my sleeping laptop
with the first firefly.

 

three_mice

from 90 Instant Messages to Tom Moore

I

Jim-jams and whim-whams
where the whalers still heave to
for a gammy-gam.

XIV

A barracuda
is eating a small nurse shark.
Each smiles like Buddha.

XVII

A drunken girl blabs
how he had put in an oar
but she caught a crab.

XX

Tied to the drift rails
and flogged with a bull’s pizzle,
a sailor still wails.

LXXXIX

The glass of red wine
with which I saw eye to eye
until half past nine.

XC

Completely at odds.
We’re now completely at odds.
Completely at odds.

three_mice

LINKS

Paul Muldoon’s official website.

The Poetry Foundation page on Paul Muldoon.

James S. F. Wilson interviews Paul Muldoon for the Paris Review.

John Kerrigan on muddling through Paul Muldoon’s poetry.

A selection of haiku by Paul Muldoon on the Terebess site.

An essay by William J. Higginson on Paul Muldoon and the Japanese art of haiku.

muldoon-norman-mcbeath

Dog Collars – Brief Poems by Alexander Pope

AlexanderPopeAlexander Pope (1688 – 1744) was an 18th-century English poet best known for his satirical verse, as well as for his translation of Homer. He was born in London to Catholic parents. His education was affected by the penal laws of the age which banned Catholics from teaching on pain of perpetual imprisonment. He learned to read with the help of an aunt. He attended two Catholic schools in London which, while illegal, were tolerated.

From the age of 12, he suffered numerous health problems related to a form of tuberculosis that affected his bones, deformed his body and stunted his growth, leaving him with a severe hunchback. He never grew beyond 1.37 metres (4 feet, 6 inches) tall. That tuberculosis infection caused other health problems including respiratory difficulties, high fevers, inflamed eyes, and abdominal pain. Having suffered isolation due to his Catholicism, his poor health only added to his problems.

The anti-Catholicism of the time saw the Pope  family forced to move to a small estate near  Windsor Forest. Pope’s formal education ended at this time, and from then on he mostly educated himself by reading the works of classical writers such as the Roman satirists Horace and Juvenal, the epic poets Homer and Virgil, as well as English authors like Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and John Dryden. He also studied many languages and read works by English, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek poets.

Pope made friends with Tory writers John Gay, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Parnell and John Arbuthnot, who together formed the satirical Scriblerus Club whose aim was to satirise ignorance and pedantry in the form of the fictional scholar Martinus Scriblerus. He also made friends with Whig writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.

His well known poem The Rape of the Lock is often considered his most popular poem. It was a mock-heroic epic, written to make fun of a high society quarrel between Arabella Fermor (the “Belinda” of the poem) and Lord Petre, who had snipped a lock of hair from her head without her permission. In his poem he treats his characters in an epic style; when the Baron steals her hair and she tries to get it back, it flies into the air and turns into a star.

With money earned from his translations of Homer, Pope took on the lease of a villa at Crossdeep, Twickenham in 1719. He spent considerable time and money on improving the house and redesigning the gardens. He became known as the wasp of Twickenham and wrote many of his great works there. An Essay on Criticism exhibited the heroic couplet style, a new genre of poetry, and Pope’s most ambitious work. This lengthy poem, debating the question of whether poetry should be natural, or written according to predetermined artificial rules inherited from the classical past, was an attempt to identify and refine his own positions as a poet and critic.

Though another masterpiece, The Dunciad, which ruthlessly satirised Colley Cibber who later became the Poet Laureate, was first published anonymously in Dublin, its authorship was not in doubt.  It pilloried a host of  hacks, scribblers and dunces.  It has been called  in many ways the greatest act of folly in Pope’s life… it bore bitter fruit. It brought the poet in his own time the hostility of its victims and their sympathizers, who pursued him implacably from then on with a few damaging truths and a host of slanders and lies. The threats were often physical. According to his sister, Pope would never go for a walk without the company of his dog, Bounce, (see below) and a pair of loaded pistols in his pocket. Is there a modern poet, (except perhaps the American poet-critic, William Logan) who has had to suffer such threats and such danger? Perhaps his diminutive size helped. I wonder he is not thrashed, wrote William Broome, Pope’s former collaborator on the Odyssey who found himself lambasted in The Dunciad, but his littleness is his protection; no man shoots a wren.

After 1738, Pope wrote little. His major work in those years was revising and expanding his masterpiece The Dunciad.  By nowpope.h1 his health, which had never been good, was failing, and he died in his villa at Twickenham surrounded by friends on 30 May 1744. On the previous day, 29 May 1744, Pope called for a priest and received the Last Rites of the Catholic Church. He lies buried next to his mother in the nave of the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Twickenham. His friend William Warburton later erected a monument to him on the north wall (see image right) commenting on his preference for Twickenham over Westminster Abbey incorporating Pope’s own poetic epitaph.

 

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EPIGRAMS AND EPITAPHS

Alexander Pope was a master of the epigram.  As David Barber has noted in his wide-ranging and astute review essay on the epigram,  It is edifying, for example, to be reminded that the eighteenth century’s esteem for the verse epigram reflected not just a veneration for classical models of literary conduct but the hardbitten conviction that it was an arrow every well-armed poet should carry in his quiver. Pope’s longer poems and epistles abound in epigrammatic bull’s-eyes that long ago assumed a life of their own as apothegms and catchphrases (“What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”), yet when he confined himself to the epigram proper, he could let fly a poisoned dart or feathered shaft very much in the expertly opportune manner of Martial.

In the age of Twitter, Pope can be adopted to the exigencies of that form as Claude Willan attempted to prove when he announced his grand project on his blogI am tweeting the 1711 edition of the Essay on Criticism, @m_scriblerus. One couplet per tweet. Two tweets per day. It will take me a little over six months…Couplets are already the length of medium-length tweets. He put much effort into the project and succeeded in tweeting most of Book One before he ran out of energy. Perhaps he was dispirited by having only 21 followers but he did manage to prove that Pope’s couplets have an epigrammatic power suitable for tweeting. He continues to tweet, with substantially more followers, on his own Twitter account @CluadeWillan.

If the epitaph is a specialised form of the epigram, Pope is equally a master of that form. I have written about and included some of his epitaphs in another post, Tombstone Tropes 1. Others are included below. Some of his best are, unfortunately, too long to be included in a tweet.

 

 

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POPE AND BOUNCE

Alexander Pope was a lover of dogs, particularly large dogs,  all of his life.  As a result of the satiric thrust of his writings, he was popeandbounceoccasionally threatened with physical violence.  Due to his poor health and small stature – only four feet six inches tall – he would have been unable to defend himself against a violent attack and  depended on his dog to protect him.

His favourite dog was a giant, female Great Dane with impeccable manners whom he called  Bounce, the ideal dog for a writer. (See image right.) While Pope worked, Bounce lay quietly at his feet.  And when Pope went for walks, carrying a brace of loaded pistols, Bounce ambled by his side. Dogs were often referenced in his poetry. When Bounce had a litter  (thund’ring Offspring all around) the most celebrated pup was the one that Alexander Pope gave as a gift to the Prince of Wales. That pup came with a collar inscribed with Pope’s legendary lines: I am His Highness’ Dog at Kew;/Pray tell me Sir, whose Dog are you?

On one occasion Bounce is reputed to have saved Alexander Pope’s life.  As the great Australian poet, A. D. Hope explained, In the evenings after Pope retired to bed, it was Bounce’s habit to remain downstairs in front of the fire, soaking up the heat from the dying embers.  On one particular evening, however, everything changed.  Earlier that day, Alexander Pope had hired a new valet.  Bounce took an abnormal dislike to the man and, that night, after the valet helped Pope into bed, Bounce abandoned the fireplace, crept up into her master’s bedroom, and crawled under the bed to sleep.  Pope was awakened much later by the sound of someone in his room.  When he peered out from behind his bed curtains, he saw the dark figure of a man approaching with a knife in his hand. Physically incapable of defending himself, Pope could do nothing but scream for help.  Hearing the cries of her master, Bounce charged out from under the bed and knocked the assailant to the ground.  She held him there, barking until the rest of the household was awakened.  The armed intruder turned out to be none other than Pope’s new valet, who had intended to kill Pope, rob him, and flee into the night before his crime was detected.

Bounce died while being looked after by John Boyle, the 5th Earl of Orrery.  Pope wrote to Orrery after her death on the 10th of April, 1744.  His letter read, in part: I dread to enquire into the particulars of the Fate of Bounce.  Perhaps you conceald them, as Heav’n often does Unhappy Events, in pity to the Survivors, or not to hasten on my End by Sorrow.  I doubt not how much Bounce was lamented: They might say as the Athenians did to Arcite, in Chaucer,

Ah Arcite! gentle Knight! Why would’st though die,
When though had’st Gold enough, and Emilye?

 

Ah Bounce! ah gentle Beast! why wouldst thou dye,
When thou hadst Meat enough and Orrery?

This couplet. later to be known as “Lines on Bounce,” was the last that Alexander Pope ever wrote.  Bounce died while in the care of John Boyle, 5th Earl of Orrery. Pope died less than two months later on the 30th of May, 1744.

 

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Brief Poems by Alexander Pope

EPIGRAMS

Epigram Engraved On The Collar Of A Dog Which I Gave To His Royal Highness

I am his Highness’ dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

***

Epigram from the French

Sir, I admit your gen’ral Rule
That every Poet is a Fool:
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every Fool is not a Poet.

***

Epigram

Peter complains, that God has given
To his poor Babe a Life so short:
Consider Peter, he’s in Heaven;
‘Tis good to have a Friend at Court.

***

Lines Written in Evelyn’s Book on Coins

Tom Wood of Chiswick, deep divine,
To Painter Kent gave all this coin.
’T is the first coin, I ’m bold to say,
That ever churchman gave to lay.

***

An Empty House

You beat your Pate, and fancy Wit will come:
Knock as you please, there ’s nobody at home.

 

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EPITAPHS

Epitaph on Sir Isaac Newton

Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

***

Epitaph on the Stanton-Harcourt Lovers

Here lie two poor lovers, who had the mishap
Tho’ very chaste people, to die of a clap.

Explanation of this epitaph available on the briefpoems literary epitaphs post

***

Apply’d to F. C.

Here Francis Ch_+s lies—Be civil!
The rest God knows—perhaps the Devil.

***

Epitaph On John Gay

Well then, poor G_+ lies under ground!
So there’s an end of honest Jack.
So little Justice here he found,
‘Tis ten to one he’ll ne’er come back.

***

For One Who Would Not Be Buried in Westminster Abbey

Heroes and King! your distance keep;
In peace let one poor Poet sleep,
Who never flatter’d folks like you:
Let Horace blush, and Virgil too.

***

Lines on Bounce

Ah Bounce! ah gentle beast, why wouldst thou die,
When thou has meat enough, and gentle Orrery?

According to multiple biographers, this couplet was the last that Alexander Pope ever wrote.  His dog, “Bounce”, died while in the care of John Boyle, 5th Earl of Orrery. Pope died less than two months later on the 30th of May, 1744. 

 

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LINKS

The Wikipedia page on Alexander Pope.

The Poetry Foundation page on Alexander Pope.

The Complete Poetical Works of Alexander Pope.

A. D. Hope  on Pope and Bounce.

Claude Willan writes about tweeting Pope’s Essay on Criticism, one couplet at a time.

 

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Bedside Lamps – Brief Poems by Martial

martial

Marcus Valerius Martialis  (c. 38 and 41 AD – c. 102 and 104 AD) who was known in English as Martial, was a Roman poet from the Spanish town of Bilbilis, famous then for its iron mines and for the manufacture of steel, and a center of Roman culture. He journeyed to Rome at the age of 26 during the reign of the emperor Domitian. He is best known for his 15 books of poems, primarily epigrams  In these short, witty poems he cheerfully satirises city life and the scandalous activities of his acquaintances, and romanticises his provincial upbringing. He wrote a total of 1,561 poems, of which 1,235 are in elegiac couplets. The longest poem is a mere forty-two lines; most are shorter than a dozen, and many consist of a solitary couplet. He is considered to be the creator of the modern epigram, a short poem where the main point is revealed in its conclusion. His influence continues to be pervasive after twenty centuries. Perhaps U2 had him on their reading list when they translated a line from XII.46, Nec tecum possum vivere nec sine te, as I can’t live with or without you.

According to Steve Coates in his New York Times review of Garry Wills selection of Martial’s Epigrams:  While first-century Rome was hardly the decadent city it would become some centuries later, it must have had a sizable population of prurient readers who made Martial the rough equivalent of a best seller. His subjects were sex, money, dining, the baths, the emperor, the Circus Maximus, weekend retreats—all the venues Romans frequented and all their foibles, including envy, gluttony, laziness and its counterpart, excessive ambition, and that old staple of the satirist, vanity. These subjects continue to attract readers today.

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MARTIAL AND OBSCENITY

Martial knew what he was doing: Lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba. (My poems are filthy, but my life is pure.) Some of the epigrams are notorious. As Garry Wills puts it, …for all his softer or more lyrical epigrams, Martial will always be best known for his insult poems, the dirtier the better.  Martial recognised as much himself:  I write, I must confess, for dirtier readers, / My verse does not attract the nation’s leaders. If modern translators are drawn to these “dirty” poems or, at the very least, don’t shirk from including them, this has not always been the case.  The Elizabethans recognised the problem Martial posed, and still poses.  Timothe Kendall, in his 1577 anthology, Flowers of Epigrammes, addressed that problem: Martial is touche mislikt and lothde / of modest mynded men: / For leude, lascivious wanton woorkes / and woords whiche he doeth pen. Many earlier translators of Martial into English have declined to translate the sexually explicit epigrams, either leaving those particular epigrams in Latin or else giving them  an Italian translation. Henry G. Boehn in his 1897 edition of the epigrams had this to say on his omission of some of the epigrams: I do not believe that most people who read Martial will feel any sorrow at these omissions.  To read Martial is to walk with him along the streets of ancient Rome; but few of us need accompany him when he bathes in the sewers.

The moral landscape is constantly changing. The sycophancy and grubbing for patronage, which was so much a part of Martial’s age and of his English translators during  the Renaissance, is viewed with disdain today as a form of brown-nosing or lickspittling.  The proclivities which saw Oscar Wilde jailed in Victorian times were as normal in Martial’s era as they are nowadays. But the paedophilia and the interest in underage sex would be viewed as reprehensible at a  time when child abuse by celebrated film directors is the subject of scandal and speculation; it was not so to Martial. His poems express a classic misogyny and his railing against lesbianism would not find favour in a liberal state. Consequently, even in our age, many of his epigrams are grotesquely obscene and sleazy. They are also witty in the classical sense of that often abused word. You can make your own moral judgement on the poems printed below, bearing in mind the comment  of the late Charles Tomlinson, Some of the obscene poems are downright funny, others—despite their metrical expertise—of a schoolboy crudity. 

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TRANSLATING MARTIAL

Finding an English equivalent for Martial’s Latin is not an easy task. While there are many prose versions of the epigrams, the more interesting translations derive from those who have attempted to find a formal, traditional English metrical and rhyming form to convey the verbal architectonics of Latin poetry. The most common form applied is that of the traditional iambic rhyming couplet. At times the brevity of the Latin proves too constricting. Colley Cibber turns a one line epigram (VIII.19) into a couplet. Gary Schmidgall translates a Martial couplet (I.110) into a triplet with an Ogden Nash style multisyllabic rhyme. Joseph Addison, writing in the Augustan era, turned a poignant couplet (XII.46) into  quatrain. Rolfe Humphries, whose quirky sense of humour saw him barred from contributing to Poetry magazine, used that most traditional comic verse form, the limerick, to translate, successfully in my opinion, a ribald couplet (IX.33).  Tony Harrison, an English poet visiting New York, animates the traditional English couplet with an American idiom when he comes to translate  (III.71), a poem he calls “Twosum”. In Martialed Arguments in his collection Slander & Sleaze, the American poet A. M. Juster translates seventy-one epigrams by the Roman poet, utilising the “bile and bluster”  that is common to both poets. In some instances below I have used multiple translations of the same Martial poem to show how the approach to translation differs from poet to poet. Enjoy.

 

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Brief Poems by Martial

from BOOK ONE

16

Sunt bona, sunt quaedam mediocria, sunt mala plura 
     quae legis hic: aliter non fit, Auite, liber.

Good work you’ll find, some poor, and much that’s worse;
It takes all sorts to make a book of verse.

J. A. Pott

——

Some good things here, and some not worth a look.
For this is that anomaly, a book.

Garry Wills

***

30

Chirurgus fuerat, nunc est uispillo Diaulus:
     coepit quo poterat clinicus esse modo.

Once a surgeon, Dr. Baker
Then became an undertaker,
Not so much his trade reversing
Since for him it’s just re-hearsing.

T. W. Melluish

***

32

Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare:
     hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te.

I do not love thee, Dr Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not love thee, Dr Fell.

Tom Brown 

—–

I don’t love you, Sabidius, no, I can’t say why:
All I can say is this, that I don’t love you.

A. S. Kline

—–

Mister Sabidius you pain me.
I wonder (some) why that should be
And cannot tell—a mystery.
You inexplicably pain me.

Garry Wills

***

38

Quem recitas meus est, o Fidentine, libellus: 
     sed male cum recitas, incipit esse tuus.

To an ill reader

The verses, Sextus, thou doost read, are mine;
But with bad reading thou wilt make them thine.

Sir John Harington

***

That verse is mine, you know, which you’re
Reciting, But you quote it
So execrably, that I believe
I’ll let you say you wrote it

Dorothea Wender

——

Poetry Reading

The poems thou are reading, friend, are mine;
But such bad reading starts to make them thine.

Raymond Oliver

***

63

Ut recitem tibi nostra rogas epigrammata. Nolo:
non audire, Celer, sed recitare cupis.

Read you my epigrams? No I decline!
You want me to read yours, not hear mine.

Hubert Dynes Ellis

***

64

Bella es, nouimus, et puella, uerum est, 
et diues, quis enim potest negare?
Sed cum te nimium, Fabulla, laudas,
nec diues neque bella nec puella es.

You’re beautiful, oh yes and young, and rich;
But since you tell us so, you’re just a bitch.

Rolfe Humphries

***

67

‘Liber homo es nimium’ dicis mihi, Ceryle, semper.
     In te quis dicit, Ceryle:’Liber homo es?’

You often say my work is coarse. It’s true,
But then it must be so – it deals with you.

J. A. Pott

***

83

Os et labra tibi lingit, Manneia, catellus:
     non miror, merdas si libet esse cani.

I muse not that your Dog turds oft doth eat;
To a tongue that licks your lips, a turd’s sweet meat.

Francis Davison

—–

Your little dog licks you from head to foot
Am I surprised, Manneia?
Not a bit.
I’m not surprised that dogs like shit.

Richard O’Connell

—–

Your little puppy licks your mouth and lips—
Manneia, I no longer find it strange
That dogs are tempted by the smell of turds.

Joseph S. Salemi

___

Dear Manneia:

Your lapdog’s licking your lips and chin:
no wonder with that shit-eating grin.

A. M. Juster

***

91

Cum tua non edas, carpis mea carmina, Laeli.
     Carpere uel noli nostra uel ede tua.

The critic

You don’t write poems, Laelius, you criticise
mine. Stop criticising me or write your own.

A. S. Kline

___

Dear Laelius:

You won’t reveal your verse,
but whine that mine is worse.
Just leave me alone
or publish your own.

A. M. Juster

***’

110

Scribere me quereris, Velox, epigrammata longa.
     Ipse nihil scribis: tu breuiora facis.

My epigrams are wordy, you’ve complained;
But you write nothing. Yours are more restrained.

Raymond Oliver

—–

“Write shorter epigrams,” is your advice.
Yet you write nothing, Velox. How concise!

Susan McLean

—–

“Much too long” you say, Velox, censorious,
Of my epigrams—that’s quite uproarious.
You write none. Your brevity is glorious.
Gary Schmidgall
—–

Short Enough?

You call my epigrams verbose and lacking in concision
while you yourself write nothing. Wise decision.

Brooke Clark

 

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from BOOK TWO

3

Sexte, nihil debes, nil debes, Sexte, fatemur:
debet enim, si quis soluere, Sexte, potest.

Sextus, you keep on saying
You’re not in debt. I know.
Without the means of paying
One can’t be said to owe.

James Michie

_____

Sextus, you have no debts – no debts I say
for one cannot have debts who cannot pay.

***

38

Quid mihi reddat ager quaeris, Line, Nomentanus?
Hoc mihi reddit ager: te, Line, non uideo.

You wonder if my farm pays me its share?
It pays me this: I do not see you there.

Raymond Oliver

—–

What, Linus, can my farm be minus,
When it successfully lacks Linus?

Garry Wills

***

42

Zoile, quid solium subluto podice perdis?
Spurcius ut fiat, Zoile, merge caput.

Zoilus, if you want to pollute the public bathing place,
Don’t stick in your ass first; stick in your face.

Richard O’Connell

—–

Zoilus, why do you pollute the bath
By plunging your ass into it? A tip—
Want to make it filthier? Do this:
Submerge your head within the bath as well.

Joseph S. Salemi

___

Dear Zoilus:

Your ass in the sink
is making it stink.
For a fouler smell,
dear Zoilus,
dunk your head as well.

A. M. Juster

***

49

Uxorem nolo Telesinam ducere: quare?
Moecha est. Sed pueris dat Telesina: uolo.

“I won’t marry Betty; she’s too fond of men.”
“Well, boys find her charming.” I’ll marry her then.

F. A. Wright

***

88

Nil recitas et uis, Mamerce, poeta uideri:
quidquid uis esto, dummodo nil recites.

Arthur, they say, has wit. “For what?
For writing?” No – for writing not.

Jonathan Swift

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from BOOK THREE

9

Versiculos in me narratur scribere Cinna:
Non scribit, cuius carmina nemo legit.

Cinna attacks me, calls me dirt?
Let him. Who isn’t read can’t hurt.

Richard O’Connell

—–

A silent critic

They say Cinna writes little poems about me.
He’s no writer, whose verse nobody reads.

A. S. Kline

—–

His verse was meant to strike me low
But, since he wrote it—who will know?

Garry Wills

____

They say that Cinna slams
me in his epigrams.
A poem no one has heard
has really not occurred.

A. M. Juster

***

37

Irasci tantum felices nostis amici.
Non belle facitis, sed iuuat hoc: facite.

The rich feign wrath – a profitable plan;
’Tis cheaper far to hate than help a man.

J. A. Pott

***

49

Veientana mihi misces, ubi Massica potas:
olfacere haec malo pocula quam bibere.

You serve me plonk, and you drink reservé.
My taste-buds back away from mine’s bouquet.

Tony Harrison

—–

You pour me Blue Nun, while you drink Brunello wine.
I’d rather smell your glass, than take a sip from mine.

Mark Ynys-Mon

***

71

Mentula cum doleat puero, tibi, Naeuole, culus,
non sum diuinus, sed scio quid facias.

Your lad is sore in front
And you itch at the rear;
I’m no clairvoyant, but
I see things crystal-clear!

Brian Hill

—–

Twosum

Add one and one together and make TWO:
that boy’s sore ass + your cock killing you.

Tony Harrison

—–

He has a sore cock, you have a sore arse.
I’m no psychic, but I can also put these two things together.

Mark Ynys-Mon

—–

The boy has got the active penis
And you an ass as smooth as Venus
I need therefore no hidden clue
To figure out just what you do.

Garry Wills

***

98

Sit culus tibi quam macer, requiris?
Pedicare potes, Sabelle, culo.

You know how thin your ass-hole’s gone?
You could stuff it, Sabellus, up another one.

J. P Sullivan

—–

You want to know how bony your arse is?
So bony, Sabellus, you could bone someone with it.

Mark Ynys-Mon

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from BOOK FOUR

12

Nulli, Thai, negas; sed si te non pudet istud,
hoc saltem pudeat, Thai, negare nihi.

To everyone, Thais, you say Yes –
Where’s the blame?
But never a No to anything
Have you no shame?

J. P. Sullivan

___

Dear Thais:

There’s nobody who you won’t screw,
but if that can’t embarrass you,
feel shame at least for what is true:
Thais, there’s nothing you won’t do.

A. M. Juster

***

21

Nullos esse deos, inane caesium
adfirmat Segius: probatque, quod se
factum, dum negat haec, uidet beatum.

That in the Heavens no gods there be
Selius affirms, and proves ‘cause he
Still thinking so lives happily.

Thomas May

—–

“The skies are empty,
and the gods are dead”,
says Segius, the proof of which
is that he sees himself made rich.

Peter Porter

***

38

Galla, nega: satiatur amor nisi gaudia torquent:
sed noli nimium, Galla, negare diu.

Galla, say No, for Love will cloy
Without some torments mixed with joy.
But, Galla, do not get me wrong –
Please don’t say No to me too long.

Mollie Barger

___

Galla, Refuse me!
Without a wait
or some hard trial,
love won’t amuse me.
So hesitate
(just for a while…)

A. M. Juster

***

84

Non est in populo nec urbe tota
a se Thaida qui probet fututam,
cum multi cupiant rogentque multi.
Tam casta est, rogo, Thais? Immo fellat.

Men seek Thais
From North and South,
And she’s a virgin—
All but her mouth.

Garry Wills

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from BOOK FIVE

36

Laudatus nostro quidam, Faustine, libello
 dissimulat, quasi nil debeat: inposuit.

A man I published in a little book
Acts like he owes me nothing.
He’s a crook.

Richard O’Connell

***

43

Thais habet nigros, niueos Laecania dentes.
Quae ratio est? Emptos haec habet, illa suos.

Thais has black teeth, Laecania’s are white because
she bought ‘em last night.

Ezra Pound

—–

Her teeth look whiter than they ought.
Of course they should — the teeth were bought.

Garry Wills

***

73

Non donem tibi cur meos libellos
oranti totiens et exigenti
miraris, Theodore? Magna causa est:
dones tu mihi ne tuos libellos.

You ask for my verse, so here. This even scores:
I had kept mine in hopes you would keep yours.

James M. Young

—–

A Good Reason

You wonder why I never ask you if you’ve read my book?
I’m not one of those narcissistic bores
who fishes around for praise with such a thinly baited hook.
Besides, I’m worried you’ll ask if I’ve read yours.

Brooke Clark

***

83

Insequeris, fugio; fugis, insequor. Haec mihi mens est:
uelle tuum nolo, Dindyme, nolle uolo.

I run, you chase; you chase, I run.
I love what’s cold: what’s hot I shun.

Peter Whigham

—–

Contrary

You chase, I flee; you flee, I chase; it’s how I am:
what you wish I don’t, Dindymus, what you don’t I wish.

A. S. Kline

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from BOOK SIX

12

Iurat capillos esse, quos emit, suos
Fabulla: numquid illa, Paule, peierat?

The golden hair that Galla wears
Is hers: who would have thought it?
She swears ’tis hers, and true she swears,
For I know where she bought it.

Sir John Harrington

***

23

Stare iubes semper nostrum tibi, Lesbia, penem:
crede mihi, non est mentula quod digitus.
Tu licet et manibus blandis et uocibus instes,
cte contra facies imperiosa tua est.

You want my cock at full attention
If sex you casually mention?
No matter how you coax men’s tools,
Hand “makes a motion” face overrules.

Garry Wills

***

36

Mentula tam magna est quantus tibi, Papyle, nasus,
ut possis, quotiens arrigis, olfacere.

His tool was large and so was his nose,
Papylus could smell it whenever it rose.

Fiona Pitt-Kethley

—–

With your giant nose and cock
I bet you can with ease
When you get excited
check the end for cheese.

Mark Ynys-Mon

—–

Papylus, your nose and your dong are both so long
that when your dong grows,
your nose knows.

Elizabeth Duke

___

A bent huge nose, a monstrous cock to match—
Curved, each into the other, what a snatch!

Garry Wills

***

67

Cur tantum eunuchos habeat tua Caelia, quaeris,
Pannyche? Volt futui Caelia nec parere.

Your Celia keeps company with eunuchs:
Pannychus, do you find this odd?
It’s the child she hopes to be spared,
Pannychus, not the rod.

William Matthews

***

79

Tristis es et felix. Sciat hoc Fortuna caueto:
ingratum dicet te, Lupe, si scierit.

Lucky yet sad? My friend, should Fortune find
You lacking gratitude, she’ll change her mind.

Brian Hill

***

from BOOK SEVEN

3

Cur non mitto meos tibi, Pontiliane, libellos?
ne mihi tu mittas, Pontiliane, tuos.

No thanks

Why don’t I send you my little books?
Pontilianus, lest you send me yours.

A. S. Kline

—–

TO PONTILIANUS

You ask me why I have no verses sent?
For fear you should return the compliment.

William Hay

___

Why don’t I send my books to you?
For fear you’d send me your books, too.

Susan McLean

___

Reply

I never send my books, it’s true.
Know why? You’d send me your books too.

Robert West

___

Dear Pontilianus

You wonder why my little book is overdue,
dear Pontilianus?
It’s just that I don’t want to look at one from you.

A. M. Juster

 

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from BOOK EIGHT

19

Pauper videri Cinna vult; et est pauper.

When humble Cinna cries, I’m poor and low,
You may believe him – he is really so.

Colley Cibber

_____

Cinna, who makes a show of poverty,
is just as poor as he pretends to be.

Susan McLean

_____

He claims rich status, bur with straitened means
The last point is more honest than it seems

Gary Willis

***

27

Munera qui tibi dat locupleti, Gaure, senique,
si sapis et sentis, hoc tibi ait “Morere.”

If you were wise as well as rich and sickly,
You’d see that every gift  means, “Please die quickly.”

James Michie

—–

Gaurus, you’re old and rich. Those who stop by
with gifts (could you but know) are saying, “Die.”

Susan McLean

—–

With wheedling gifts, with hoverings-by
your heirs all say, in dumb show, “Die!”

Gary Willis

***

62

Scribit in auersa Picens epigrammata charta,
et dolet auerso quod facit illa deo.

Because the muses turn their backsides on Aper
He writes his poems on toilet paper.

Richard O’Connell

***

69

Miraris ueteres, Vacerra, solos
nec laudas nisi mortuos poetas.
Ignoscas petimus, Vacerra: tanti
non est, ut placeam tibi, perire.

You puff the poets of other days,
The living you deplore.
Spare me the accolade: your praise
Is not worth dying for.

Dudley Fitts

___

Vacerra, you admire the ancients only
and praise no poets but those here no more.
I beg that you will pardon me, Vacerra,
but pleasing you is not worth dying for.

Susan McLean

___

You praise long-dead authors rapturously;
the living ones you savage or ignore,
but since your praise can’t grant immortality
I really don’t think it’s worth dying for.

Brooke Clark

___

Dear Vacerra:

You pine for bards of old
and poets safely cold.
Excuse me for ignoring your advice,
but good reviews from you aren’t worth the price.

A. M. Juster

***

from BOOK NINE

33

Audieris in quo, Flacce, balneo plausum,
Maronis illic esse mentulam scito.

If you’re passing the baths and you hear,
From within, an uproarious cheer,
You may safely conclude
Maron’s there, in the nude,
With that tool which has nowhere a peer.

Rolfe Humphries

—–

If from the baths you hear a round of applause,
The giant prick of Maron is surely the cause.

James Michie

___

When the bathhouse breaks into loud applause,
you will know that well-hung Mario is the cause.

A. M. Juster

***

63

Ad cenam invitant omnes te, Phoebe, cinaedi.
mentula quem pascit, non, puto, purus homo est.

You’re asked to dinner, Phoebus, by every queen.
I’d say one fed by a cock is none too clean.

Susan McLean

—–

Phoebus, all faggots ask you home to dine—
Who feeds on dick is dirty, I opine.

Joseph S. Salemi

80

Duxerat esuriens locupletem pauper anumque:
uxorem pascit Gellius et futuit.

Feignlove, half-starved, a rich old hag has wed –
Poor Feignlove, doom’d to earn his board in bed.

Nathaniel Brassey Halhed

—–

A starving pauper wed a wealthy crone.
Gellius feed his wife and gives her the bone.

Susan McLean

***

from BOOK TEN

8

Nubere Paula cupit nobis, ego ducere Paulam
Nolo: anus est. Vellem, si magis esset anus.

Paula would wed: I pray to be exempted.
She’s old. Were she but older I’d be exempted.

Peter Whigham

—–

Paula wants to wed me;
I don’t want to wed her.
She is old. But if she
were older, I’d agree.

George Held

—–

Paula would marry me, I’m disinclined.
She’s old. If she were older, I’d change my mind.

Susan McLean

***

16

Dotatae uxori cor harundine fixit acuta,
Sed dum ludit Aper: ludere novit Aper.

Aper the expert archer accidentally shot
His rich wife in the heart.
He was lucky. She was not.

Richard O’Connell

—–

Aper shot his wealthy wife – an arrow through the heart
during a game of archery. At gamesmanship, he’s smart.

Susan McLean

***

95

Infantem tibi vir, tibi, Galla, remisit adulter.
Hi, puto, non dubie se futuisse negant.

Your husband rejected your child; your lover has too:
Galla, they clearly deny laying a finger on you.

J. P. Sullivan

 

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from BOOK ELEVEN

19

Quaeris cur nolim te ducere, Galla? Diserta es
saepe soloecismum mentula nostra facit.

Why don’t I marry you, Galla?
Because you’re a prude,
and my cock’s uppity, ill-bred
and shockingly rude.

William Matthews

***

62

Lesbia se jurat gratis numquam esse fututam.
Verum’st. Cum futui vult, numerare solet.

On the nail

Lesbia swears she’s never been fucked for free.
True. When she wants to be fucked, she has to pay.

A. S. Kline

***

89

Intactas quare mittis mihi, Polla, coronas?
A te vexatas malo tenere rosas.

Dearest, send no fresh flowers! I love best
The roses that have died upon your breast.

Hubert Dynes Ellis

—–

Why send me pristine wreaths? I’d rather wear
the rumpled roses, Polla, from your hair.

Susan McLean

***

from BOOK TWELVE

20

Quare non habeat, Fabulle, quaeris
Uxorem Themison? habet sororem.

Of course we know he’ll never wed.
What? Put his sister out of bed?

Garry Wills

***

33

Ut pueros emeret Labienus vendidit hortos.
Nil nisi ficetum nunc Labienus habet.

Labienus sold an orchard
to buy some slave boys:
he traded fruit trees
for real live fruits.

Donald Goertz

***

46

Difficilis facilis, iucundus acerbus es idem:
nec tecum possum vivere nec sine te.

In all thy humours, whether grave or mellow
Thou’rt such a touchy, testy, pleasant fellow;
Hast as much wit, and mirth, and spleen about thee,
There is no living with thee, nor without thee.

Joseph Addison

—–
You are difficult and easy. you are pleasant and harsh;
I can’t live with you and I can’t live without you.

Tau Apiryon

***

from BOOK THIRTEEN

81

Rhombi.

Quamvis lata gerat patella rhombum,
rhombus latior est tamen patella.

Turbots

However wide the plate that holds the fish
The flat-fish is still wider than the dish.

Fiona Pitt-Kethley

***

82

Ostrea.

Ebria Baiano veni modo concha Lucrino:
nobile nunc sitio luxuriosa garum.

Oysters

Tipsy from Baiae’s stream but lately sent,
This wanton bi-valve thirsts for condiment.

Peter Whigham

***

from BOOK FOURTEEN

39

Lucerna cubicularis.

Dulcis conscia lectuli lucerna,
Quidquid vis facias licet, tacebo.

A lamp am I, aware of your joy in bed:
Do what you will, not one word will be said.

Palmer Bovie

—–

A Bedside Light

I show but do not countenance what you do.
Douse me. The only record is in you.

Peter Porter

***

A Bedside Lamp

To me are bedroom joys revealed,
Enjoy at will, my lips are sealed.

Peter Whigham

***

40

Cicindela

Ancillam tibi sors dedit lucernae,
Totas quae vigil exigit tenebras.

A Candle

A lantern’s handmaid, I who stay
Awake to keep the dark at bay.

Peter Whigham

old-fashioned-oil-lamps-for-a-new-home-fragrance-classic-interior

SOURCES

Many of the poems chosen above, along with the original Latin text, are culled from a book I was given recently as a Christmasbooks present, Epigrams of Martial Englished by Divers Hands, Edited by J. P. Sullivan and Peter Whigham. (See cover image on right.) This substantial collection of epigrams, mainly from writers of the twentieth century, is supplemented 411SmZxdeTL._AC_US160_by an appendix of older versions. The introduction is particularly illuminating. I first came across a selection of Martial’s verse in English when, many years ago, for the modest sum of one pound, I purchased a copy of Tony Harrison’s pamphlet of poems called US Martialwhich wapublished by Bloodaxe Books in 1981. (See image on left.) Living in New York at the time, Harrison deftly translated some of the epigrams into a jazzy American idiom. I also came across more Martial in the concluding section of the Oxford University Press edition of Peter Porter’s Collected Poems, although most of his fascinating selection is longer than the tweet size necessary for inclusion in this post.

If I have infringed anyone’s copyright in printing any of the above epigrams, please let me know in the comment box below and I will remove the translation. If, on the other hand, you would like a translation included, fill in the same comment box.

LINKS

The Wikipedia page on Martial

The Latin text of the epigrams at Bibliotheca Augustana.

The Latin text of the epigrams at the Latin Library.

A selection of the epigrams compiled by Michael R. Burch.

Selected Epigrams of Martial translated by SusanMcLean.

Gary Wills writes about translating Martial.

 10 Reasons You Should Be Reading Martial by Brooke Clark.

David Barber’s Parnassus Review essay on the epigram in English contains a review of two books of Martial in translation.

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Sex and Tax – Brief Poems by Alda Merini

141618Alda Merini (1931-2009) was born in Milan on March 21, 1931 to a family of modest means. Her father encouraged Alda’s interest in literature and published a little booklet of her poems when she was ten. At fifteen she began devoting herself to writing poems. Soon she began frequenting the period’s most remarkable literary circle in Milan, attended by many eminent poets and critics, among them Pier Paolo Pasolini, Maria Corti, Luciano Erba and Giorgio Manganelli, with whom she began a tormented love affair. Also in 1947, she showed her first symptoms of mental illness and spent a month at the Villa Turro clinic in Milan. In 1949 the affair with Manganelli ended. In 1950 she became romantically involved with Salvatore Quasimodo; the relationship lasted until 1953.

In 1953, Alda Merini married Ettore Carniti, the owner of a bakery and pastry shop in Milan, and published her first book, La presenza di Orfeo. After the publication of Tu sei Pietro in 1961, she stopped writing for two decades, due to her deteriorating mental health. Susan Stewart, her translator, has commented on her mental problems: In her Delirio amoroso, Merini wrote, ambiguously, “All my books are tied to my mental illness, almost always wanted by others to witness my damnation,” thereby not indicating whether it is her books or the mental illness itself, or their inter-relation, that was demanded by her audience. Indeed her tremendous, bestselling popularity in Italy—witnessed by the fact that her books can be found in the kiosks of every Italian train station as well as every bookstore— speaks to the importance of the Merini legend of the mad poet.

In 1965, committed by her husband, she entered the Paolo Pini asylum in Milan, where she remained until 1972, although she did spend some brief periods with her family. In 1979 she emerged from her illness and began writing again, permeating her poems with her dramatic and painful experience in mental institutions. After the death of her husband in 1983, she began a correspondence with the doctor Michele Pierri, thirty years her senior. She married him the same year, moving to his home in Taranto. Here she had another bout of serious mental illness and for a short time entered a local mental institution.

She returned to Milan in 1986, where she finally achieving some serenity. She was able to live outside of mental institutions in her own apartment on the Naviglio. The next twenty years were creatively fecund and she published at least a book of poems or prose annually. In 1993 she received the prestigious Librex-Guggenheim Eugenio Montale Prize, thus becoming an acclaimed and revered poet. In 1996 she won another prestigious prize, the Premio Viareggio.

Renowned and beloved in her native Italy, her numerous books include The Presence of OrpheusFear of GodRoman WeddingDiary of an Other, and Love Lessons (2009), a selection of  poems translated into English by Susan Stewart. Her later poems meditate on illness, nature, and myth. She was twice nominated for a Nobel Prize during her lifetime, by both the French Academy and Italian PEN.

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Alda Merini died on November 1, 2009 of cancer. She is buried in the Monumental Cemetery in Milan. (See the image of her tomb above.)

 

 

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THE APHORISMS

According to Alda Merini, Gli aforismi sono gli incantesimi della notte (Aphorisms are the spells of the night.) I first discovered her aphorisms in Douglas Basford’s translations on the Poetry Foundation site. (See LINKS below.)  There are other translations available in Susan Stewart’s Love Lessons: Selected Poems of Alda Merini. But I prefer those of Douglas Basford who has probably selected the best of the aphorisms of which there are very many.

Alda Merini wrote some of them on the walls of her apartment in Milan, as seen in this YouTube video, where she delighted in self display of all sorts, including nude photos of herself (“Nudity refreshes my soul,” is  another one of her aphorisms.) Susan Stewart describes a visit to her apartment: Across the ochre palimpsest of peeling paint above her bed, in lurid lines of lipsticks and faint pencil traces, she has scrawled a vast map of phone numbers, aphorisms, fragments of poems coming to life or fading from memory; it’s hard to tell. She roams, a small stooped figure, through her realm of objects, dropping cigarette ash everywhere she goes. If you do not believe in guardian angels, the sight of Alda Merini orbiting through this flammable maze, day after day, night after night, shedding sparks, might make you change your mind.

 

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Brief Poems by Alda Merini

Aphorisms

Psychoanalysis
always looks for the egg
in a basket
that has been lost.

*       *       *

I sample sin as if it were
the beginning of well-being.

*       *       *

I don’t like Paradise
as they probably don’t have obsessions there.

*       *       *

Se Dio mi assolve, lo fa sempre per insufficienza di prove.

If God absolves me
he always does so
for insufficient
evidence.

*       *       *

Everyone is a friend of his own pathology.

*       *       *

When I raise a toast to madness,
I toast myself as well.

*       *       *

Ci sono notti che non accadono mai.

There are nights that don’t
ever happen.

***

Translated by Douglas Basford.

Source : Poetry (December 2007)

 

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from Aphorisms and Spells

As I am Catholic
I have never played.

*       *       *

I’ve had
thirty-six lovers
plus tax.

*       *       *

I am the most chaste woman
in Italian literature.

*       *       *

I am completely
asexual
not counting errors
and omissions.

*       *       *

Mount Sinai
is sometimes confused
with the Mons Veneris.

*       *       *

No one can know
what is
between me and God.

***

Translated by Douglas Basford.

Source : Poetry (December 2007)

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LINKS

The Poety Foundation selection from Aphorisms translated by Douglas Basford.

The Poetry Foundation selection from Aphorisms and Spells translated by Douglas Basford.

Susan Stewart’s introduction to her translation of Alda Merini’s Selected  Poems.

A series of amazing photographs of Alda Merini.

The official homepage for Alda Merini. (In Italian)

A large selection of the  aphorisms (Aforisi) in Italian.

 

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