Irish Arses – Brief Poems by Brendan Kennelly

Brendan Kennelly, an Irish poet and novelist, was born in Ballylongford in County Kerry on 17 April 1936.  His parents owned a pub at the village crossroads. He was educated at the inter-denominational school, St. Ita’s College in Tarbert and at Trinity College, where he edited the student literary magazine Icarus. He graduated from Trinity and wrote his PhD thesis there. The subject of his doctoral thesis, Modern Irish Poets and the Irish Epic, was the revival of ancient Gaelic mythology in English verse by notable Irish poets, including Samuel Ferguson and W.B. Yeats. He also studied at Leeds University. He was Professor of Modern Literature at Trinity College, Dublin for thirty years until his retirement from teaching in 2005. In 2010 he was awarded the Irish PEN Award for his contribution to Irish Literature. He now lives in Listowel in County Kerry.

THE POETRY OF BRENDAN KENNELLY

A prolific and fluent writer, Brendan Kennelly has more than fifty books to his credit, over thirty of them collections of poetry. Many of them are book-length sequences, adapting and adopting various voices to his own ends: For me, poetry is an entering into the lives of things and people, dreams and events. An early sequence Cromwell (Beaver Row Press, 1983; Bloodaxe Books, 1987) is a wildly ambitious attempt to convey the historical import of a polarising figure in Anglo-Irish relations by utilising various voices and personae and then putting them through a chronological blender. The use of a persona can be a liberating agent and reveal more about our existence and our way of life than personal outpourings. Not only does Kennelly ventriloquize Cromwell, but he also creates his own gargantuan and rabelesian figures, in particular a mythical mad Irishman with the Joycean name of M.P.G.M. Buffún Esq. (pronounced buffoon). A later book, Moloney Up and At It (Mercier Press, 1984) continues the rabelesian theme, but in a rural manner. Set in his native Kerry and using the local language, these ten comic poems on the themes of sex and death are monologues in the voice of a local man. Kennelly himself appears as a comic foil in the concluding poem.

The poems below are taken from four of Kennelly’s most ambitious books. The Book of Judas (Bloodaxe Books,1991) is an epic poem of nearly 400 pages, almost 800 poems, mediated by the Biblical figure of Judas transported through history, myth and legend to contemporary Ireland. What unites this amazing enterprise is not only the reviled figure of Judas but the sense of ultimate betrayal which he symbolises. I believe, he writes in a preface, that this culture is now in an advanced state of self-betrayal, playing Judas to itself. In this poem I wanted this man to talk to himself, this culture to mutter to itself of what is lost or forgotten or betrayed or grotesquely twisted in memory. Talk to himself, Judas certainly does. The great strength of the book is its relentlessly colloquial style, pouring out cliché, bombast, invective, obscenity, blasphemy and sheer bloody-minded self-exculpation. (From my vantage point as traitor/I see what’s true.) There are times when the sheer effort to cope with the style breaks down and the book splutters and stutters along for pages at a time (Clichés, I said, clichés, is this all you have to give.) But Kennelly works hard to offer a variety of complimentary voices to that given to his anti-hero, what he calls the Judas voice. Biblical, historical and literary figures of betrayal swagger their way through the narrative. Like Paradise Lost, the book is in twelve sections; like Satan, Judas is its compelling anti-hero; and like Milton, Kennelly has created a style appropriate to his grand enterprise, one that owes more to a televisual than a theological age. (I kept a production notebook on the crucifixion.) It is a remarkable work.

Poetry My Arse, subtitled, “A riotous Epic Poem”, (Bloodaxe Books,1995) is equally ambitious. This poem concerns a poet, poetry, language and various forms of relationship. The poet Ace de Horner, moves through his poetry, the city, different relationships. He broods a lot. The city in question is Dublin and, as well as being identified as “post-colonial”, Kennelly also calls it, in a prefatory “Acenote”, the most garrulous city in Christendom. There are elements of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake with Ace de Horner as a latter-day Bloom or HCE. The book is defiantly garrulous, a kind of shuffling arena of voices. These voices lead to a cacophony of bile and bluster, like a Dublin bar-room at closing time. While the poetry is constantly undercutting itself as it spools out, there is a bluntness to the satire. The book, it seems to me, lacks the rigour or intellectual control to transform bitterness into a sustainable satire on Dublin’s literary life. It operates best at the level of burlesque, lampoon, farce and crude jokes. In defiantly undercutting any auspicious or traditional sense of the resonance of poetry, the exuberance and exhibitionism are left to do the work of social and literary criticism. The poems are propelled by the energetic thrust of their defiant style and best read as part of a compelling comedy. Any objection to a book that refuses to take itself seriously is always going to be met with an in-built deflector. Kennelly’s response to one negative reviewer is apt: The reviewer said it was full of shit, sex and violence. He was right. My intention was his perception. But it is also about the connection between the poet and his society. It explores the nature of poetry, my blind Dublin Homer who sees more clearly as he becomes more blind.

Arses reappear in Martial Art (Bloodaxe Books, 2003). Given the scatological, even the pornographic nature of much of Kennelly’s work, it is not surprising that he turned to the Latin poet for inspiration. What is surprising, and welcome, is the manner in which he reins in his exuberance and attains an uncharacteristic concision. The book is no structured translation of much translated poems. It includes translation, but it is also an effort, successful in large parts, to wrest Martial to his own ends. Some of the poems are in the mode of the Latin poet rather than mere translations. There are verses here which I wrote after trying to translate him, or while I tried to translate him.  It is a tribute to the skill with which he conducts the enterprise that it is sometimes hard to know which poem is original and which is a translation. The empathy is emphasised when Kennelly calls Martial a wandering provincial in a confident metropolis. Martial’s movement from the Spanish town of Bilbilis to Rome is mirrored in the transition of Kennelly from the rural Kerry town of Ballylongford to metropolitan Dublin. The identification is further explored in a brief introduction: If he’d been a boxer, he’d have developed a new kind of knockout punch, smiling at his victim as he walked back to his corner. His themes are many and varied. He writes of money, food, wine, furniture, style, power, sex, corruption, love, hatred, streets, darkness, families, poverty, snobbery, poets, poetry, polished deceit, aesthetic back-stabbers, High Art, low artists, metropolitan egotism and arrogance, politics, escape to the countryside, property, law, education, greed, manipulative men and women, cliques, loners, talkers and chatterboxes of every shade and motive, patrons, misery, the happy life, clothes, enemies, gossip, friends, flattery and the old constant problem of personal survival and hope of self-renewal. That’s Rome two thousand years ago. That’s Dublin today… Is one translating Martial? Or is Martial, smiling and mischievous as ever, translating the translator? The rock-star as literary critic, Bono, has endorsed Brendan Kennelly’s translations, in a blurb, This is poetry as base as heavy metal, as high as the Holy Spirit flies, comic and tragic, from litany to rant, roaring at times, soaring at other times. He may be overblowing the achievement, but he has a point.

Three Irish arses make an appearance in Now (Bloodaxe Books, 2006). The first is that of a swan who “cocks his arse/to the full moon.” The second and third use that slang Irish invocation, my arse or, more colloquially, O kiss me arse. (See below.) Typical of Kennelly, he can be both concise and verbose at once. The book consists of more than six hundred and fifty three-line poems: I decided to write a poem sequence of three-liners that would try to convey the sliding identities of “now.” Although they flirt fitfully with terza-rima, epigram, even the odd haiku-like structure, they have more in common with the energetic burst that make up Poetry My Arse. The sequence is autobiographical and contains a motley cast of odd and incongruous characters with names like Tinker, Deborah Breen, Professor Strong, Zachary Hoakes and Professor Hoggett. As if to repay the tribute in the blurb on Martial Art, even Bono makes a grandiloquent appearance in the sequence. In a brief introductory note, and these introductory notes are among the more pleasing aspects of his many collections, Kennelly invokes some of his previous books and argues Now is an attempt to probe the concerns (obsessions?) with time in these poems in a more condensed, immediate way that is influenced by ancient proverbs from different cultures and modern headlines from different countries. Each of these often rhyming triplets posits questions of time, of an inherent Now, of the relation between a personal past and a city’s past. Despite their brevity, they are more loquacious than condensed, the work of one of the most eclectic and energetic of Irish poets.

 

 

Brief Poems by Brendan Kennelly

from THE BOOK OF JUDAS 

Christmas 1986

At the entrance to the church, in black
Spare lettering: GUNS NOT PRAYER.

***

Herod’s Epitaph

Time’s children gave him plenty rope:
While there’s death there’s hope.

***

Nowhere

The camp is nowhere, yet a hundred
Starving stragglers drag in here every day.

***

Time

Despite madness and heartache
Despite white supremacy and black magic
Despite heaven’s rage and earthquake
Let’s take a commercial break.

***

How Able is Abel

Saxon shillings, Yankee dollars, Irish mist:
Cutest hoor that ever pissed.
Turns muck to amethyst.

***

All poems © Bloodaxe Books.

 

from POETRY MY ARSE

Happy

“I like sleeping with Stephen.
I like sleeping with Stephen’s daddy too.
Neither knows I sleep with the other.
I keep two men happy. And you?”

***

For Adults

“Why are you so intent,”I asked, “on getting
other men’s wives into bed?”
“Adultery is for adults,” he said.

***

Slice

“I know,” she said, “when we laugh and fuck
life’s a blessèd slice of luck.”

***

The Good News

I told him I was getting married.
His lip
curled into a question:
“Will she take the whip?”

***

Colleague

“She broke both legs, we soon forgot her.
If that woman was a horse we’d have shot her.”

***

Nourishment

She lifted her head, Ace heard her say,
“Well, that’s my protein for today.”

***

All poems © Bloodaxe Books.

 

from MARTIAL ART

Three Things

Three things make an epigram sing:
brevity, honey, sting.

***

Stress

The god of divination is under stress.
What he’ll say
is anyone’s guess.

***

Talkers

When these two talk in their usual way
the sun covers its face and turns away.

***

Meaning

When one dines alone
one knows the meaning 
of conversation.

***

Two souls

I know two souls
who always go to bed late
fearing their sleep
may lessen their hate.

***

Prattus

Had Prattus the heaven’s embroidered cloths
he’d wipe his arse with them.

***

Poetry

If Martial’s truth were told
all that I give
is less than I withhold.

***

Late

He sits up late in a cold, dark place.
Why? His wife’s face.

***

Passion and permanence

What he, in love, bedwhispers to her
is printed on air, scrawled on water.

***

The art of war

Soldiers never afraid to risk their lives
are quivering cowards before their wives.

***

Further translations of Martial by Brendan Kennelly, together with the original Latin, are available on the Brief Poems Martial post.

All poems © Bloodaxe Books.

from NOW

He wonders why hate
has such an accomplished smile.
Hell is a paradise of style.

***

He observes that sometimes in summer leaves fall
as in autumn, whether on a swan’s nest 
or a body in the canal.

***

Now the philosopher: “There is no difference between living
and dying.” “Why, then, do you not die.”
“Because there is no difference.”

***

“A poem should not mean
but be.”
“On the matter of meaning and being, we disagree.”

***

The swan cocks his arse
to the full moon, 
going down.

***

“Ravenous appetite, my arse!
A man is no more 
than a lusty goat waiting to snore!”

***

“O kiss me arse,” she chirps, “forget your gloomy style.
It takes forty-two muscles to frown,
seventeen to smile.”

***

“Will she ever shut up?
Why can’t the thoughtless 
be wordless?”

***

All poems © Bloodaxe Books.

 

LINKS

The “Trinity Writers” Page on Brendan Kennelly.

The Wikipedia page on Brendan Kennelly.

The Bloodaxe Books page on Brendan Kennelly.

The Poetry International page on Brendan Kennelly.

The Poetry Archive page on Brendan Kennelly.

An Irish Times article on Brendan Kennelly by Eileen Battersby.

A review of Martial Art by Paul Davis.

 

Around the Scuttlebutt – Brief Poems by A. M. Juster

A. M. Juster (born 1956) is the pen name of Michael James Astrue, an American lawyer who has worked as a public servant at the highest levels, holding a position as associate counsel to two Republican presidents (Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush), then as general counsel to the Department of Health and Human Services, and finally as Commissioner of the Social Security Administration from 2007-2013. In the private sector, he practiced law and was a senior executive at several biotechnology companies. For the purpose of this post, I prefer to deal with the poet (A. M. Juster) rather than the political appointee (Michael Astrue) although an informative and entertaining article by Paul Mariani in the religious journal First Things skilfully explicates both sides of an intriguing personality.

A. M. Juster was the first moderator for Eratosphere, the largest on-line site for formal poetry and his work may be associated with what has come to be called The New Formalism. He has won the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award three times, most recently in 2008. My own favourite sonnet of his was one shortlisted for the award: Weldon Kees in Mexico. He also won the Richard Wilbur Award in 2002 for his collection, The Secret Language of Women. In 2014 he was a co-winner of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize for his translation of a Middle Welsh poem by Gwerful Mechain. His books of translations include Longing for Laura (2001) a translation of Petrarch, The Satires of Horace (2008), Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles (2015), The Elegies of Maximianus (2018) and John Milton’s The Book of Elegies (2019) a translation of the young John Milton’s Latin poems. W. W. Norton will publish his translation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere in 2023. Recent collections include Sleaze & Slander (2016),  The Billy Collins Experience (2016), and Wonder and Wrath (2020) which, according to Dana Gioia represents the culmination and integration of A. M. Juster’s diverse and remarkable career.

 

TWITTER – @amjuster 

For a Twitter account, that of A. M. Juster is particularly lively, engaging and provocative. He explains his interest thus: I reluctantly dipped my toe into Twitter (@amjuster) a year ago, and I like its concision and reach. I am not an academic or a networker, so it exposed me to a small but interesting group of poets and scholars. He tweets regularly, constantly offering a “warm Twitter welcome” to those who have joined, like a benevolent party-goer happy to see other like-minded souls in attendance. He is an advocate for the poets whose work he admires, promoting the work of such poets as A. E. Stallings, Rhina Espaillat and Kay Ryan and, in the past, campaigning for a Nobel Prize for the late Richard Wilbur. He is also a trenchant and persistent critic of those who he sees as undermining the craft and the reach of poetry. Ben Lerner, Christian Bok and Ezra Pound are often subject to his acerbic wit. Of those poets who use Twitter, he is certainly one worth following.

 

AROUND THE SCUTTLEBUTT

According to Wikipedia: Scuttlebutt in slang usage means rumor or gossip, deriving from the nautical term for the cask used to serve water (or, later, a water fountain). The term corresponds to the colloquial concept of a water cooler in an office setting, which at times becomes the focus of congregation and casual discussion… Since sailors exchanged gossip when they gathered at the scuttlebutt for a drink of water, scuttlebutt became Navy slang for gossip or rumours.

In the concluding poem below, a mock epitaph entitled Candid Headstone, with its concealed pun in the third line, the scuttlebutt is regarded as a poetic approach and the “bile and bluster” mentioned in disparaging terms is, in the shorter poems (and in many of the best of the longer poems in Sleaze and Slander), refined by rhyme and meter to a humorous and a caustic stance. This is evident in the translations of Martial below and in the Martial post. It is also evident in the brief poems which follow. Satire is one aspect of this approach. The Billy Collins poems, collected in The Billy Collins Experience, are a remarkable act of ventriloquism. Another poem meshes, like a frenetic disc jockey with his mixer, Eliot’s Prurock, Stevens’ blackbird and the famous red wheelbarrow of Williams. As well as Martial, there are translations of Horace, Erasmus, Ausonias and Luxorius, all rendered in a bilious American idiom. As for the two poems from the Middle Welsh of Gwerful Mechain – Poem of the Prick and Poem of the Pussy – suffice to say that the great Australian erotic poet, A. D. Hope, would be smiling in his grave. (A shorter poem by Gwerful Mechain is included below.) Rhina Espaillat put it best when she wrote in Light:  He doesn’t use satire to settle scores with “Them,” but to attack, with self-deprecating humor, the traits, customs and practices that need attacking in all of us.

 

Brief Poems by A. M. Juster

from Martialed Arguments 

1.28

To say Acerra stinks of day-old booze is wrong!
Each drink is freshened all night long!

***

1.47

Diaulus was a physician;
now he’s a mortician.
The undertaking’s the same –
it just has a new name.

***

2.20

Paul is reciting poems he buys.
At least he doesn’t plagiarize.

***

3.18

Dear Max:

Your reading opened with a whine
about your laryngitis,
but since your alibi was fine
why reread on and incite us.

***

3.79

Sex with Sertorius is anticlimactic;
rapid withdrawal is his typical tactic.

***

8.35

Since you both share the same approach to life
(a lousy husband and a lousy wife),
I am bewildered it
is not a better fit.

***

10.43

Your seventh wife, Phil, is buried in your field.
Nobody gets from land, Phil, that kind of yield.

***

11.97

Dear Telesilla,

Four times in one night is what I can do.
Damn! Once in four years is plenty with you.

***

All poems © A.M. Juster. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Further translations of Martial by A. M. Juster, together with the original Latin, are available on the Brief Poems Martial post.

 

 

OTHER TRANSLATIONS

Night Snow

I wondered why the blankets were so lacking,
And then I saw my window brightly glow.
With night long gone, I knew we had deep snow,
For through the calm the bamboo trees were cracking.

Translated from the Chinese of Po-Chui-i

***

Escaping Myself

Absorbed by wine, I do not notice dusk.
The blossoms fill my clothing when they fall.

I stand up drunk, then wade a moonlit brook.
Birds scatter; just a few are left at all.

Translated from the Chinese of Li Po

***

A Riddle from Saint Aldhelm

No one can hold me in his palms or sight:                                    
I scatter sudden clatter far and wide.
I want to hammer oaks with mournful might;
yes, I strike sky and scour countryside.

(Answer: wind)

Another Riddle from Saint Aldhelm

I share now with the surf one destiny
in rolling cycles as each month repeats.
As beauty in my brilliant form retreats,
so too the surges fade in cresting sea.

(Answer: moon)

Translated from the Latin of Saint Aldhelm

***

To Her Husband for Beating Her

Through your heart’s lining let there be pressed – slanting down –
A dagger to the bone in your chest.
Your knee crushed, your hand smashed, may the rest
Be gutted by the sword you possessed.

Translated from the Middle Welsh of Gwerful Mechain

***

Anonymous East African Proverbs

Let the relentless fist
be kissed.

No donkey can cart
what weighs down your heart.

Outside a man is respected;
at home that man is neglected.

True words end;
lies extend.

Translated from the Oromo

***

All poems © A.M. Juster. Reprinted by permission of the author.

 

 

Rationale

Poems are best
when compressed.

I detest
the rest.

***

A Stern Warning to Canada

If you want peace,
withdraw your geese.

***

Mismatch

I kept hoping she would come alone.
She’s a gem, but he’s a kidney stone.

***

A Consolation of Aging

Despite my thinning hair,
no barber cuts his rate.
At least the airlines care
and do not charge by weight.

***

Disclaimer

Despite what’s promised when you marry,
actual results may vary.

***

From the Workplace                                                                                            

Your Midlife Crisis

You found yourself, but at an awful cost.
We liked you better when you were lost.

To My Ambitious Colleague

Your uphill climb will never stop;
scum always rises to the top.

Concession to My Colleague

I know that you will win in time;
the rising sewage lifts all slime.

***

Self-portrait at Fifty

None of this can be denied:
crabby, flabby, full of pride;
hypertensive, pensive, snide;
slowly, growing terrified.

***

Visitation

We wander at the scene
of first and final love,
and what was there remains:

warm light through window panes,
a call across the courtyard,
the bristling of elms
with offhand majesty.

***

Sudden Onset                                                                                                              

They stay upbeat, then say,
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” –
that classic Nietzschean cliché.

We’ll know before much longer.

The problem is it’s true
for hate and tumors too.

***

Candid Headstone

Here lies what’s left of Michael Juster,
Failure filled with bile and bluster:
Regard the scuttlebutt as true.
Dance on the grave; most others do.

***

All poems © A.M. Juster. Reprinted by permission of the author.

 

 

LINKS

The A. M. Juster website.

An interview with A. M. Juster on political poetry.

A brief interview on the Headstuff site.

Another brief interview with an audio link.

An interview with A. M. Juster by Alfred Nicol

Paul Mariani on the double life of A. M. Juster/Michael J. Astrue.

Introducing Mike Juster by Rhina Espaillat.

Some interesting comments on the Evidence Anecdotal site.

A review of The Secret Language of Women.

Ten Riddles of Saint Aldhelm.

Anonymous East African Proverbs translated by A. M. Juster.

A review of Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles.

A. M. Juster discusses his translation of St. Aldhelm’s Riddles.

Brooke Clark reviews Sleaze and Slander.

A brief review of Sleaze and Slander.

Another brief review of Sleaze and Slander.

Patrick Kurp reviews Sleaze and Slander and The Billy Collins Experience.

A review of The Billy Collins Experience.

About The Elegies of Maximianus.

A review of Wonder and Wrath by Sally Thomas.

A review of Wonder and Wrath by Sunil Iyengar.

A. M. Juster reading from Wonder and Wrath at Rattlecast #62.

 

 

All poems © A.M. Juster. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Zeg-Zeg – Brief Poems by Tony Harrison

Tony Harrison (born 30 April 1937) is an English poet, translator and playwright. He was born in Leeds, the son of a baker,  and educated at Leeds Grammar School and at Leeds University. He is one of Britain’s foremost verse writers and many of his works have been performed at the Royal National Theatre. In his first full-length book of poetry, The Loiners (1970), Harrison explored his relationship with the eponymous citizens of the working-class community of Leeds. Yet, reflecting Harrison’s own experiences of teaching in Nigeria (the Zeg-Zeg poems below are set there) and working in Prague, the book ranges widely in location and topic, from childhood encounters with sex in Leeds to tales of love in Eastern Europe. His second full-length collection appeared in 1978. From “The School of Eloquence” and Other Poems was a more explicit exploration of class issues than The Loiners had been, provoking critical controversy but also gaining critical plaudits.

Harrison’s most famous poem, and his first foray into television, is  (1985), written during the miners’ strike of 1984–85, and describing a trip to see his parents’ grave in a local cemetery in Leeds,  ‘now littered with beer cans and vandalised by obscene graffiti’. The title has several possible interpretations: victory, versus, verse, etc. Proposals to screen a televised filmed version of drew howls of outrage from the tabloid press, some broadsheet journalists, and MPs, apparently concerned about the effects its “torrents of obscene language” and “streams of four-letter filth” would have on the nation’s youth.He is also renowned for his versions of classic poetic dramatic works and noted for his outspoken political views. He translated his first Greek play 50 years ago, and has since adapted ancient dramas for the National Theatre.

His most recent collection of poetry is Under the Clock (2005), and his Collected Poems, and Collected Film Poetry, were published in 2007. His latest book is Fram (2008), a work for theatre premiered at the National Theatre in 2007. He has picked up a number of prizes over the years, including the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Whitbread Prize for Poetry and the William Heinemann Prize. In 2015, he was honoured with the David Cohen Prize in recognition for his body of work.

 

 

ZEG-ZEG – BRIEF POEMS BY TONY HARRISON

Tony Harrison travelled widely in his early years as a poet, especially in Africa and Eastern Europe and was open to various influences. The influence of Arthur Rimbaud and  Rimbaud’s poetic identity as a  white ‘nègre’ can be best found in, for example, from the Zeg-Zeg Postcards, a sequence of mainly parodic and sometimes pornographic short poems about the sexual exploits of a homosexual English professor and poet in colonial Africa.  ‘Zeg Zeg’ was the name in the Middle Ages for the region now known as Zaria, the Nigerian state where Harrison lived in the 1960s. The poem works best as a complete sequence but the extracts below indicate some of the humour available. Harrison gradually developed his own distinctive voice. The brief poem Heredity gestures at its source.

Tony Harrison has a degree in classics and, as well as translating classic verse plays, he has also translated classic brief poems. I sometimes work with ancient originals written at times when poetry had the range and ambition to net everything, but if I go to them for courage to take on the
breadth and complexity of the world, my upbringing among so-called ‘inarticulate’ people has given me a passion for language that communicates directly and immediately.
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 Martial, which was published by Bloodaxe Books in 1981. (See image on right.) Living in New York at the time, Harrison deftly translated some of the epigrams into a jazzy American idiom.  As well as translating from the Latin, he has also translated from the ancient Greek.   Palladas: Poems, first published in 1975,  introduced this pagan poet, with his Swiftian sensibility (saeva indignatio) to a contemporary audience. His selection, most of which are, unfortunately, too long to be tweeted, skilfully recreates the bitter wit which he describes as ‘the authentic snarl of a man trapped physically in poverty and persecution, and metaphysically in a deep sense of the futile’. As he writes in his preface, ‘Palladas…is generally regarded as the last poet of Paganism, and it is in this role that I have sought to present a consistent dramatic personality…His are the last hopeless blasts of the old Hellenistic world, giving way reluctantly, but without much resistance, before the cataclysm of Christianity.”

 

Brief Poems by Tony Harrison

from The Zeg-Zeg Postcards

I

Africa – London – Africa –
to get it away.

III

Knowing my sense of ceremonial
my native tailor
still puts
buttons on my flies.

V

I bought three Players tins
of groundnuts with green mould
just to touch your hands
counting the coppers into mine.

IX

Je suis le ténébreux … le veuf ...
always the soixante and never the neuf.

XI

The shower streams over him
and the water turns instantly
to cool Coca-Cola.

XIV

I’d like to
sukuru
you.

XV

Mon égal!
Let me be the Gambia
in your Senegal.

***

Heredity

How you became a poet’s a mystery!
Wherever did you get your talent from?
I say: I had two uncles, Joe and Harry-
one was a stammerer, the other dumb.

***

Broadway

A flop is when the star’s first-night bouquets
outlast the show itself by several days.

***

 

 

from U. S. Martial

VI

You serve me plonk, and you drink reservé.

My taste-buds back away from mine’s bouquet.

***

IX Twosum

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

***

XII Paula

She doesn’t feel 3
parts in Comedy
quite do.

4’s more and merrier!
She hopes the spear-carrier
comes on too.

***

XVI The Joys of Separation

She wants more and more and more new men in her.

He finally finishes Anna Karenina.

***

Some of these poems, together with the original Latin are available on the Brief Poems Martial post.

 

from Palladas, Poems

3

Life’s a performance. Either join in
lightheartedly, or thole the pain.

4

Born naked. Buried naked. So why fuss?
All life leads to that first nakedness.

5

Born crying, and after crying, die.
It seems the life of man’s just one long cry.
Pitiful and weak and full of tears,
Man shows his face on earth and disappears.

9

Agony comes from brooding about death.
Once dead, a man’s spared all that pain.

Weeping for the dead’s a waste of breath –
they’re lucky, they can’t die again.

15

God’s philosophical and so can wait
for the blasphemer and the reprobate –

He calmly chalks their crimes upon His slate.

16

God rot the guts and the guts’ indulgences.
It’s their fault that sobriety lets go.

18

Death feeds us up, keeps an eye on our weight
and herds us like pigs through the abattoir gate.

21

Shun the rich, they’re shameless sods
strutting about like little gods,

loathing poverty, the soul
of temperance and self-control.

24

Just look at them, the shameless well-to-do
and stop feeling sorry you’re without a sou.

29

Poor devil that I am, being so attacked
by wrath in fiction, wrath in fact.

Victim of wrath in literature and life:

1. The Iliad  2. the wife!

36

A grammarian’s daughter had a man
then bore a child m. f. & n.

38

The ignorant man does well to shut his trap
and hide his opinions like a dose of clap.

39

Menander’s right, and thought’s most fertile soil
‘serendipity, not midnight oil.

43

Where’s the public good in what you write,
raking it in from all that shameless shite,

hawking iambics like so much Betterbrite.

48

Thanks for the haggis. Could you really spare
such a huge bladder so full of air?

51

women all
cause     rue

but can be nice
on    occasional

moments two
to  be  precise

in     bed
&    dead

56

When he comes up to the bedroom
and switches on the light,
the poor man with the ugly wife
stares out into the night.

62

A drink to drown my sorrows and restart
the circulation to my frozen heart!

***

Some of these poems, together with the original Greek are available on the Brief Poems Palladas post.

 

LINKS

Complete text of from the Zeg Zeg postcards.

The Tony Harrison page on the British Council website.

A critical biography and a detailed bibliography on the Poetry Foundation site.

A newspaper article on Tony Harrison and his poem V.

The Bloodaxe Books page on Tony Harrison.

The Faber & Faber page on Tony Harrison.

A detailed Guardian profile by Nicholas Wroe.

The New Statesman profile by Francis Gilbert.

A Guardian interview with Tony Harrison.

A Book Trust interview with Tony Harrison.

University of Leeds profile.

 

This page was posted April 30th, 2017 on the occasion of Tony Harrison’s eightieth birthday.

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. In fact, Bono has endorsed Brendan Kennelly’s translations, collected in Martial Art, in a blurb, This is poetry as base as heavy metal, as high as the Holy Spirit flies, comic and tragic, from litany to rant, roaring at times, soaring at other times.

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. Brendan Kennelly, in the introduction to his translations, Martial Art, provides an even more extensive list: He writes of money, food, wine, furniture, style, power, sex, corruption, love, hatred, streets, darkness, families, poverty, snobbery, poets, polished deceit, aesthetic back-stabbers, High Art, low artists, metropolitan egotism and arrogance, politics, escape to the countryside, property, law, education, greed, manipulative men and women, cliques, loners, talkers and chatterboxes of every shade and motive, patrons, misery, the happy life, clothes, enemies, gossip, friends, flattery and the old constant problem of personal survival and hope of self-renewal. 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 Sleaze & Slander, 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 but giving it distinctly English rhythms and rhymes. Irish poet, Brendan Kennelly, takes a looser, more colloquial approach in the translations he  has collected in the aptly named Martial Art. Susan McLean has translated almost a third of Martial’s 1,500 or so epigrams in her Selected Epigrams, described by Bruce Handy in The New York Times Book Review, rightly in my opinion, as “delightfully snarky translations” and available in a large preview on Google Books. Her mingling of crude language and cultivated metrics is a winning formula. 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

***

How it is

Some of my poems are good, some
not up to scratch, some
bad.

That’s how it is with most books,
if the truth were told.

Who tells the truth about truth, my dear?
Make way for the judge and the jester.

Brendan Kennelly

***

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

***

Wasisdoesdid

He was a doctor. Now he’s an undertaker.
He does as an undertaker what he did as a doctor.

Brendan Kennelly

***

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 

—–

The Truth at Last

I do not love thee, Dr Fell;
The reason why I’m going to tell
Although your lawyers threaten suit.
For I’m too sick to give a hoot.

Fred Chappell

—–

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

***

You ask me to recite my poems to you?
I know how you’ll “recite” them, if I do.

Michael R. Burch

—–

The book that you recite from, Fidentinus, is my own.
But when you read it badly, it belongs to you alone.

Susan McLean

***

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

____

You’d have me recite my poems. I decline.
You want to recite yours, Celer, not hear mine.

Susan McLean

***

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

____

You’re lovely, yes, and young, it’s true,
and rich – who can deny your wealth?
But you aren’t lovely, young or rich,
Fabulla, when you praise yourself.

Susan McLean

***

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

___

Manneia, your lapdog licks his lips with his tongue.
It’s no surprise that a dog likes eating dung.

Susan McLean

____

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

___

You blast my verses, Laelius; yours aren’t shown.
Either don’t carp at mine or show your own.

Susan McLean

____

You never wrote a poem,
yet criticize mine?
Stop abusing me or write something fine
of your own!

Michael R. Burch

___

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
—–
Nothing
You say my epigrams are too long.
Yours are shorter.
You write nothing.
Brendan Kennelly
___

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.

Susan McLean

***

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

—–

The Reason

You ask me why I like the country air.
I never meet you there.

Brendan Kennelly

—-

What yield does my Nomentan farmstead bear?
Linus, I don’t see you when I am there.

Susan McLean

___

You ask me why I love fresh country air?
You’re not befouling it there.

Michael R. Burch

___

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

___

Washing your ass pollutes the tub. Instead
to make it fouler, Zoilus, douse your head.

Susan McLean

___

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

___

I won’t wed Telesina: she’s a tart.
But she sleeps with boys. I’ve had a change of heart.

Susan McLean

***

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

____

You recite no verse, Mamercus, but claim you write.
Claim what you like – so long as you don’t recite.

Susan McLean

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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

____

I Hear

I hear Cinna has written some verses against me.

A man is no writer
if his poems have no reader.

Brendan Kennelly

—-

Cinna, they say, writes verse attacking me.
He doesn’t write, whose verses none will see.

Susan McLean

___

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

***

‘How explain why the conspicuously rich
are so easy to offend? Ask their accountant.
He probably won’t tell you but he’ll know.’

Alan Halsey

***

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

—–

You mix Veientan for me, while you drink Massic wine.
I’d rather smell your cups than drink from mine.

Susan McLean

***

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

—–

Reasons

Your penis is withered
your arse is itchy,
two good reasons
you’re such a bitchy
bastard night and day.
Be like your penis. Wither away.

Brendan Kennelly

—-

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

—–

I know, yes. How? I didn’t read your mind.
He’s sore between the legs and you, behind.

D. G. Myers

—-

Your boy’s cock hurts; your ass aches. I’m no seer
but what you’re doing, Naevolus, is clear.

Susan McLean

***

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

—-

Proof

Segius says there are no gods, no heaven.
The proof he offers? He’s a rich man.

Brendan Kennelly

—-

Segius claims there are no gods, the skies
are bare. He proves it, too: while he denies
the gods exist, he sees his fortune rise.

Susan McLean

***

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, say no. Some torment makes love stronger.
But, Galla, don’t keep saying no much longer.

Susan McLean

___

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

A. M. Juster

***

69

Tu Setina quidem semper uel Massica ponis,
     Papyle, sed rumor tam bona uina negat:
diceris hac factus caelebs quater esse lagona.
     Nec puto nec credo, Papyle, nec sitio.

You serve the best wines always, my dear sir,
And yet they say your wines are not so good.
They say you are four times a widower.
They say…A drink? I don’t believe I would.

J. V. Cunningham

***

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

___

Faustinus, one I flattered in my book
pretends he owes me nothing. What a crook!

Susan McLean

***

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

—–

Black and White

Molly’s teeth are white, Dolly’s black. How come?
Molly bought hers. Dolly’s are her own.

Brendan Kennelly

—-

Laecania’s teeth are snowy; those of Thais black with rot.
The reason? Thais has her own; Laecania’s were bought.

Susan McLean

***

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 my verse, so here. This evens 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

___

I flee you, Dindymus, when chased; I chase you when you flee.
It’s not your wanting me I want; it’s your not wanting me.

Susan McLean

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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

___

The hair she swears is hers Fabulla bought.
So, Paulus, is that perjury or not?

Susan McLean

***

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

___

“Stand up!” you always tell my penis, Lesbia.
A cock’s no finger, rising on demand.
Although you urge with coaxing hands and words,
your face dictates the opposite command.

Susan McLean

***

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

___

With nose and penis both so large in size,
you smell it, Papylus, each time you rise.

Susan McLean

___

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

___

You ask me why I’ve sent you no new verses?
There might be reverses.

Michael R. Burch

___

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

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

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, but 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

—–

Perfection

Lecherous hosts yearn
for your presence at dinner.

Are you the perfect dish, done to a turn?

Brendan Kennelly

—-

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

—–

I might

Phil wants to marry me but I won’t marry Phil.
She’s such an old stinker, a bitter old pill.
I might marry her, though, if she were older still.
If we both reach a hundred, I certainly will.

Brendan Kennelly

—-

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

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

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

—-

Enough

He doesn’t need a wife.
His sister is enough.

Brendan Kennelly

***

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

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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.

Gideon Nisbet’s Martial blog.

Gary Wills writes about translating Martial.

A review in The Guardian of Brendan Kennelly’s Martial Art.

 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.

A PhD thesis by Sam Hayes on reading Martial’s epigrams.

martial