Recently I was invited to a poetry gathering up north where I read out some of my versions from Sappho. Afterwards a rather indignant-looking elderly lady came up to me, introducing herself as a former Latin teacher:
“What you read – that was all right, that wasn’t too bad … but some of those poets are just filthy, complete degenerates. Catullus, for instance. In one of his poems he actually encourages another man to go to bed with his girlfriend! Three of them, all together! It’s depraved …”
I agreed that he was a bit of a one (actually I was secretly relieved that she wasn’t intent on criticising some of my more daring translation choices), whilst congratulating myself inwardly that I hadn’t chosen anything raunchy from Ovid or Anakreon or any of the less respectable Greek or Latin poets.
Eventually I managed to escape without committing myself to any too quotable opinions about the morals of the ancient world.
It got me thinking, though. What is it with the Classics? "Reams of ancient filth," as my father used to put it (apparently the editions of Latin authors they used at school had all the "adult" bits taken out and printed at the back in an appendix for scholarly reference; I think you can guess which parts of the book were most thumbed and dog-eared ...)
Anyway, the latest issue of Ka Mate Ka Ora includes some more of my reflections on the subject in the form of a review-essay of Ted Jenner's recent Titus Books collection Writers in Residence ...
Ted Jenner is perhaps unusual among modern writers in being a Greek scholar as well as a poet. Most other venturers into the field of classical translation nowadays (myself included) seem content with a Loeb dual-text and a lot of - possibly unmerited - self-confidence.
You don't really learn anything new that way, though. What's fascinating about Ted's work is the precision and finesse with which he reconstructs these fragments of the past, some of them literally combed out of the rubbish-dumps of Egypt (it's amazing how long papyrus can survive in a really dry climate).
Obviously I have a good deal more to say about that in my piece over at the nzepc. For the moment, however, here's a brief listing of Ted's publications to date (I've also included a few illustrations so you can appreciate what beautiful pieces of bookmaking many of them are):
- A Memorial Brass. Eastbourne, Wellington: Hawk Press, 1980.
- Dedications. Auckland: Omphalos Press, 1991.
- The Love-Songs of Ibykos: 22 Fragments. Auckland: Holloway Press, 1997.
- Sappho Triptych. Auckland: Puriri Press, 2007.
- Writers in Residence and Other Captive Fauna. Auckland: Titus Books, 2009.
You can hear more of Ted's own views in the online interview with Brett Cross and Scott Hamilton available here.
And if your curiosity extends even beyond that, why not have a look at the pages on Anne Carson and Michael Harlow which I'm gradually building up for our new Massey MA course Contemporary New Zealand Writers in an International Context?
Carson is herself a very considerable scholar (witness her fascinating 1999 book Economy of the Unlost, which daringly juxtaposes the poetry of Paul Celan with the surviving lyric fragments of Simonides of Ceos) ...
But that's more than enough self-advertising from me for the moment. Do check out the new (James K. Baxter-themed) issue of Ka Mate Ka Ora if you have a moment, though.