Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Hooked on Classics

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.


Giovanni Tiso said...

The old lady should come clean already - she obviously got into Latin for the academically-sanctioned depravity. Which remains to this day the sole reason to learn Latin.

Do check out the new (James K. Baxter-themed) issue of Ka Mate Ka Ora if you have a moment, though.

Way ahead of you - I'm a sucker for anything with Dougal McNeill in it.

Richard said...

I learnt Latin as teenager but stopped when I left school it which I regret deeply (for some reason I loved learning it). We also learnt about the Roman Emperors and so on.
Ted Jenner is also fascinated by postmodern and modern writing (and some ideas such as those of Heidegger, some Buddhism, and Alan Watt I think; certain modern US (and other) writers as well as these ancient texts) of all kinds so he kind of bridges the poles so to speak.

His book 'Writers in Residence and Other Captive Fauna.' is great. It deals also with his really fascinating time in Malawi. I found it very intense.

Oh, and your translations of Sappho are witty and good - BUT - I cant ever accept a better than the one about time passing than is translated by Aldous Huxley in 'Texts and Pretexts'... perhaps the old lady was me in disguise!!

Anonymous said...

N'est-que pas que la solitude elle-mème eveille quelque attente fébrile? Voici l'entrée, vide, discrètetement illuminée comme une musée nocturne – la terasse, avec ses torchères ondoyantes par un soir d'Avent étrangement doux – laissant le vestibule et les murmures de voix – la chambre immaculée immaculée et la musique de danse derrière le mur – et le bar à cocktails mondains – le bassin où le nageur s'entrâine, longeur après longeur, il en n'a jamais assez, il doit y mettre de sien – enfin, tournant vers le haut au coin du sombre couloir vient la fille noire et pâle, altière, déterminée et de style épuré, ainsi qu'un moderne avion de chasse suédois.



I went downtown, saw Katie in the nude
on Common Avenue, detracted soltitude
as it were, like a dream-state rosely hued,
like no one else could see her; DAMN! I phewed;

was reciprokelly then, thank heaven, viewed,
bestowed unique hard-on! but NOT eschewed,
contrair-ee-lee, she took a somewhat rude
'n readidy attude of Sex Prelude; it BREWED!

And for a start, i hiccuped "Hi!", imbued
with Moooood! She toodledooed: "How queued
your awe-full specie-ally-tee, Sir Lewd,
to prove (alas!), to have me finely screwed,

and hopef'lly afterwards beloved, wooed,
alive, huh? Don't you even DO it, Duu-uuude!"

My English Poetry Blog


Casualidad sopla la sangre
de alguno señor desconocido
durante los pocos restantes
momentos del resplandor de faroles

que se vislumbran tras el follaje
flameando de las obsesiónes
igual efimero como gotas
del cinzano de la soledad –

En aquel tiempo me levanta
dentro uno incidente avejentado
que en seguida palidece
al camouflaje de abstraccion;

chica, nadie conoce que tus grisos
ojos significan aún; con todo
el sueño que hube evacuado
tu escudriñas nuevamente.

My spanish poetry blog


Consider Sex and time, procreation, reincarnation. Trigonometry! I envisage the time axis as the repetitive tangens function. Do you see what I mean? What can be tentatively derived from this notion? Clue: orgasm AND birth pangs at tan 0.

My Philosophy

My Music Blog

My Babe Wallpapers

You are very welcome to promote your blog on mine. They are well frequented, so there's mutual benefit.

- Peter Ingestad, Sweden

Dr Jack Ross said...

Your "Babe Wallpapers" site is particularly disturbing, I think, Peter. Something seems to have gone wrong with all of their eyes. Unless that's the point? ... Anyway, don't go changing.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Ah, the exact same comment he left on my blog earlier today. Charming.