Readers tired of the contemporary trend of poetry-as-sermon would do well to resort to the intoxicating classical antidote found in the profane verse of the Latin master Catullus. Returning to his poetry is a like kicking back drinks in the wee hours with a savvy, streetwise friend from the old neighborhood after an evening immersed in the pretensions of the wine-and-cheese literati. Peter Green’s recent The Poems of Catullus (University of California Press) is but the latest re-introduction of the Roman poet into English. These past few years have brought a Catullus renaissance into English. 
He was born in Verona to an upper middle-class family, and, though not an aristocratic, moved among a cultured and sharp-witted group of writers, politicians and businessmen, rubbing shoulders with the likes of the master rhetorician Cicero and the historian Cornelius Nepos. Yet despite his status as part of the Roman establishment, one can hardly imagine this no-nonsense master craftsman trafficking in the augurs, oracles and auspices that were de rigueur of ancient Rome, let alone the ostentation of its iconic statuary and imperial architecture. Indeed Catullus advanced the cause of what Horace had already started in Latin poetry, reducing the scale of the poems by rejecting the pedestrian Roman habit of bastardizing Greek literary styles only to create bad poetry that was crude “nationalistic propaganda.”
Along with his almost forgotten contemporaries Licnius Calvus and Helvius Cinna, Catullus lead a movement known as the Neoterics (“new poets’). Focusing on his personal life as his main subject matter and using his knowledge of ancient Greek and the scholar-poets of the Hellenistic period, Catullus practically invented what we have come to know as the modern love lyric.
He is dexterous at cross-references to characters, friends and events, which explains in part the non-chronological layout of this oeuvre of 116 poems. Green’s particular collection is shaped by subtle inter-textual patterns that suggest the body of a poet’s work ought to be arranged as fluidly as the mind and memory of the poet who lived them. The translator’s copious explanations of classical forms like “choliambics” and “hendecasyllables” reinforce Catullus’ status as the preeminent Latin technician. Added to all that precise techné is his improvisational first-person idiom that makes the experience of reading Catullus like attending a poetry slam in classical mode: the scats and the personae adopted by his speakers are playful and dangerous, hip and virtuosic: he is the loosest canon. Many poems tap hysterical male rage reminiscent of the crotch-grabbing braggadocio of a swaggering pop star. In one poem Catullus flattens the poet Suffenus who
… comes on hicker than a backwoods hick
The minute he tries a poem — yet this guy
Is never so happy as when composing verse,
Thinks he’s so marvelous, such a real fly boy.
Reading his most incendiary verse, you might be tempted to bang out an email to an ex or phone the SOB who still owes you money, just to say, as Catullus does,
Either please repay me those big ten ones, Silo,
(which done, you can be as bloody as you please),
Or, if the money’s your pleasure, kindly desist from
Being a pimp and bloody, at once. (203)
He accomplished this manic body of verse while living through the most turbulent periods of Roman history, including the dictatorship of Sulla, episodes of civil wars, fierce rioting in Rome, Spartacus’ slave revolt, the Punic Wars and, most grating to Catullus, the rise to power of Julius Caesar, a figure of ridicule who appears here and there as an incompetent moron with imperial ambitions — picture Bush and Cheney in Roman robes:
They’re well matched, that pair of shameless buggers,
Bitch-queens both of them, Caesar and Mamurra —
Why not? Both display the same disease-spots
(Caught in town by one, abroad by t’other),
Deep pocks, there for life, no scrubbing them out. (105)
This kind of heady vitriol is no ordinary poetic fare; the utter lack of piety as transgressive as anything Allen Ginsberg or Ed Sanders ever wrote. His speakers can also be madly self-serving, sly as a Vince Vaughan character crashing a party and observing, “well of course — his mother’s so-o-o generous,/ and fighting fit, and his sister’s such a dish/ and his uncle’s so generous too, and the house is just crammed with girlies” (195).
Yet his poetry both celebrates and debunks machismo, in a jazzy diction that attempts intimidation and domination, but ornaments these with ironic turns that manage to question the will-to-power in the first place; in a gay rape fantasy the speaker promises to throw his pal Aurelius a beating if he finds out he’s toyed with the young boy who he’d been saving for himself:
… you bastard, you’re willing to provoke me,
Ah, then you’ll feel my dire retaliation,
feet spread and strapped, back-passage widely gaping,
reamed all its length with radishes and mullets! (63).
If that last line leaves you as bewildered as it did me (“reamed… with radishes and mullets”?) you’ll need even an English dictionary here and there. (“Mullet,” let’s remember was a salt water fish before it became the name for a bad haircut.) But misreading can be equally fun: his imagery is so physically evocative its transports demand a reader’s attention and stamina, best exemplified in his “epyllion” or mini-epic — an epithalamion for the wedding of the gods Peleus and Thetis, set down where, “Once upon a time pine trees from Pelion’s summit/ are said to have swum through Neptune’s crystal ripples” (133). Here he visits the “ramparts of Larissa” and “Pharsalian rooftops” (135) but more interestingly finds an implicit examination of disloyalty and human frailty spun partially on the myth of Thetis abandonment of Ariadne:
… how aboard his vessel she came to Dia’s surf-creamed
Beaches, or how there he left her, eyes slumber-weighted,
To take himself off and vanish, a fickle-hearted husband? (141)
This ostensibly nuptial poem builds to descriptions of a “war-torn Earth… imbued with unspeakable wrongdoing” which has “alienated the gods’ once-tolerant understanding” (157).
Switching from jokes, puns and insults to scenes of bathos, lust and pathos within a single couplet or quatrain, Catullus’s poetic style won’t sit still, and in so doing it suggests poetry and art shouldn’t sit still either. He dynamically compresses forms, often collapsing an elegy into a satire, as in his famous satirical poem about his girlfriend’s dead sparrow: “Sparrow, the pet and darling of my sweetheart,/ loved by more than she valued her own eyesight” (47). Or, elsewhere, he combines the metaphysical meditation with a passionate ode to friendship.
In one poem he excorticates an unfaithful lover, then describes the corners of the Roman Empire he’d travel simply to forget her, only to arrive back at the longing for his beloved in a closing stanza of stunning vulnerability:
Let her no more, as once, look for my passion,
Which through her fault lies fallen like some flower
At the field’s edge, after the passing ploughshare’s
Cut a path through it. (57)
Poised and musical, Catullus is polychromatic and chatty. Asked about his fortunes in his newest job position, his reply disses his friend’s girl as a “little scrubber,” and he sounds like Tony Soprano raging at Dr. Malfi:
I replied with the truth: not ever praetors
much less aides, could find even the slightest
hope of deals that would fatten their resources
not least when said praetor was a fuckface
and didn’t give a shit for his poor staffers.
“Scortillum” is the Latin word which Green renders as “scrubber,” a euphemism which he unwisely chooses instead of “slut.” And Green and his predecessors would do well to render “praetor,” as say, “contractor.” “Fuckface” for “irrrumator” is an inspired move: more than funny, the double-syllabic punch conveys the lethal humor of the speaker’s anger, a lethality which is really Catullus’ muse. Because he refuses to repress or to explain away his anger, he’s a prophet of emotional truth, an artist who was such a master at meter and form that he could give his verse over to the raw without risking the charge of amateurishness.
Yet his verse can be tender, too. Moved in one poem by a premonition of homesickness on leaving his friends, he ends his reluctant farewell with the observation that, “though we made the long trip from home together/ widely varying routes will take us back now.” In the saddest poem of the volume, he begs of his lost brother, “let me address you the last service for the dead,/ since fortune, alas, has bereft me of your person” (203).
He’s a lover of all kinds and as often in love with himself as he was, in real life, with a well-connected married woman ten years his elder named Claudia. Their stormy adulterous affair inspired his most famous love poems. He camouflages his lover’s real name as “Lesbia,” which Green renders in this epigram with an invective worthy of Eminem and a subtlety about love which is as deep as Proust’s:
Lesbia keeps insulting me in her husband’s presence:
This fills up the fatuous idiot with delight.
Mule, you’ve got no insight. If she shut up and ignored me
That’d show healthy indifference; all these insults mean
Is, she not only remembers, but — words of sharper import —
feels angry. That is, the lady burns — and talks (191).
But Catullus’ love poetry ranges far and wide, and given the numerous poems celebrating gay sex, it’s disappointing that in his introductory material Peter Green fails to explore how much the poet’s bisexuality inspired his poetry, as in the often fiery amatory lyrics for Juvenitus: “Oh those honey-sweet eyes of yours Juvenitus/ If they’d let me kiss them all I wanted/ I’d go on three hundred thousand times, and/ Never feel I was getting near my limit” (97).
And for all the ongoing debate among historians and classicists about Catullus’ political engagement with Roman life or, depending on whom you read, his stark disengagement from it, his artistic mission was to debunk public piety in favor of a personal directness. In a regime of repression and mediation, true love is as subversive a topic as free love, and his poetry, not paradoxically, advocates both forms. The measure of a poet’s engagement with the wider world is found less in the amount of political rhetoric in its words than in the depths of its provocations. These poems always aim to provoke and rouse, confounding logical discourse with an astonishing emotional clarity, as he writes again to Lesbia begging,
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
then a thousand more, a second hundred,
then yet another thousand then a hundred —
then when we’ve notched up all these many thousands,
shuffle the figures, lose count of the total,
so no maleficent enemy can hex us
knowing the final sum of all our kisses (49).
These amatory poems are propelled by the heartbeat of infinity that should move us to more feeling within our undervalued mortality. Quietness and piety as over-commended poetic qualities these days drain the human potential and physicality from writing and reading, suggesting that inert introspection is something both more saintly and nourishing than the risks of ex-pression. Any poet who’s ever taken a good look inside, from John Donne to Emily Dickinson, Arthur Rimbaud to Frank O’Hara has always emerged with language that is anything but pure.
No surprise Catullus died, like a rock star, at the age of thirty.
This godfather of Western confessional poetry, an almost peerless master of
Latin prosody, is as up front about his own pettiness and moral blindness as he is about the social and political lies that pass for civics or, on our worse days, for “civility” or for “civilization” It’s refreshingly dangerous material, this electric poetry. Read it in English. It might even be worth the work of trying Latin. Where else, anyway, can you find hysteria and heartbreak in Sapphic strophes and iambic tetrameters?
* all quotes are from Peter Green’s Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
Translator Peter Green is Dougherty Centennial Professor Emeritus of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin and Adjunct Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa. He is the author of many books, including Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B. C.: A Historical Biography (California, 1991) and Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age (California, 1990). His translations include Ovid’s The Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters (Cal-ifornia, 2005), Juvenal: The Sixteen Satires (third edition, 1998), and Apollonios Rhodios’s The Arg-onautika: The Story of Jason and the Quest for the Golden Fleece (California, 1997).
 This ongoing Catullus revival includes John Godwin’s forthcoming study Reading Catullus (Bristol Phoenix Press, 2008),
Michael C.J. Putnam’s Poetic Interplay: Catullus and Horace (Princeton University Press, 2006), a study of Catullus’ literary influence on Horace;
Aubrey Burl’s Catullus: A Poet in the Rome of Julius Caesar (Carroll & Graf, 2004) and
Brian Krostenko’s Cicero, Catullus, and the Language of Social Performance (University of Chicago Press, 2002);
volumes of Catullus’ poems in Latin with English commentaries include
Phyllis Young Forsyth’s The Poems of Catullus (University Press of America, 2002),
Ronnie Ancona’s Writing Passion: A Catullus Reader (2004) and
Henry V. Bender and Phyllis Young Forsyth’s Catullus: Expanded Edition (both from Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2003), and
Daniel Garrison’s A Student’s Catullus (University of Oklahoma Press, 2004).
New editions of English translations include Peter Whingham’s Catullus: The Poems (Penguin, 2006), and Josephine Balmer’s two volumes Chasing Catullus: Poems, Translations And Transgressions and Poems of Love and Hate (both of Bloodaxe Books, UK, 2004).
Other noteworthy translations include Guy Lee’s Catullus (Oxford University Press, 1998), and Charles Martin’s Catullus (Hermes Books, 1992).
Tim Keane is from New York City where he lives and writes. He is the author of the poetry collection Alphabets of Elsewhere (Cinnamon Press). His poetry has appeared in Modern Painters, Denver Quarterly, Shenandoah, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Poetry New Zealand and many other print and online publications. He has published articles on the poets Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Kenneth Koch, Ruth Stone, Paul Éluard, Blaise Cendrars, Jean Genet, among many others. His translation of René Char appears at Cipher and he recently completed translations of contemporary poets of the Suisse Romande. He teaches writing and literature at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and at New York University. He maintains www.timkeane.com
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