Four odes after Horace, on the poetry wars
AUTHOR’S NOTE. The following “transcreations,” or “translucinations,” are from a longer series engaging Horace, which I composed and shared on my Facebook page in May and June of 2022. Others of them were recently published as a chap by Longhouse Publishers, and the full run is forthcoming as part of a larger collection later this year. They are in no way meant to be translations proper, except in a desire to bring over a sense of the Horatian “tone.” Which they perhaps do in parts, and in other parts don’t. It should be said that the poems of the series often contradict one another, as if they couldn’t make up their minds on where they stand, exactly, vis-à-vis the question of satire. Or the question of anything else, for that matter.
LIBER I, ODE 1
Maecenas, my shield and mask, scion of Poet Laureates,
Good friend, loather of prizes and grants — the variegated scraps
In this field give variegated people much pleasure. Lots of them feel it
Mainly on their vitae: tires screeching on the Olympic oval, polished
Sedans banking around the turn to cross the line and win the
Wreath — Glory in the Academy of Imperial Poets that makes them feel
Anointed by the jism of gods. Many covet approval from their fussy
Peeps; and others, the knowledge that troublesome Libyan troubadours
have been restored to their rank of yore. Verily, we know that if we treat
The heart properly it never gets tired. But if we run very hard, or swim
Very hard, or do anything of that kind, we suddenly throw a great
Deal of extra work upon the heart. For example, the self-publishing
Poet loves to peck around her small pile of dirt, and no amount of NEA
Cash could give her sea legs for the Real Ocean. And those waters
Panic the MFA holder, who starts to weep for his institutional womb
During a little storm, though as soon as it’s good weather he’s busy
Swabbing his deck for some new voyage, clueless he will
fall over the edge of the earth. Many love drugs and booze
And always find some idle time to drink or shoot up by an idyllic stream.
Many people crave the thrill of Poetry War, also, rushing to the bugle call
Their Officers have commanded. Therefore, the deer cries forlornly
In its snare, trembling as if delicately held by a thread of quartz; when
The Poetry Warriors turn toward the bugle’s sound, they do not see that
When a ray of light plays on the caught creature, it becomes dark and
Still, as if brushed by Diana’s hand.
It’s a spray of ivy, that Laurel of Poets, that I require to believe I consort
With the gods way up there. It’s the lyric prance of nymphs and satyrs
That I cherish — Fashioned by the nine muses far back in a lost wood,
Secreted from the common crowd, the wood where Euterpe teases her
Flute, and Polyhymnia strokes the lyre: Yes, tell me I am among the
Poets and I will contrive that I am a god — knocking against the stars
With the crown of my acclaimed head.
LIBER 1, ODE 16
So, about my satires: Entomb them, immolate them,
I don’t care, toss the whole ash heap in the Dead
Sea — do it, now, before the critics get them, heed
Me, fairest mother of fairest days.
You know what used to most make me want to grind corn
With my butt? Not Dindymene, the Department Chair,
Nor the Dean, who lives with the Big Snake, nor the
Ruthless kid-poets with their little cymbals and bells. No…
It was my chronic dander. Noric axes cannot dismember it,
The ship-sucking sea cannot drown it, whirlwinds
Cannot scatter it, the gods themselves cannot tame it.
Here they come, roaring down, all perfumed and dazzling.
Prometheus did his best at the creation: He sprinkled a bit
Of dust from gentle seals and tanagers into our raw clay,
But he couldn’t resist a bit of powder, the rascal, from
The hearts of lions, driven mad by four-pawed gout.
Thus, the bile that broke Thyestes into four, on its
Rack, scores of glorious cities on mountains and plains
Got wrecked by it, from without and from within. Now
Farmers plough where the dead of ages enrich the earth.
Try to let it go. Do yoga, or something. Take a walk. And
Yet, and yet … after I do, I still feel that old pull. A cauldron
Burned in me when I was young and not ill. And even now,
In my last days, I cannot fully shake the mad lion’s gout.
I want to be dulcis and not acidus, believe me, fairest mother.
I want all poets to be my friends, but they won’t have me.
I want to give them back my broken heart. But my heart belongs
To the god who made it. And he is a torn, Janus-faced god.
LIBER III, ODE 30
My rivals may not like it, but these odes I’m making will last
Longer than titanium. The great pyramids crumble … No
Millennia of rain, nor withering storms, nor march of empires
Can erode them. I’ll die, but not the best of me, peeps.
Even their fragments will shoot out light in all directions. Not to brag
Too much, but the green patina of translucination, in addition, shall
Deepen the praise. While some far-off Pope opens his cool, Ephesian
Frigidaire, they’ll proclaim — where the Aufidus sweeps away
Great rocks, or where Daunus ruled his parched domain —
How I, a commoner from the boondocks, did weave Aeolian music
Into modern, jaw-dropping verse. Forgive this boast, Melpomene, for
The honor just as much, we know, belongs to you. But make it new, now,
The laurelled crown from Apollo. Put its synthetic leaves on my head.
And I will say to the envious cynics, forever: You must change your life.
LIBER IV, ODE 1
Oh, so it’s poetry war again, Venus, and after this short,
Nice vacation? Maybe give me a bit more time? I’m not
What I was back in hot Cynara’s day. Cold goddess of
Agonism, I’ve grown tired of your bellicose snares.
Maybe someone else? Why not Kentuvius Maximus in his
Big house, for instance? That’s the address for some sad
Fun. All his hair’s dropped out, though he’s still self-righteous,
Always eager to represent the helpless and himself.
He’s the boy to carry your triumphant banner wherever
Triumph takes him! And once he’s trounced some online
Rival, he’ll no doubt put your twenty-foot statue on an
Ochre plinth in a pine grove, by the red shores of Lake Alba …
Young satyrs dancing round your image there will stomp their
Dewy feet in charming Sapphic-time of Salian miniature ponies.
Yes, the waters throw your image back to you, goddess, as
Your body throws its own image on the ground in the sunshine.
Me, I’ve surrendered all hope of Eros’s return. And yet, in dreams,
I follow his dark wings across the Field of Mars, to find her by the
Rushing Tiber. I hold her in my arms, and my eyes well with tears.
I try to wake her, but my mind freezes over, and I cannot speak.
N.B. The preceding is to be read as an adjunct to his and Michael Boughn’s “Dispatches from the Poetry Wars” and other of Johnson’s writings, here linking the Odes of the great Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 to 8 BC) to contemporary US conflicts and quarrels in a targeted act of militant transcreation. Johnson’s fifteen Horatian Odes will be one of three sections in his next book, Nuper Verba [Late Words], to be published by Shearsman Books later this year. (J.R.)
Poems and poetics