Kent Johnson

Four odes after Horace, on the poetry wars

Horace, as imagined by the nineteenth-century Italian painter Giacomo di Chirico
Horace, as imagined by the nineteenth-century Italian painter Giacomo di Chirico.

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.





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.






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.






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.






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.)