Academic journal article Chicago Review

"Cool Rare Air": Zukofsky's Breathing with Catullus and Plautus

Academic journal article Chicago Review

"Cool Rare Air": Zukofsky's Breathing with Catullus and Plautus

Article excerpt

The complete Catullus he made in collaboration with Celia Zukofsky and "A"-21, his version of Plautus's Rudens, together comprise all the major-length poetic translating Louis Zukofsky ever did. Nearly half a century hence, these two "transliterations"--his term--from the Latin still enjoy the status of a problem, and not just because they were made by a poet with no particular claim to mastery of the Latin language. They still raise questions and hackles. In this they differ from, say, Pound's Propertius, a twentieth-century poet's classical translation respected now even by classics professors. (1) One of the questions they still raise, and not just from classics professors, goes something like: Just who gets to be called a translator of ancient Roman poetry?

To which the best answer might be another question: Just who gets to be called an ancient Roman poet? Gaius Valerius Catullus and Titus Maccius Plautus lived and wrote in Rome, but neither happened to be a native. Catullus moved there in the middle of the first century BCE from Verona, a north Italian city that had only recently acquired Roman citizenship. Plautus, about a century and a half earlier, had come to Rome from the central northern town of Sarsina. In fact, no major "Roman" poet whose birthplace is attested was born in Rome, a curiosity of history you can count on Zukofsky to have known. (2) It matters, or can be made to. Because if having a "mastery" of Latin means being a native speaker of the prestige dialect of the imperial capital, and if the opposite of "native" is "foreign," then it follows that Roman poetry was a literature of foreigners, all trilingual at the very least. All the canonical Roman poets possessed the Italic (or not) language or dialect of their birth community and the Hellenistic Greek of their education as alternate tongues alongside the classical Roman Latin they wielded with canon-storming ferocity and in large measure fashioned by their art. Plautus's elder contemporary Quintus Ennius, known as the "father of Roman poetry," probably wrote poems in all three of his languages, and described his own trilingualism as the condition of having "three brains." (3)

Both Catullus and Plautus translated or adapted Greek poems to make poems of their own in Latin. Both explicitly thematize the anxieties and hilarities, the breakdowns and wildly lucky breaks, that beset linguistic utterance whenever it crosses language borders, as it does all the time, from the "native" out into the "provincial" as well as the "foreign." It is tempting to press the possible connections between Zukofsky's own multiphrenic nexus of linguistic and cultural affinities and those of the poets whose Latin he translated. A native of the American metropolis, and "more completely a city poet," said Bunting, "than any I can think of for at least a century past," Zukofsky's poetic formation was spun of disparately interentailed strands: a childhood filled with Yiddish theatre, including translated Shakespeare; graduate education in English at Columbia and a teaching career at Brooklyn Polytechnic; intergenerational poetic friendships with Ezra Pound, Basil Bunting, William Carlos Williams, others; and the lifelong multilingual autodidaxis of a twentieth-century American poet of the generation after Pound and Eliot. (4)

But tempting or not, pressing a transhistorical affinity of this kind, insisting on its particularity, is probably pressing too hard. In a 1929 essay on Ezra Pound, Zukofsky suggested that connections like these are often best left prepositional:

  Postulate beings and there is breathing between them and yet maybe
  no closer relation than the common air which irresistibly includes
  them. Movements of bodies, peoples through history, differences
  between their ideas, their connections, are often thus no closer
  knit, no further away than 'So that' and an 'and' which binds them
  (end of Cantos 1 and 2 respectively). … 
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