THE IMPERTINENT DUET::
TRANSLATING POETRY WITH ART BECK
#2: ODI ET AMO – HATE AND LOVE AND THE POET’S SOUP
For those who’d rather avoid reading a treatise on the Latin classics—relax. That’s not where this is going, at least not where I intend it to go. This is going to be an exploration of echoes, rather than antiquity. But that said, let’s start with Catullus. And with a two-line poem of Catullus that, as much as it’s poetry, could as well be graffiti on an ancient wall. His “carmen (song) 85” written in the 1st century BC.
Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
Nescio, sed fierei sentio et excrucior.
This is a much translated poem, but also a “much adapted” piece, both in poetry and music, as it resonates down the years. It’s a love poem of sorts, but also a poem that sticks in the throat of Catullus’ love poems. The two lines combine complex emotions with a simplicity of expression—and that very simplicity, I think, makes it more difficult to directly translate its poetry out of the Latin. Because of this, odi et amo tends to migrate into as many adaptations and variations as translations.
Before even approaching a translation of this poem, maybe it’s helpful to talk a little about Catullus. Saint Jerome, compiling his chronological tables some 400 years later, notes Catullus’ birth in 87 BC and later, notes that “Catullus died in Rome at the age of thirty” in 57 BC. (And why does it seem more than ironic that the name of the great ascetic scholar should be forever linked to Catullus this way?)
Modern scholarship tends to use the dates 84 BC to 54 BC. Still making Catullus thirty at his death. He traveled in high Roman circles, was acquainted with Julius Caesar, and was a friend of Cicero. Readers of this piece are probably either going to already know an awful lot about him, or not enough. I don’t have the qualifications to say much that’s meaningful to the former, and there’s not enough space in this article to address the latter. So, for the sake of moving forward, let me just generalize that Catullus wrote some of the most bittersweet love poetry of his, or any other, epoch.
According to legend—and I’m of the mind that research at this distance isn’t much more than legend—his inamorata was a married woman some ten years his senior, named Clodia. She was the sister of a notorious libertine, Clodius Pulcher. Sexually notorious in her own right, she was rumored to have poisoned her husband, Metellus, who died in 59 BC—either two or four years before Catullus’s death.
But by that time, Catullus had been supplanted as her lover. Catullus may have been the romantic poet every sentimental woman wants. And Clodia, the goddess slut every romantic poet craves. But she had priorities beyond poetry. Clodia was accused of many things, but never sentimentality.
No one knows how long Catullus’ affair with Clodia lasted, but it was intense. Evoking Saphho, he called her “Lesbia”; wrote famous poems to her sparrow. And other poems whose translated lines are common currency still. One of the most read is song #5:
Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimenus assis.
Let’s live, my Lesbia—and love:
the stern opinions of the old
aren’t worth a cent to us.
Soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda…
Suns set and rise again: For
us, once our brief light sets,
there’s only night and an endless sleep.
From there the poem goes on to talk about a thousand kisses, then a hundred, and another thousand, alternating between hundreds and thousands into the unquantifiable.
Catullus’ thousand desperate kisses continue to multiply. The poem has exploded into translations and imitations from the Renaissance to today. The first stanza was beautifully translated by Sir Walter Raleigh. And there’s Andrew Marvell’s “To a Coy Mistress.” A poem that seems hugely indebted to Catullus V. Except Marvell’s “the grave’s a fine and private place/ But none, I think, do there embrace” seems coldly cerebral next to Catullus’ nox est perpetua una dormienda. And embrace, a tepid substitute for a thousand kisses.
A present day poet, Joseph Campana (in his Book of Faces, a volume whose poems revolve around Audrey Hepburn) also bends Catullus V to his purpose:
Let us live, let us love—Audrey!
The old men talk but they’re
not a copper to your gold (this
I know) you’re gold rising
and falling you are daytime.
You’re brevity and light and
I am the sleeping darkness…
And let’s not forget Raymond Chandler, who’s said to have adapted his title, The Big Sleep from Catullus V.
II. That’s the Sweet, but now for the Bitter
A friend recently observed that when it comes down to it, sweet love poems really aren’t that interesting. “When I go to readings,” she said, “to open mics… It’s when they start shouting about their exes, that p…., or that c…. That’s when you hear the applause.” A good many of Catullus’ poems are nasty epigrams, some as prurient as Martial’s. In fact, Martial, that consumate bad boy of Roman poetry, writing a few generations later, cites Catullus as a mentor.
Catullus could rant as well as—well actually, much better than—any open mic poet. But sometimes the rancor of his great love turning sour is a quiet scalpel that slices deeper than any rant. And that helpless wound comes down to us, almost clinically, in Odi et Amo.
Here’s the Loeb Classical Library prose rendering. A simple statement: “I hate and love. Why I do so, perhaps you ask? I know not, but I feel it, and I am in torment.”
But too simple? Too prosaic. Sounding out the original, even if you can’t read Latin, the words seem resonant, charged, vital.
Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
Nescio, sed fierei sentio et excrucior.
The first sentence seems to offer only one translation choice—I hate and love. But hate may not be the most productive translation choice. Hate in English tends to have an active component of anger. Odi is often used more passively, the way you’d hate the taste of headcheese. Not especially the way you’d hate a mortal enemy. When Horace says: Persicos odi, puer, apparatus—“I hate Persian trappings, boy”—he’s not talking about going to war against Persia. Rather, a sense of aesthetic distaste. Softened to something more reactive than active, Catullus’ odi takes on more nuance, less self certainty.
And in choosing just how to interpret odi, I think you also have to consider the word order—in which odi comes before amo. Latin is an inflected language and word order is often flexible. But in this case you have one verb preceding the other, one image preceding the other. If odi is intended to be an active, aggressive emotion you’d think it would, more often, be preceded by love troubles—rather than precede love.
Trying to think of examples where aggression becomes love, you can come up with some dark, extreme images. A sated sadist fondling her prey. Maria Goretti’s assailant turned suddenly remorseful. Othello’s too late epiphany.
On the other hand, if odi is interpreted as something more passive, an instinctive dislike or aversion—then the helplessness of amo in this poem seems underscored. One falls in love, the way we always fall in love, despite ourselves. Stumbling into an unwanted, yet deeply wanted wound.
Or as another friend once observed: Lovers, meeting for the first time, often feel initially annoyed with each other. And that annoyance is just the heart’s immune system struggling to avoid the pain to come.
But in any case, one of the reasons these two lines of poetic graffiti have endured is that they resonate in every direction like a stone dropped in a pool. There’s no one right way of reading the poem. It speaks to the dark extreme fringe as well as to the myriad varieties of commonplace heartbreak. Catullus’ odi and amo co-exist like yin and yang, constantly circling and constantly nourishing each other.
Going forward into the line, the identity of the “you” in the second sentence also offers some possibilities if you imagine a real rather than rhetorical “you” who’s asking “why?”. Maybe the speaker’s lover? Maybe Catullus is really talking to Clodia, not the reader? Maybe he’s even being nagged to explain himself. Cast this way, the first line could validly be interpreted as: I’m repelled and I love. Why that’s so, maybe you do need to know.
III. The Rosy Crucifixion?
The second line opens unequivocally enough. Nescio—“I don’t know”—sed fieri sentio—“but I feel it happening”—et excrucior.
And with et excrucior we get into the question of “false friends” in translation. Words that strongly resemble words in another language, but in fact mean something else. Crucio in Latin, and crucifigo derive from the same root, but crucio means to torture, and crucifigo to crucify. A subtle distinction, but one doesn’t necessarily kill you—the other does.
So the speaker in Odi et Amo is tortured not crucified. Probably the better equivalent would be “racked.”
The Nobel winning Greek poet, and sometimes translator, George Seferis remarked in one his journals that it’s impossible for us to read Homer except through the experience and patina of intervening history. So that the great classic works take on shades of meaning that were only potentially there in the original.
I couldn’t agree more. The best poems (especially in translation) acquire a life of their own beyond their original intent and mutate in their dialogue with succeeding generations of readers. They speak to us through a phone line interwoven with the fiber optics of our past and their future.
For us, some 2,100 years after Catullus, crucifixion (false friend or not) can never escape the weight of the sacramental—an energy of life as well as death. This was hardly the case when Catullus wrote. But that historic/cultural patina seems to—not add to—but actually draw weight out of Catullus’ poem. It’s where the poem wants to go now.
I don’t know exactly what inspired the title of Henry Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion. My guess is it had more to do with the Rosicrucians than Catullus. But Odi et Amo would make a perfect epigraph for the relationships in those novels. And, for me, it’s almost impossible to not read crucifixion into excrucior. And to not finally translate the poem as something like:
I’m repelled and I love. Maybe you do have to know why.
I don’t know, but I feel it happening and I’m crucified.
As with song #5, Catullus #85 has echoed down the centuries. When I queried an American Literary Translators chat group for examples, one person responded: “I thought of Racine’s Andromaque, the sentence that used to be taught in all the lycees classiques in France: Ah! Ne puis-je savoir si j’aime ou si je hais? Alas, am I incapable to know whether I love, whether I hate?”
The speaker, in this case, is a woman, Hermione, but the emotion is universal, certainly not just male.
And Odi et Amo has always for some reason brought to mind some lines from Paul Schmidt’s very loose, very lyrical translation of Rimbaud’s Drunken Morning:
It began with a certain disgust, and it ended—
Since we could not immediately seize upon eternity—
It ended in a scattering of perfumes.
A not particularly torturous ending. But in my memory those lines are always mixed up with lines that occur a little later in the translated poem:
It began in utter boorishness, and now it ends
In angels of fire and ice.
Not explicitly Catullus, but lines Catullus would certainly understand. And Henry Miller as well, since he adapted the poem’s last line—Voici le temps des Assassins—as the title for his study of Rimbaud, The Time of the Assassins.
In the early twentieth century, Louis Zukofsky did a homophonic “translation” of Odi et Amo that makes “sound” if not imagistic sense. Not everyone’s cup of tea. But still an echo:
O th’hate I move love. Quarry it fact I am, for that’s so re queries.
Nescience, say th’ fiery scent I owe whets crookeder.
Jospeh Campana also uses an adaptation of Odi et Amo in his Audrey Hepburn-centric Book of Faces:
I hate, I love (Audrey….
I know nothing,
I feel it happening:
the torment (mine).
But two of the most interesting and lyrical contemporary adaptations come from Frank Bidart. In both cases, he begins with a simple “I hate and love.” And he omits the second line of the original, managing to compress a compressed Latin poem even more. The last line in his first version, from his volume The Sacrifice reads: “Ignorant fish who even wants the fly while writhing.”
The second variant of that last line appears in his later collection, Desire, with the Bidart poem now entitled “Catullus Excrucior”: “The sleepless body hammering a nail nails/ itself hanging crucified.”
With Bidart, you get the sense that it’s not the lover, but love itself that’s odious. Love, itself that you can’t live with, or without. Then you realize the original Catullus can also be read this way. Realize just how protean the deceptively simple Latin is.
V. Catullus and Old Helmut Soik
Catullus was a young poet, and he’s still a poet for the young. There’s a sense of trespass when the old read Catullus that Yeats famously caught in his poem “The Scholars”:
Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men tossing on their beds
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear
All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
Lord what would they say
Did their Catullus walk their way?
I’m no longer young and I’m going to sidetrack here to someone even older: Helmut Soik, a poet who for some reason has been on my mind lately. We’ll wander a bit, but soon be back to Catullus. In fact, re-reading Soik was one of the catalysts that started me re-reading Catullus and it seems appropriate to give Helmut the last word.
Indulge me, if you will, as I backtrack to somewhere around 1978. That was when Soik, a German poet my father’s age came to visit. We were both enjoying a pretty good year. I’d just published a book length poem based on Casanova’s memoirs that had gotten some nice buzz. And Helmut’s first (bilingual) volume of poems in English translation was recently out. We shared the same small, but hot at the time, California publisher.
Helmut came to San Francisco to read, and we spent a few great days together. We wandered the neighborhoods—North Beach, the Castro, the old and new Chinatowns, and pondered the tombstones at Mission Dolores. His conversational English was only a little better than my stumbling German, but his fluent half sister Tanya accompanied us and our dialogue moved along as easily as a movie with subtitles.
And Helmut’s life could have made a movie. Born in 1914, he belonged to what, for Germans, was definitely not their “greatest generation.” In his youth he was a prodigy, publishing his first volume of poetry at 16. And his second, five years later, along with critical studies of Rimbaud and others. He was a pacifist, active in avant-garde circles and had little interest in anything but literature and the arts. The sort of life the young Catullus may have led. And he had a sweetheart, the young love of his life.
But then, of course, he was drafted. And ended up at the Eastern Front. War stories are notoriously unreliable. But the way Helmut told it, he was exhumed unconscious from under a pile of corpses after the battle of Stalingrad by a band of Russians. He was a cherub, then, he said. Despite being nearly thirty. A lost kid, through and through, and some angel must have touched his captors. Rather than shoot him or send him off with the other POWs, they adopted him as sort of a mascot and just put him to camp work. He looked back with genuine nostalgia at that interval. I’m not sure how long it lasted, because somehow the dates seem as out of whack as the concept. Although it all seemed quite logical when he was telling it.
Then, as the story goes, when the war was finally over the Russians just shook hands and sent Helmut walking home. This is what I don’t understand. Were they the Red Army or a band of irregulars? Or just a disillusioned unit improvising their own rules. Helmut was never really clear about anything except how fond he was of those Russians. In any event, he somehow made his way across shattered East Europe to what he thought was a German town.
But war had redrawn the borders and he found himself in newly Soviet Poland, conscripted to hard labor in the salt mines. He was finally repatriated in 1950. And spent the rest of his aesthetic (and personal) life practicing a sort of discipline of alienation. His mature poems dissect both the Hitler years and the postwar “German miracle” with a deeply humane cynicism. He settled, miraculously back into life with his old sweetheart, but avoided any non-menial pursuit except poetry—content to be “useless” to society. You come away from reading Soik with the sense that Nazism isn’t just an era that ran from 1933 to 1945, but rather a nasty strain woven into humanity from which Helmut had taken permanent leave. The title of his American volume, Rimbaud under the Steel Helmet is apt.
But the poems are wide ranging, and Soik’s volume begins with poems in honor of other poets: Tu Fu, Lorca, Rimbaud, Belli, and, yes… Catullus.
Von Catull las ich in der stunde der dämmerung
daß er in seinem dreißigsten jahr starb
in der todesstunde alleingelassen
in einem dreckigen hinterhaus
der großstadt Rom.
Die sexbombe Claudia Pulcher mied sein
bett von toten küssen und schweigen….
I read about Catullus in the twilight hour,
the way he died in his thirtieth year,
left alone at the hour of his death
in a filthy back alley tenement
in the metropolis of Rome.
Sexpot Claudia Pulcher wanted nothing
to do with his bed of dead kisses and silence…
Later in the poem:
…Was nützte es ihm
daß der pontifex maximus
seinetwegen staatstrauer trug
daß die zehntausend luxusnutten
in den heiligen straßen
die jeunesse doree absichtlich schmutzige anzüge trug…
…What use was it to him
that the Pontifex Maximus declared
official mourning on his behalf,
that ten thousand exquisite whores
in the sacred streets, that
the gilded young all changed into soiled robes…
But at the end, Helmut’s question and his old man’s answer:
was blieb erspart ihm?
Schon sein früher tod
trug zur geniebildung bei.
Die demonstrieung weiblichen verfalls
an seiner angebeteten geliebten
vielleicht fünfzehn jahre später
blieb erspart ihm
Und das heißt doch wirklich
corriger la fortune!
And for all that
what, if anything, was he spared?
His early death, for one thing, solidified
his image as a genius. And it spared
him as well from watching his heartthrob’s
menopausal decay some fifteen years
later. You could say dying was really
the ace up his sleeve!
Helmut died a few years back. The story may be embellished a bit, passed from his sister to our mutual editor. But as I heard it, he was hiking up a not too strenuous mountain trail in a popular resort. And happened to be trudging behind a woman who caught his practiced eye. “What a nice ass you have,” he said.
She stopped, turned, looked him over, smiled and said: “Coming from an old goat like you, even a compliment is an insult.”
A couple of days later, peacefully watching television in his cabin, he died. Helmut wasn’t spared much in his long life. But if the account of his last days is to be believed—even at eighty-something, that ache still glowed.
VI: The Poet’s Soup
Catullus died famous and young—Soik, old and obscure. Googling Helmut Maria Soik, the only recent references I could find were to the bilingual collection I mentioned above and a German volume of poems published in 1980 whose title translates to Ramblings about the Possible Existence of Hell.
His obscurity wouldn’t surprise Helmut who, in a long, somewhat Brechtian, poem titled “Night and Nothing” (Die Nacht und das Nichts) said:
A man went to bed
with a bundle of poems,
wrote on his knees
despite the cold in the room.
for industrial society
for competitive society
he was useless.
Later in that poem he asks the big question:
Teach me comrade!
Teach me in my ignorance!
Give me the answer!
Who gives the poet
Wer gibt dem dichter die süppe? Who nourishes a poet? In one sense, it’s our poetic ancestors. Soik was nourished by Catullus, as Catullus was nourished by Sappho. But this can only go so far, provide only part of the calories a poet needs.
Süppe is the daily ration of the humble and misfortunate, of mendicants, internees, conscripts, and labor camps. From the threads running through Helmut’s work, I’ve always felt his poetry was nourished forever after by his captor-saviors in the Russian forest. Whatever the real story, I’ve come to imagine them as a band of survivors whose priorities had probably come down to avoiding the twin grinding jaws of Hitler and Stalin.
And would Catullus’ insistent songs still be nourishing us if Catullus hadn’t been nourished by Clodia? Not Lesbia/Clodia—the eternal muse, the eternal ideal. But Clodia the woman who lived, aged, grew, faltered and plotted to survive. Who bemused and captured and spooned out the stony, prisoner’s soup of poetry to Catullus.
 Rimbaud under the Steel Helmet is still in stock at SPD books. www.spdbooks.org
 The excerpts from Soik’s Die Nacht und das nichts are as translated by Georg Gugelberger and Lydia Perera in the original 1976 Red Hill Press edition. The excerpts from his Catullus poem were retranslated for this article by Art Beck.
Art Beck is a San Francisco poet and translator who’s published two translation volumes: Simply to See: Poems of Lurorius (Poltroon Press, Berkeley, 1990) and a selection Rilke (Elysian Press, New York, 1983). His recent articles on Horace and Rilke in John Traintor’s magazine Jacket can be accessed online at: www.jacketmagazine.com