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Congratulations to Alicia Stallings and Kay Ryan

September 20, 2011

Congratulations to two brand-new MacArthur “Genius” Award recipients:  Alica Stallings and Kay Ryan.

ATHENS, GREECE - SEPTEMBER 8: Alicia Elsbeth is a writer and the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship photographed on September 8, 2011 in Athens, Greece. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images for Homefront TV)ATHENS , GREECE , THURSDAY 8 : ATHENS , GREECE , THURSDAY 8 : Alicia Elsbeth writer recipient of MacArthur Fellowship (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images for Homefront TV)Alicia (A. E.) Stallings is the translator of Lucretius’ The Nature of Things in a  translation of heroic couplets in 14 syllable lines, in an attempt to evoke (if not strictly mimic) some of the Latin metrical features of the poetry.  Here is a sample of her translation from the Hudson Review:

From Book Four: Against passion

Add this—lovers fritter away their strength, worn out in thrall.
This also—one lives ever at the other’s beck and call.
They grow slack in their duties. Good name stumbles and malingers.
Wealth, turned to Babylonian perfumes, slips through the fingers.
But you can bet that she’s well heeled, in shoes from Sicyon,
And those are genuine emeralds, the rocks that she’s got on.
The wine-dark sheets, from rough and constant use upon the bed
And drinking up the sweat of Venus, are worn down to the thread.
The father’s hard-earned fortune turns to tiaras for her hair,
Alindan silks, diaphanous gowns from Cos for her to wear.
He shells out for fantastic feasts with all the trimmings—fine
Linens, music, perfume, garlands, wreaths, free-flowing wine—
But in vain—since in the very fountain of delights, there rises
Something of bitterness that chokes even among the roses.
Perhaps it’s that remorse, gnawing at the conscience, taunts
The lover he’s thrown his life away in sloth, among low haunts;
Or else his darling wings a two-edged word at him, a dart
That smolders like a fire, and rankles in the love-struck heart;
Or else he thinks her roving eye too freely wanders after
Another, and imagines in her face a trace of laughter.

And these are just the problems of a love that’s going well!
Imagine a love that’s crossed and doesn’t have a chance in hell—
Even with your eyes shut, you can grasp that the amount
Of troubles in unhappy love are more than you could count.
Best to keep eyes open, as I’ve said—don’t take the bait.
It’s easier to avoid the toils of love than extricate
Yourself once you are caught fast in the nets and to break free
From the strong knots of Venus. Yet you’re still able to flee
The danger, even if you’re tangled up, snared in the gin,
So long as you don’t stand in your own way, and don’t begin
To overlook all shortcomings in body and in mind
Of the woman you lust after. For desire makes men blind—
And generally they overlook their girlfriends’ faults, and bless
These women with fine qualities they don’t in fact possess.
That’s how it comes that we see girls—malformed in many ways,
And hideous—are petted darlings, objects of high praise.
Indeed, one lover often urges another he would mock:
“Venus has it out for you—your love’s a laughingstock.”
(Poor fool—that his delusion’s worse would come as quite a shock!)

The black girl is brown sugar. A slob that doesn’t bathe or clean
Is a Natural Beauty; Athena if her eyes are grayish-green.
A stringy beanpole’s a gazelle. A midget is a sprite,
Cute as a button. She’s a knockout if she’s giant’s height.
The speech-impaired has a charming lithp; if she can’t talk at all
She’s shy. The sharp-tongued shrew is spunky, a little fireball.
If she’s too skin-and-bones to live, she’s a slip of a girl, if she
Is sickly, she’s just delicate, though half dead from TB.
Obese, with massive breasts?—a goddess of fertility!
Snub nosed is pert, fat lips are pouts begging to be kissed—
And other delusions of this kind too numerous to list.
Yet even if her face has every beauty you could name,
And she pours out the power of Venus from her entire frame,
The truth is, there are other fish in the sea. The truth is, too,
We’ve lived without her up to now. She does—we know it’s true—
Exactly the same things as all the ugly women do,
And fumigates herself, poor girl, to cover the stench after,
While her maids steer clear of her and try to hide their laughter.
But the lover, locked out, weeps, and strews the stoop with wreaths in bloom,
And anoints the haughty doorposts with sweet-marjoram perfume,
And presses his lips to the door, the fool—when if he were let in,
One whiff and he would seek a good excuse to leave again!
His long-rehearsed heartfelt lament would then come crashing down,
Right then and there he’d curse himself for being such a clown,
And for granting her perfection that no mere mortal attains.
Our Venuses are on to this—that’s why they take great pains
To hide the backstage business of life, keeping unaware
Those whom they wish to hold bound fast, caught in desire’s snare.
But all in vain, because your mind can drag everything out
Into the light, and find what all the tittering is about—
Yet if she is good-natured, never spiteful, it’s only fair
To make allowances for foibles that all humans share.

FAIRFAX - SEPTEMBER 14: Poet Kay Ryan is photographed at her home on September 14, 2011 in Fairfax, California.  (Photo by Martin Klimek/Getty Images for Home Front Communications)Kay Ryan is a poet and a part-time remedial English teacher at the College of Marin and a former Poet Laureate of the Library of Congress.  Here is her “Home to Roost” (you can find an audio recording of her reciting it here):

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small—
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. namelessneed permalink
    September 20, 2011 5:49 am

    thanx for a new spotlight on Kay Ryan/ Her works amaze and inspire me
    Others should really learn

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 20, 2011 10:20 am

    That Lucretius piece is hilarious. This poetry should be better known and deserves the excellent treatment it gets from Kay Ryan. Thank goodness for the last two lines.

  3. Carl W. Conrad permalink
    September 20, 2011 12:10 pm

    “a translation that preserves the Latin features of the poetry (rhythm, meter, and couplets).”
    I love the translation, but the meter and rhythm are not the Latin dactylic hexameter and Lucretius did not write couplets.”

  4. September 20, 2011 12:30 pm

    Carl: thanks for the comment. You are certainly right about the issue of couplets, which Alicia Stallings apparently borrowed from Dryden (I don’t have my copy of her book at my hand, I will check tonight). I’ll make a correction to the post.

    Regarding dactylic hexameter, are you sure? True, it is not composed of strict dactyls, but I thought Lucretius regularly uses anceps, so the syllable length varied. It seems that Stallings is mostly using 14 syllables per line, and at least when I give it (an albeit somewhat forced) rhythmic reading I get six stresses.

  5. September 20, 2011 1:08 pm

    “Stallings rendered Lucretius’s epic-length treatise on the nature of reality into rhyming fourteeners. The unusual meter and colloquial language she employs capture every cadence of Lucretius’s enthusiasm for his subject while also making the complexities of his argument easily understandable. Through her technical dexterity and graceful fusion of content and form, Stallings is revealing the timelessness of poetic expression and antiquity’s relevance for today.”

  6. September 20, 2011 1:25 pm

    TCR: Are you letting some of your light spirit get into that work?

    AES: Yes, I think so, because the original is in unrhymed dactyllic hexameter, and I’m doing it in rhyming fourteeners, which is a very rambunctious meter, and I’m having a lot of fun with the rhymes, so some of me gets through, too. It has its own light touches, and it’s a poem I’m sort of well suited to in several ways. Even though in theory it’s this sort of dry text explaining atoms and Epicurean philosophy, Lucretius explains things in wonderful vignettes. There’s a wonderful passage where Lucretius is talking about the evils of religion, but it’s about a cow whose calf has been taken for sacrifice, and the cow wanders over the meadow and back to her stable, mooing for her lost child, mooing that no other calf can replace it. It’s beautiful and at the same time whimsical because there’s so much personification lavished onto a cow. It’s full of interesting touches like that with a lot of whimsical aspects, even very funny ones.

  7. September 20, 2011 1:45 pm

    Well, it seems that my memory is playing tricks with me, because I remember a long introduction in her book, in which she dealt with Lucretius’s meter and how that related to her own translation and selection of meter. But I did not check that introduction when I made this post, and it is not at hand right now.

    It is an interesting question when translating poetry that has metrical structure how one should translate it, since there is rarely a precise equivalent in a foreign language. Perhaps this issue has particularly been beaten to death in translations of Dante and Homer, but it still applies in Lucretius as well — De rerum natura is a poem after all, and its usual treatment in English (as prose) treats it in a way that really does injustice to it. Perhaps a free verse translation could be defended, but as both Carl and Kurk have pointed out, Lucretius’s poem does have structure.

    In any case, I think that the excerpt I quoted above speaks for itself, and I will simply honor the new MacArthur Genius by suggesting that you consider buying her translation (which is only $9 at Amazon).

    I also want to mention Kay Ryan as well, who does amazing tricks with words and has an amazing story as “outsider” who broke into the poetry world. Here is her Library of Congress site; here is her Poetry Foundation site; and here is her Academy of American Poets site.

  8. September 20, 2011 6:41 pm

    On a different note, Sarah Otto of UBC almost deleted her genius award email as spam.

  9. September 20, 2011 7:30 pm

    You know, they only give the award to Americans. Apparently, the MacArthur Foundation feels that Canadians cannot be geniuses.

  10. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 21, 2011 2:08 am

    Is Sarah Otto an American who defected to Canada?

  11. September 21, 2011 7:15 am

    She’s an American — and apparently, she took a job in Canada.


  1. Willis Barnstone Translation Prize: your entry and A. E. Stallings’ entry « BLT

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