The Aeneid (Penguin Classics)

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Formal Poetry Is Not a Museum Piece: The Millions Interviews Aaron Poochigian

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Aaron Poochigian, a brilliant formalist poet and translator of ancient Greek and Latin literature, already published two books in 2021, and has a third due in November. In February, Liveright Books brought out his new translations of four Aristophanes plays; his book of poems, American Divine, was published in March by the University of Evansville Press, having won that university’s Richard Wilbur Award the year before. This winter, Liveright will publish Poochigian’s first translation of a modern literary work: Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil.

Poochigian and I chatted via email earlier this year about his career as a translator and his practice as a poet.

The Millions: Did you have any particular agenda when you set out to translate Aristophanes?

Aaron Poochigian: Yes, I did. I worked from the start to bring the full musical virtuosity of Aristophanes over into English. In the last 50 years translators have tended to render his comedies as free verse or prose. In the original, for all their wild and liberating content, they are strictly formal poetry throughout, and certain meters are employed in fixed and dramatic ways. When I say “formal,” I mean there are regular rhythms and variations to those rhythms, so that modulation from one prevailing meter to another has a striking effect. Free verse and prose translations, by their very nature, sacrifice this effect. So, yes, I am a bit of an evangelist, in respect to form, in my translations.

TM: Do you consult other translations while working on your own?

AP: I compare my translations to others after I have completed a mature draft of them. If I find an earlier translator has hit on a mot juste I had missed or has better brought something to the surface, I make minor revisions.

TM: How do you feel Aristophanes has fared in English translation until now?

AP: Worse than most ancient authors. Older translations tend to whitewash the obscenity; more recent translations tend to over-emphasize the obscenity. In addition to recreating the effect of the rhythmic modulations, I strove to recreate Aristophanes’s playful, say, three-year-old’s anality. For example, though some readers of early drafts encouraged me always to go for the more offensive word (i.e. “ass” and “shit”), I often went for “butt” and “poop” because they struck me as funnier and more in keeping with the spirit of the original.

TM: Your translations of the Bacchae of Euripides were performed at BAM a few years ago. Did the possibility of future performances influence your translations of Aristophanes, or did you primarily focus on the plays as literary texts on the page?

AP: Yes, the experience of translating Bacchae, on commission, for the stage changed my whole approach to the translation of plays. Whereas readers of a text can stop to learn about arcane subjects in footnotes and endnotes, theatergoers cannot. In both the Bacchae translation and the Aristophanes translations I tried to gloss as much as I could, unobtrusively, in the text. Thus “Bromios,” a cult title of Dionysus, is translated as its meaning, “The Roarer” or “The Roaring God.” Similarly, in the Aristophanes translations, I tried to pull enough background information up into the text to make the jokes work. There were many places where I failed. Aristophanic comedy is very much of its time and frequently lampoons prominent contemporary figures. I chose to keep the names of the ancient figures rather than updating them with references to, say, Joe Biden or Mitch McConnell, because such references would quickly become passé and I want my translations to have a long life.

TM: How did you approach some of those more challenging passages you mention in your introduction, such as the “lyrical summons of all the avian species” in Birds, or capturing the Spartan dialect in Lysistrata?

AP: In the original Greek of Lysistrata, the Spartan characters speak in a parody of their actual Doric dialect. It is meant to be funny and othering, to make them sound backwoodsy. In his 1964 translation Douglas Parker translated their lines into something he called the “Appalachian” dialect. It reads at times like Black vernacular English. It offended many people. My challenge was to preserve the “othering” effect of the original lines and not to offend anyone. I chose to translate those lines into a country twang specific to no region. Furthermore, I had word choices do most of the work (instead of other dialect markers). Thus, you will find phrases like “y’all” and “I’m fixin’” and “I reckon” in my translation.

The song to summon the birds in Birds is remarkable both for its beauty and for its occasional use of imitative bird sounds as a refrain. The challenge was to bring the original over into equally enjoyable lyrics in English. I chose to use rhyme and off-rhyme in order to suggest, to the English-speaker, that these lines, unlike those before and after, were meant to be sung. I am pleased with the result, but you can judge for yourself. Here is an excerpt:
Epopopoi popopopoi popoi,
Ee-you, ee-you, ee-to, ee-to,
come here, all you endowed with wings,
all you who flutter over acres
of fertile land, you myriad throngs
who feed on grain, you swift seed-pickers
who warble such delightful songs.
Come all that over furrowed ground
twitter, molto espressivo,
this pleasant sound–
tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio.
TM: Later on in your introduction, you talk about these plays as a model for political dissent. It’s one thing to draw comparisons between contemporary and historical circumstances; but I’m more interested in your idea that Aristophanes’s fundamental approach––bawdy, uncouth, and openly hostile toward individual leaders––is something we could use more of today, that “crudity is appropriate in criticizing the crude.” Can you talk more about that, and how you see the function of literature within a democratic society?

AP: I respect Michelle Obama a great deal. But, from 2017 to 2021, we saw that the when-they-go-low-you-go-high approach simply was not an effective response to crude, nasty, hateful attacks. The nasty language got all of the attention in the media and in public and private conversations, and quiet, noble responses got no attention at all. I saw many parallels between classical Athenian democracy and our contemporary American democracy as I worked on my Aristophanes translations. Athenians enjoyed “parrhesia,” a freedom of speech as broad as our own, and Aristophanes made extreme use of that freedom. In fact, he viciously lampooned the warhawk Cleon in his plays—and Cleon was likely in the audience each time. I imagine, whenever a joke about Cleon landed, audience members turned and laughed directly at him. He sued Aristophanes twice, each time unsuccessfully. Aristophanes remained safe in his parrhesia. No doubt the threat of obscene parody in Ancient Greek Comedy acted as a check on the behavior of those in power.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: I see Trump, with his mockery of the disabled, and Andrew Cuomo, with his “sausage challenge,” as ripe targets for obscene Aristophanic attacks. Those are the sorts of characters and behaviors of which Aristophanes would make wicked fun if he were writing in English today.

I cherish our American freedom of speech. I fear, however, that, with the erosion of fact-based “truth,” speaking “truth to power” is no longer enough. When there is merely hateful mudslinging, I see no recourse but to do what Aristophaes did—to get down into the pigsty and strive to sling mud better (harder and more memorably) than one’s enemies. The fate of democracy could hang on whether or not one is successful.

TM: Just a few years ago, Spike Lee adapted Lysistrata for his film Chi-raq, and there have been plenty of other notable interpretations in the past century alone. Why has Aristophanes (and that play in particular) endured?

AP: I feel that Aristophanes has endured because of the “great idea” plot structure he often employs. With this structure a character, say, Lysistrata, comes up with an ingenious plan to end what seems an endless war, by some ingenious means—by having the women refuse to have sex with the men. This plot structure allows the audience to experience an alternate reality and all the amusing implications of it. This sort of dramatic “play” provides a healthy childlike regression for audience members, leaving them feeling rejuvenated.

Oddly, the least known of the plays in the volume is the most relevant to our contemporary situation. In Women of the Assembly, females dress as males (with beards) to vote in the Assembly (the equivalent of Congress) to hand the government wholly over to females. They proceed to radically communize Athenian democracy. There is no more private property, no more rivalry, and no more marriage. The play dramatizes male anxiety over female power and prophecies, as I see it, contemporary American responses to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive women recently voted into Congress. The “great idea” plot structure is where democracy comes to play with possibilities.

TM: Do you feel you have a different responsibility when translating ancient works? When translating from Baudelaire, for example, there are millions of French/English bilinguals who can hold you accountable for your choices. In the case of Ancient Greek, or even Latin, it will mostly be academics that have that kind of authority. As a result, most readers are beholden to the translations that are available. Are you conscious of this as you work, and does it affect your method?

AP: Yes, those of us who translate from the dead languages do have an extra responsibility to reanimate lost civilizations. I just wish I knew cuneiform so I could translate “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” our earliest epic. In my editions, I do all I can with in-text glosses and diction to bring as much of the original cultural context up into the translation itself. Still, there are points where I must resort to notes. They are especially painful to me in Aristophanes’s comedies because nothing is lamer than a joke that has to be explained.

Yes, also, these dead languages have traditionally been the provinces of academic specialists. I do have a Ph.D in Classics (Ancient Greek and Latin language and literature) but I confess I only earned that degree because I thought the knowledge I acquired was essential for my original poetry. That has proved to be true. My career as a literary translator grew out of a series of craft-exercises I did nightly for years when preparing my assignments in graduate school. Literary translation has allowed me to hone my craft and supplement my income at the same time. Because I know Latin, the source of the Romance languages, and have spent years teaching myself to read literary French, I have now expanded my translation business to Baudelaire, the first Modern poet. He is the first poet I have translated who wrote in rhyme, and I put all I have learned in my translation practice to work in bringing his dense, disturbing, and almost magical poems over into English.

TM: Why did you feel studying the Classics was essential for your practice as a poet?

AP: As a freshman in undergraduate school, I had a religious experience while looking at the Latin that opens Vergil’s Aeneid: “Arma virumque cano…” It became clear to me at that moment that I was supposed to become a poet and that I was supposed to learn Ancient Greek and Latin. The poets who stimulated most at that time—Milton and Shelley—had a Classical education, and I felt that, if I were to compete with them, I would need the same background. In graduate school I got all that I wanted and more—my knack is for versecraft, not for academic prose—but I got through all right. My close study of Greek and Latin poets during this time has provided me with more than a life’s worth of themes and tones and voices. After graduate school, my major challenge was figuring out how to take what I learned and cast it into 21st-century language. I would like to think that my new book, American Divine, is the fulfillment of that effort. 

TM: What was the genesis of American Divine? Do you have your eye toward a future collection as you’re writing individual poems, or is it more a process of looking back over your work and trying to build a whole out of the parts?

 AP: My first two books, The Cosmic Purr and Manhattanite, were collections of poems—I took all the best poems I had written over a period of time, broke them up into groups and published them. American Divine is, in contrast, a Gestalt; the whole is more than the sum of its parts. More than just a collection of poems, it is a book that has, as one critic has pointed out, a symphonic structure. I knew years ago that I wanted to write a series of poems in which I bring “old-style,” polytheistic religious experience to contemporary America. I wanted, rather than the distant Judaeo-Christian God of monotheism, many gods to interact with humans in the here and now. The first section of American Divine, with the half-ironic title “The One True Religion,” collects a wide variety of intense revelations and religious experiences. The second section, “The Uglies,” takes the reader to the “dark night of the soul” in which there is only doubt and skepticism. The third section, “The Living Will,” works to reconcile these two extreme perspectives into some workable, livable whole. All my poetry books will, in the future, be written as Gestalts.

TM: The religious and spiritual content in American Divine is fascinatingly broad, and includes a youthful dabble in Satanism, a glimpse of Hindu ritual, a monologue by a figure from William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience… Are you a student of world religions, or does this reflect, say, a nonsectarian quest for meaning?

AP: Both, I would say. I am a scholar of religions, particularly Ancient Greek and Roman pantheism, with its religious literature and cult practices. It is because I never cottoned to any religion or denomination that I fear I may be missing out on a central part of human experience. (Another central part of the human experience I am missing out on is parenthood.) I try to make up for the religious gulf in my life by reading about and recreating, through character voices, vital religious experiences for myself and the reader. Though in other ways I am not a relativist, I am in respect to religion: I really couldn’t validate the religious experience of, say, a Christian over a Hindu or a Muslim over an Ancient Greek.

I am in fact still deeply studying, still obsessing over, religious experiences after American Divine is out. I have been trying to curtail those studies lately because I want the next book to be something thematically different.

TM: You have a fondness for the second person. In your novel Mr. Either/Or, “You” is the protagonist, but in your poems “you” is sometimes a specific person the poem is addressed to, sometimes the reader, sometimes a stand-in for a larger idea, and sometimes it’s merely rhetorical. Is this also an outgrowth of the Classical tradition?

AP: Yes, in Classical rhetoric this literary (and artificial) address to a “you” that cannot possibly respond is called “apostrophe.” It is very common in Ancient Greek and Latin literature. I like the I/you dichotomy, and I like the directness of addressing a “you,” especially the reader. With Mr. Either/Or I wanted to replicate the perspective of Choose Your Own Adventure books and that of so-called “first-person shooter” video games, in which “you” the player see through the eyes of the character you play. The “you” in American Divine is occasionally a character (with a gender and history) that the reader is asked to assume. In other places, yes, the “you” is the reader or an exclamatory address to an abstraction.

TM: In addition to getting your Ph.D, you also went on to do an MFA in Poetry. I’m curious about how your work was received within the context of a program explicitly focused on contemporary writing. Did you find yourself at odds with faculty or fellow writers because of your classical influences?

AP: There was some tension at Columbia over my formalism. I was at one point told not to write that way. Because formal poetry is what lights up my synapses, gets me high—whatever you metaphor you want—I could not accommodate that suggestion. I wasn’t rebellious, just sure of myself. After one semester workshopping with the rest of my cohort, I worked one-on-one with Richard Howard who, with his work in syllabics (line-lengths based on syllable count) was sympathetic with my obsession.

That said, I credit my exposure to a broad range of contemporary poetry there with jolting me into the 21st century. The program in general and Howard in particular had no patience for archaisms and affectations, and I now, for all of my Classical training, have no patience for such things either.

TM: What other contemporary writers, if any, have influenced your work?

AP: The major influences on my work have been British: W.H. Auden and Philip Larkin. They are formalists who write in a contemporary idiom. They taught me what I wanted to do and how to do it. Auden did so through his virtuosity in all forms and Larkin through the personal renaissance he made of his life’s perceived deprivation. Another major recent influence has been the late Lucie Brock-Broido, one of my teachers at Columbia, who taught me ways of charging up poetry on a line-by-line basis. I recently taught a Master class called “Charge: Electricity in Poetry,” and nearly half the examples I cited were drawn from her work.

I see my whole project as one which establishes that formal poetry is not a museum piece but a mode that can express the full range and depth of 21st-century life.

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