Catullus: The Poems

Your Saturnalian bonne-bouche.”

I’m bubbling with a lot of writing, at least a dozen reviews are raring to spill forth; it would be a shame to let this heat slide off into a deadened feeling you get when you remember a book read long ago but retain nothing of it, because you had not taken the care to record your impressions. Over the years I have discovered that the best way to remember a book is to write about it. This doesn’t always materialise though. Life, you see.

I read this Penguin edition of Catullus’s poems (tr. Peter Whigham) side by side Peter Green’s translation. I have no hesitation in saying I prefer the latter, not because I am in any way able to compare it with the original Latin, but seeing the parallel text I can see that Green has endeavoured to remain faithful to metre, length and the rhythm of the original. This stands in contrast to Whigham’s translation with its arbitrary enjambments and unruly line-breaks, where some poems are summarily translated, others are bloated (over-translated?), perhaps to give clarity to the vagueness of the original. However, Whigham’s love epigrams are more spontaneous, direct and urgent compared to Green’s.

I do not object to artistic recreation in translation when its purpose is to convey the tone and spirit of the original, and to give a sense of the language even if it means bending the rules of idiomatic English, especially when it requires an intelligent rendering of satire. But I think if you take too much liberty with the original you end up turning it more your own creation and less that of the writer you’re translating. FitzGerald’s and Omar Khayyam come to mind. I have since long refused to call it a translation. Rubaiyat is FitzGerald’s reworking of Khayyam, a work that should be seen as Rubaiyat of Edward FitzGerald.

Entry #8 serves as a good example of Catullus’ angry love poem. It’s aimed at his lover, the wife of another man, whom he refers to as Lesbia in his poems. Catullus hates her for abandoning him and also hates being in love with her, but can’t bring himself to concede. I’m quoting both translations to highlight the difference between Whigham and Green. (All italics belong to the translators)

Peter Whigham translation

“Break off
fallen Catullus
time to cut losses,

bright days shone once,
you followed a girl
here & there

loved as no other
shall be loved,

then was the time
of love’s insouciance,
your lust as her will

Bright days shone
on both of you.

a woman in unwilling.
Follow suit

weak as you are
no chasing of mirages
no fallen love,

a clean break
hard against the past.
Not again, Lesbia.

No more.
Catullus is clear.
He won’t miss you.

He won’t crave it.
It is cold.
But you will whine.”

Peter Green translation

“Wretched Catullus, stop this tomfool stuff
and what you see has perished treat as lost for good.
Time was, every day for you the sun shone bright,
when you scurried off wherever she led you
that girl you loved as no one shall again be loved.
There, when so many charming pleasures all went on,
things that you wanted, things she didn’t quite turn down,
then for you truly every day the sun shone bright.
Now she’s said No, so you too, feeble wretch, say No.
Don’t chase reluctance, don’t embrace a sad-sack life-
make up your mind, be stubborn, obdurate, hang tough!
So goodbye, sweetheart, Now Catullus will hang tough,
won’t ask, “Where is she,” won’t, since you’ve said No, beg, plead.
You’ll soon be sorry, when you get these pleas no more-
bitch, wicked bitch, poor wretch, what life awaits you now?
Who’ll now pursue you, still admire you for your looks?
Whom will you love now? Who will ever call you theirs?
Who’ll get your kisses? Whose lips will you bite in play?
You, though, Catullus, keep your mind made up, hang tough!”

For the sake of (relative) brevity, I’m eschewing a more detailed comment on Catullus’ longish (and excellent) poems mixing elements of tragedy and epic, so I’ll round off the note on translation by saying that I have been unhorsed along with my hoary perceptions about ancient Roman poets. “Beautiful” is not a word that comes to mind when you read Catullus, no; he is witty, sardonic, playful, deeply personal, highly offensive, almost autobiographical. He does not mince words when he is up to denouncing whom he does not like: his Lesbia whom he repeatedly accuses of turning into a whore with a multitude of lovers, all for having spurned his love(!), the poets of habit, time-wasting rhymesters, and his foes whom he abuses without a blush: his preferred revenge is to drive his equine male organ through the foully malodorous bog land of other people’s backsides. Not a man you would want to know in real life! Suffice it to say that Catullus startled me, amused me, shocked me, and gave me plenty to laugh through the sweet (& sour) time I took in reading both translations.

For Vibennius he has this to say. Poem #33

“Oh you cream of the con men in the bathhouse,
Pop Vibennius, and your son the bum-boy –
Dad may have a dirtier right hand, but
Juniorʻs got a more voracious backside –
why not just sod off to exile in some
hellhole, since Dadʻs larcenies are public
knowledge, while you, son, cannot hawk your bristly
asshole, no, not even for a penny!” (Green)

Thanks to Penguin Little Black Classics series I have discovered quite a few world greats which otherwise it would have taken me a long time to discover, independently. I was introduced to Catullus with this collection: I Hate and I Love, enjoyed it thoroughly and immediately sought out the full collection. Here are a couple of samplers to get a better (bitter?) taste of Catullus on your poetic palate!

Poem #16: Catullus rebukes his critics and detractors who most probably had objected to the content of his poems, as many still would! (I have no idea what the first and last lines mean)

“Pedicabo et irrumabo
Furius & Aurelius
twin sodomites,
you have dared deduce me from my poems
which are lascivious
which lack pudicity…
The devoted poet remains in his own fashion chaste
his poems not necessarily so:
they may well be
lacking in pudicity
stimulants (indeed) to prurience
and not solely in boys
but those whose hirsute genitalia are not easily moved.

You read of those thousand kisses.
You deduced an effiminancy there.
You were wrong. Sodomites. Furius & Aurelius.
Pedicabo et irrumabo vos.” (Whigham)

Poem #78B

“…but what irks me now is that your filthy saliva
has soiled the pure kisses of a pure girl.
You won’t get away scot-free, though. All future ages
shall know that, and ancient Fame tell what you see.” (Green)


Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair – Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda – the name evokes romance and revolution in my consciousness, a riot of metaphors and action, a turbo charged celebration of love and beauty, the most original and compelling images, a flood of high emotion that assails my senses and dulls them so that the only thing I am receptive to when I have Neruda’s verse before my eyes is Neruda’s verse. Everything else blacks out and I’m transported to a world I have never seen before – and it’s beautiful!

When after long deliberation I made up my mind to read him I made it a point to start at the first collection Neruda had published in his life: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.

But I’m not a very big fan of the limited aesthetic of love poetry, which often rehashes done-to-death old metaphor and similes, stringing the most common emotions in the most common lines; which is rather subpar, of the throwaway variety, read once and never to be revisited. So I approached the collection under review with some reserve.

I was stumped, stunned, silenced. From the very first poem Neruda shamed me. From third poem onwards I was apologising to him. By the time I reached the end of the collection I became Neruda’s devotee. And so I am to this day and will remain forever!

There is no one who marries terrestrial or nature’s metaphors of earth, sea, fire, wind, trees, moon and stars so masterfully to the anatomy of their beloved.

Below I collect some of the beautiful images from the collection:

Take a look at the simple and stunning eroticism of these lines. From the opening poem:

Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like a world, lying in surrender.
My rough peasant’s body digs in you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.

And the transition of the beloved from white hills to weapon.

I was alone like a tunnel. The birds fled from me,
To survive myself I forged you like a weapon,…

In ‘Almost Out of the Sky’ we have the most innovative and unlikely metaphors for the beloved. One can only appreciate the beauty by reading and re-reading these lines which have since then become my signature favourites.

But you, cloudless girl, question of smoke, corn tassel.
You were what the wind was making with illuminated leaves.
Behind the nocturnal mountains, white lily of conflagration,
ah, I can say nothing! You were made of everything.

All elements fail the beloved. She is simply ‘made of everything!’

From ‘Every day you play’, Neruda finds the beloved in the most unlikely places. Holding a cluster of fruit is like holding the beloved’s head:

You are more than this white head that I hold tightly
as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands.

And further on:

You are like nobody since I love you.
Let me spread you out among yellow garlands.

Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.

And if you go on:

You are here. Oh, you do not run away.
Cling to me as though you were frightened.

How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,
my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them all running.

Neruda ends the poem with a striking image:

I want
to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.

(First published in Spanish 1924; translated from the Spanish by W. S. Merwin)

Selected Poems – Paul Celan

Translated from the German by Michael Hamburger and Christopher Middleton
This selection first published 1972

But keep yes and no unsplit

I make no claims. I am not so presumptuous as to give an impression of having telescoped like a Galileo into Paul Celan’s poetic cosmos, his crumbling stars and dug up black holes, and a breathing, foaming spirit of life that is indestructible in the face of annihilation.

So all I will do here is hang on to that stony oppression bearing down on my soul by the ferocious power of his verse; what I will do here is convey something of the havoc wrought in me through a medium as lamentably limited as words on a computer screen.

It is not easy. Not many who have seen pain, misery, and death so up close are able to generate an intellectual distance that enables them to turn their harrowing experience into a language of poetry that purifies the misfortunes of existence in such a way as to transform them into a song – a song of death.

As I charted his poetic journey I discovered a person who was trying to unlive his experience by removing himself – the I – from his writings by subjecting the dialectic of suffering to meticulous, pristine forms that elevated his words far above the confines of ‘the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’.

Here is Celan’s most well-known poem Fugue of Death which fits the epithet of terrible beauty to a tee. He captures his direct experience of a Jewish captive in Nazi death camps by turning it into ‘black milk’. (I am quoting first few lines with a link to the complete poem)

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
drink it and drink it
we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there
A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden
hair Margarete
he writes it and walks from the house the stars glitter
he whistles his dogs up
he whistles his Jews out and orders a grave to be dug in
the earth
he commands us strike up for the dance
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink in the mornings at noon we drink you at
drink you and drink you


“Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer”

Strangely, Paul Celan renounced Fugue of Death in his later years for being ‘too direct’ and hindered its republication, without success. His desire for writing absolute poetry, under the influence of French surrealism, led him to search for a more refined mode of expression. For this reason it becomes very difficult to interpret his later work with any degree of certainty. What he did was weave an intricate web of cryptic allusions and variegated images into which we – the readers – interpose our own bone-and-blood in order to make some sense of what is being conveyed. His later poems may be seen as prototypes of poetry, sort of a template that sets the limits of what can be known about human perversion, which we – the readers – are welcome to sully by interjecting our own plebeian suffering into it. For instance:

Speak, You Also

Speak, you also,
speak as the last,
have your say.

Speak –
But keep yes and no unsplit,
And give your say this meaning:
give it the shade.

Give it shade enough,
give it as much
as you know has been dealt out between
midday and midday and midnight,

Look around:
look how it all leaps alive –
where death is! Alive!
He speaks truly who speaks the shade.

But now shrinks the place where you stand:
Where now, stripped by shade, will you go?
Upward. Grope your way up.
Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer.
Finer: a thread by which
it wants to be lowered, the star:
to float further down, down below
where it sees itself gutter: on sand dunes
of wandering words.

Here is another poem that marks his new style.


The stone.
The stone in the air, which I followed.
Your eye, as blind as the stone.

We were
we baled the darkness empty, we found
the word that ascended summer:

Flower – a blind man’s word.
Your eye and mine:
they see
to water.

Heart wall upon heart wall
adds petals to it.

One more word like this word, and the hammers
will swing over open ground.

One fascinating aspect of his illusive language is to deploy one word wonders which turn the reading of the preceding lines on its head and force us to readjust our perspective, and re-read it.

In Below, notice the ‘awakening’.

Led home into oblivion
the sociable talk of
our slow eyes.

Led home, syllable after syllable, shared
out among the dayblind dice, for which
the playing hand reaches out, large,

And the too much of my speaking:
heaped up round the little
crystal dressed in the style of your silence.

And look at these spine-tingling lines, a heartrending image of a captive who looks up but, instead of gazing in despair at the ceiling, feels the nearness of sky. From Language Mesh

Eye’s roundness between the bars.
Vibratile monad eyelid
propels itself upward,
releases a glance.
Iris, swimmer, dreamless and dreary:
the sky, heart-grey, must be near.

And, towards the end of the poem, he sees two puddles made by rain which, though within distance of a kiss, are like crippled mouths – beautiful image, simply brilliant!

The flagstones. On them,
close to each other, the two
heart-grey puddles:
mouthsfull of silence.

The Rebel’s Silhouette: Selected Poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz

The Rebel's Silhouette - Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Translated from the Urdu by Agha Shahid Ali

(First published 1991)

Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984) should not need a formal introduction. He is the most revered of all Urdu poets in the modern tradition of Urdu literary corpus. Lionized in the Subcontinent and the world over for his struggles against injustice and inequality, his poetic craft lay in redefining the Urdu verse with new subjects and themes and for reworking the old and worn out metaphor and imagery to give new life to modern Urdu verse and wider literary expression.

Agha Shahid Ali, the translator, in this slim volume has selected and translated poems of Faiz which relate to his political struggles, his feud with the ruling capitalist-dictatorial elite and the time he spent in jail for being a persona non grata in the eyes of the rulers. His pain-filled voice lamenting the state of affairs is echoed in every selected poem; a romance with idealism gone wrong and the dejection (albeit not without hope) that followed is loaded in every nuance of his lines.

The poems are mostly in the nazm form; ghazals are very few and they have been translated not as sets of two lines as the original Urdu form requires but in free verse, making small stanzas out of a couplet of a ghazal.

The translations are nicely done to convey the voice and mood of Faiz’s verse. Yet as it is with all translations, something is always lost. My rating 4/5. Get it from AMAZON.

Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa: Iqbal’s Dialogue With Allah by Muhammad Iqbal

Translated from Urdu by Khushwant Singh.

(First published 1981)

This is a rendition of Allamah Muhammad Iqbal’s two long poems Shikwa (Complaint) and Jawab-i-Shikwa (Answer to the Complaint).

In Shikwa the poet complains to Allah about the downfall of world Muslims and their continuing and humiliating defeats at the hands of the forces of infidels. Jawab-i-Shikwa is an imagined reply of Allah to the “complaint” of the poet. They were written, respectively, in 1909 & 1913.

For orthodox Muslims Shikwa was seen bold and provocative – even bordering on blasphemy, in the way Iqbal addresses Allah and in the use of certain terms and phrases (like calling Allah harjai – unfaithful). Some mullahs even declared Iqbal an apostate for daring to write Shikwa. He was obviously perturbed and wrote ‘Jawab’ four years later.

In the first poem, Iqbal comes out as a frustrated spokesman for the beleaguered and battered Muslim community which has lost power and prestige in its own lands. The complainant blames Allah for forsaking the upholders of His message and for their continuing defeats and humiliation at the hands of the foreign powers. It was the time when most Muslim political power was lost and nearly all Muslim lands were under the direct grip of European colonialism.

The second poem, written as if by God in first-person, argues with the first poem and holds Muslim responsible for their own downfall. In their essence, the poems carry a strong emotion that harks back to the Golden Times in search of hope and inspiration to find solutions to the state of defeated and enslaved Muslim nation – a sentiment that pervades the whole poetical oeuvre of Iqbal.

The literary merits of the original Urdu poems are apparent to one and all. These are fine examples of the craft of Iqbal. Rhythmic, flowing, strong and beautifully strung verses balanced on established poetic metres. The edition I read was bilingual and I could read both the original and translation for comparative purposes.

Khushwant Singh is recognised as a skilled translator of Urdu and Punjabi (Gormukhi) verse, especially the religious verse. He has done a wonderful job at translating these two difficult Urdu poems. What is refreshing is that he shuns old and obsolete English terms which some translators dealing with old poetry still use.

However, his attempts to rhyme each stanza to give it a semblance of metered English poem sometimes carry an air of artificiality. Some rhymes are almost forced into place at the cost of meaning and loss of eloquence of the Urdu original. But then a freer translation of metered Urdu verse also has problems as it doesn’t convey the rhythm and musicality of the original.

Translating poetry, especially between languages that don’t have a common parentage, is indeed a tough job.

My book rating. 4/5. Here is the AMAZON LINK.

Selections from the Persian Ghazals of Ghalib

(Translated into English by Ralph Russell and into Urdu by Iftikhar Ahmad Adni)

Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) is undoubtedly the most important poet of Urdu. But most of his poetic works, like Allamah Iqbal’s, are written in Farsi. Ghalib didn’t consider his Urdu poetry of much value. He concentrated on his Farsi verse and prided himself on it but as fate would have it, his Urdu verse is not only more popular but elevated him to the status of godfather of Urdu verse. His Farsi verse, however, is relatively unknown among the Farsi speakers. (Iqbal, in comparison, is equally popular among Urdu and Farsi readers for his poetry).

This book is a selection from the Farsi verse of Ghalib and its side by side translation into English and Urdu. For the admirers of Ghalib who know him from Urdu (like myself), this book offers good insight into his Farsi mind.

Here are my thoughts on the quality and methods of translations:

There is a difference between the approaches of both translators. English translations are pretty much done in prose style. This is probably the best way to translate couplets of Ghazal because if you try to rhyme it in English, you run the risk of changing the content, meaning and style of the original couplet. Urdu translation of the same, in comparison, follow the usual rhymed and metered approach. The Urdu translator looks for rhyms and sets them on relevant meter to make it sound ‘poetic’. Because if you do a prose Urdu translation of a metered and rhyming Farsi verse, it ceases to be poetry. So the difference between the approaches of the two translators makes it easy for English translator but difficult for the Urdu one.

The English translator, late Ralph Russell, was a scholar of Farsi and Urdu and has done a good job at translating Ghalib. He has also taken pains to add explanatory notes where a seemingly simple Farsi verse means much more than its corresponding English translation. I liked it as it gives insight into how the translators themselves understand Ghalib.

I am, however, not particularly impressed by the quality of Urdu translation. I can’t compare it with original Farsi as I don’t know the language but I notice the lack of Ghalibness, so to speak, in Urdu translation.

Here, I found an online link for the book. Click HERE