issue 30 > slavitt tribute > holst-warhaft
Problems to Solve with Witby Gail Holst-Warhaft
It's hard to know what to say about David Slavitt or any writer who has produced 100 books. Inevitably such prodigality arouses suspicion (maybe he works too fast, perhaps much of it is sloppy or worthless?) and envy (how slothful can one be, producing only a book every couple of years?). And yet, with the exception of the novels he wrote under a pseudonym, the quality of Slavitt's writing and translation is remarkable. Academics have nipped at his heels over the freedom he has taken with his classical texts, but by the time they caught up with him, he is busy with the next large project - Ovid, Virgil, Aristophanes, Ariosto, Boethius. Poets might wish for a smaller corpus (poets these days are wary of abundance) but grateful for the poems they've gotten round to reading.
Gratitude is due this severe and witty man, whose only weapon against the gloom he sees around him in modern society is the order of verse, his own and others'. Like the aging Cavafy, whose decaying city offered him faint glimmers of its lost glamor, Slavitt finds his better self in the distance of history. His poems set in the ancient world, like his translations of Greek and Latin, are almost disturbingly modern, risking the charge that current slang will soon sound old hat. But risk is something Slavitt has never avoided. In "Another Letter to Lord Byron" he makes his tactics clear:
The gestures you make in your poems, the jokes are already
those of a man who's trying hard
—and willing to pay the price, even pay dearly—
not only not to be boring, but not to be bored
himself. Yourself. Myself. I know how it is.
Slavitt, we realize, will not stand for solemnity, nor for fealty in translation if it means dullness. For a man who writes so much, he is impatient with windbags like Sarpendon, whose pep-talk before the walls of Troy fails to comfort his fellow warrior Menestheus:
So Sarpendon spake, the morning sun
kindled fire behind him, and on the wall
Menestheus, hearing it, scared shitless, hollered
for help, any he could get—Tall Ajax,
Little Ajax, any Ajax,…
Like the poet, Menestheus recognizes high-minded gobbledy-gook when he hears it. The effect of this sudden shift of linguistic register is both serious and funny. Slavitt's poems are filled with such daring changes. So are his translations of ancient literature.
Aristophanes would have applauded the cut and thrust of Slavitt's verse. He laid into the literary and political giants of his day with a similar low-slung vulgarity. Slavitt's hilarious translation of the Thesmophoriazousae (Celebrating Ladies) misses no opportunity to get down and dirty, while at the same time peppering the dialogue with as many literary allusions as the original. As Mnesilochus beholds Agathon, disguised as a woman, to take an example at random, he sighs lewdly:
Isn't he just ravishing? It touches the heart.
It touches the rest of me too. He's a musical massage parlor.
Sir? Madame? In the words of the immortal Aeschylus,
"I'm struck a deadly blow and deep within."…
While Slavitt has given us excellent versions of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Aristophanes, it is not surprising that Roman poets had a special appeal for him and produced some of his best translations. Virgil and Ovid both inspired fine translations; Ovid was a kindred spirit. Ovid's Love Poems, Letters and Remedies were perfectly suited to a poet as technically adroit, cosmopolitan and tricky as Slavitt. The scintillating verses of Ovid's love poems are as much about the game of poetry as love. Both, in his view, required impediment and effort. "Ask, " he addressed his mistress's husband,
why your wife is sleeping alone so often.
Worry about her a little so that I may have problems to solve
with wit and sometimes, if there is need of it, with courage.
With no lifeguard on the beach, stealing sand is easy.
These are the self-appointed tasks of Ovid, of Slavitt and of all poets who take their craft seriously: problems to solve with wit and…courage. And if we are to rate his efforts, we could do worse than return to the scale that Robert Fitzgerald, another splendid translator of ancient literature, employed at Harvard (a schema inherited from Fitzgerald and Slavitt's mutual mentor at Andover, Dudley Fitts), and grant him what those demanding classicists considered the highest praise: an NAAB, or 'not at all bad.'