Wednesday, July 8, 2015


Len Krisak (trans.), Ovid's Erotic Poems: Amores and Ars Amatoria. Introduction by Sarah Ruden. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Pp. 225. ISBN 9780812209921. $32.50.

Reviewed by Benjamin Eldon Stevens, Bryn Mawr College (

Version at BMCR home site


In his preface to this lively, inviting version of Ovid's Amores and Ars amatoria, Krisak gives voice to what could be a sort of mission statement on the part of translators of ancient poetry:

"I am so far from believing that the classical languages, especially as they appear in the works of their finest poets, are "irrelevant," "dead," or otherwise valueless to our age of internets and wi-fi and the Cloud, that I would gladly consign today's student and general reader (does he or she still exist?) to a lifelong study of Virgil, Horace, and Ovid—even if that meant sacrificing the ability to outgame one's peers at World of Warcraft." (18)

This, I suppose it needs saying, is both serious as a general mission statement and, in a way that suits the particular poet at hand, just a bit tongue-in-cheek. Krisak has been showing, in a series of fine translations over the last ten years and more, that he is serious indeed about bringing ancient poetry to life in English.1 His goal is not merely to translate but to write good poetry. I have previously suggested that he has succeeded brilliantly when it comes to translating all of Catullus. As he put his main idea there: "After all, if we are told that Catullus is a great poet (and I am sure he is), should not any translation of him sound like what we are accustomed to hearing as poetry in English?" (2014a: xvii). He puts the same thought similarly with respect to the present ancient author: "The very last thing I wanted was for readers unfamiliar with Ovid to finish my translations and ask, "So what's the fuss? I thought Ovid was supposed to be a poet." (21) And similarly he succeeds: what the reader of English will find in this volume is, above all, an Ovid who is brightly inviting whether or not they are able to consult the Latin.

The reason for that success here, I think, has much to do with Krisak's ear for—and sympathy for?—one of Ovid's most important and distinctive features: his irrepressible playfulness, his planting of tongue firmly in cheek and his pressing at the boundaries of genre, form, and variation. Only with that in mind do I understand Krisak's references, quoted above, to "internets" (sic, plural, ironical), "World of Warcraft," and more: as glancingly apotropaic references to the sort of cultural forms that would have caught Ovid's eye as being suitable themes for bright, ludicrous variation. This sort of attention to cultural detail is both, is simultaneously, painterly and ironizing: it is persistently ludic. And it is precisely that plafulness which, in Krisak's view, allows the ancient poet to serve as an exemplar of how "everything that really matters to us [moderns] mattered to them [ancients]" (18): "perhaps none is more capacious, free-roaming, exuberant, and passionately committed to every aspect of verse as a means of human exploration (and intellectual and aesthetic pleasure) than Ovid." (19)

I mention all of this not merely because Krisak does, although there is deservedly a long tradition of taking translators' statements seriously.2 I begin with it mainly because Krisak's thinking, his thoughtfulness, deeply motivates the translation, giving the resultant English an energy that readers of Latin rightly feel is present in Ovid's originals. In particular I would say that Krisak has managed to capture what has been called Ovid's "thoughtful lightness." Italo Calvino intended that description for the Metamorphoses, whose changed bodies and variegated selves seemed to Calvino to anticipate the "manifold text" of postmodernism. But we see the same Protean impetus, the same happily restless experimentation both in form and within it elsewhere, including in the Amores and Ars amatoria (as well as the multiplicity that is the Heroides). Indeed of course the Amores have in fact come to us averring their own prior transformation, in meter (1.1) and number (epigram), and both they and the Ars are flush with changes of topic, setting, and tone.

How has Krisak sought to capture this? His method here is to turn Ovid's elegiac couplets into rhyming hexameter- pentameter couplets, as he puts it his "only real competence," "the way I hear English verse … and … the register in which my mental Muse is always 'running'—a little like Pope, one might say, who claimed to 'lisp in numbers.'" (20) This description is offered a bit apologetically, anticipating objection perhaps especially to the rhyming; beyond Pope's claim, one might think of Milton's famous defense of the meter of Paradise Lost. Closer to hand, though, the reference to Pope makes clear that here, too, Krisak shows an Ovidian inclination: for Ovid famously says much the same thing about his own turn to poetry in an autobiographical poem from exile (Tristia4.10.22-26): "having wholly abandoned Helicon, I tried to write prose. But song of its own accord appeared in meter, and whatever I tried to write was poetry" (totoque Helicone relicto / scribere temptabam verba soluta modis. / sponte sua carmen numeros veniebat ad aptos, / et quod temptabam scribere versus erat). In particular I would say that Krisak succeeds at achieving what he calls "the snap and elegant closure of a finished-off, rhymed couplet, with whatever attendant graces could be added by my attempts at alliteration and assonance and syntactical play." (21)

More generally, this is the feeling—the "thoughtful lightness," a seemingly irrepressible inclination to lightly self- impressed fluency in poetry—that Krisak's translations succeed in capturing. To illustrate this I note here just four examples.

1.1.1-4 by Krisak

Prepared for war, I set the weapon of my pen
   To paper, matching meter, arms, and men
In six feet equal to the task. Then Cupid snatched
   A foot away, laughing at lines mis-matched.

Compare this to two other recent translations, A. D. Melville's (2008) and D. R. Slavitt's (2011). The colometry of Melville's translation gives a sort of Spenserian stanzaic impression: it is perhaps too right, and it seems to me too heavy:


1.1.1-6 by Melville

I'd meant in solemn metre to rehearse
A tale of arms and war and violence,
Matching the weighty matter with my verse,
All lines alike in length—no difference;
   But Cupid laughed (they say)
   And filched one foot away.

While Slavitt, who like Krisak uses hexameter-pentameter couplets (but unrhymed), seems to be a sterner Ovid, also heavy but even 'older' or more withdrawn:


1.1.1-5 by Slavitt

Arms and the violent deeds of men fighting in battle …
   Those are the noble subjects I would address
in the grave meters suited to grave matters, but no,
   Cupid appeared to trim my lines by a foot
and turn my stately hexameters into these elegiacs.

I will confess to finding both Melville and Slavitt here prosy ("All lines alike in length—no difference," "but no", "my lines," "my stately hexameters"). By contrast, Krisak seems to me to strike a balance between the exigency of his meter and the inability of any translation, qua translation, to explain every aspect of the original (see below on Notes and Glossary); in particular I admire his solution to the problem of tone: his translation makes clear Ovid's joke from the first line—"Prepared for war, I set the weapon … of my pen"—thus without bogging down in details. Although the translation of the Latin could be called less exact (no "violence, " no "they say" or "appeared"), nonetheless to my mind the impression of the original poem is more vivid.

That impression is exemplified elsewhere not only via compressed expression and speed but also via a penchant for wordplay along Ovidian lines as well as a similar pratice of sound-patterning in the English, as in the following two examples.


1.9.26-30 (Krisak)

Always it's yearning lover's, soldier's, sacred duty
   To penetrate the lines that guard great booty—
Or beauty. And if Mars is fickle, Venus, too.
   The conquered rise, and mighty plans fall through.

Here the play between "booty— / or beauty" is emphasized by the rhyme with "duty", all dovetailing the poem's idea that lover and soldier are "of one camp": and I think Krisak is right to have found in the original, and to be representing in the translation, a kind of 'campiness' indeed.



For now I'm armed with elegiac metaphors
   Whose charms have often softened hardened doors.
Well? Poetry has tractored blood-red Luna's horns
   And turned Sol's horses round for longer morns.
What's versed has burst the viper's jaw and pulled its fang, 25
   Or sent streams back to springs from which they sprang.

Beyond wordplay and sound-patterning, this third example also illustrates how Krisak develops bold imagery in the English to charming Ovidian effect. "Tractored" does not obviously match the connotations of deducunt, "to draw out" or even "to unspool" (as at the beginning of Met., possibly thus imagined as a sort of tapestry), but it offers a vivid image that does I think capture the physical vigor of the lines; that vigor is emphasized by the visual rhyme between "tractoRED" and "blood-RED"—like Ovid, Krisak moves quickly, but yet no single image is entirely a one-off. The concluding couplet here is a small, eager delight: if, again, it does not quite echo the feeling instinct in Latin poetic imagery of snakes and reversed streams—Medean or more generally witchy—surely it is equal to the Ovid who describes Pyramus' jugulation as being like a burst drain-pipe (Met.4.121-124). Above all, even a Latinless reader will see —and may delight in—the love of poetry that overflows lines like these.

Finally, an example may be drawn from the Ars; where Ovid writes as if in answer to the question, Ancient poetry—what is it good for?



I don't say send her tender verses, though, since verse
   Wins precious little honor … more's the curse.
Oh, poems do get praised—when money does the talking
   And prizes go to rich barbarians squawking.
This really is the Age of Gold: the price is gold
   For honor and for love, bought bought and sold.
Homer, if you cam served by all the Muses, yet
   Were broke, then Homer, how far would you get?

I have the strong impression that Ovid and Krisak would answer in the same tone. This kind of agreement is perhaps the single largest part of what makes Krisak's translation work: it is as lively and inviting as that ancient poet himself. With that in mind I have recommended this translation to my fall 2015 advanced Latinists, and will aim to report on the blog how that plays out.

I conclude by noting that this new English erotic Ovid joins something of a recent flurry. The Loeb Classical Library last published Ars, Remedia, and Medicamina—together, with the doubtful poems—in 1929, and the Amores—with the Heroides—fully a century ago in 1914, and even Peter Green's very popular version in Penguin Classics dates back to 1983. But James Michie's Modern Library (only Ars) is 2002; A. D. Melville's Oxford World's Classic (including Medicamina and Remedia) is 2008; and D. R. Slavitt's Harvard University Press edition is 2011 (lacking Ars but including the Heroides and Remedia). In this context it might only be regretted that we do not have from Krisak a 'complete' erotic Ovid, including Remedia or Medicamina. (While the further argument could be made that other parts of Ovid are also 'erotic,' including Heroides and of course large parts of Met., it is not clear that such a thematic selection is the most useful approach to the work of a single ancient poet.)

The volume is attractively printed and bound (although I often find myself wishing that more academic presses followed the suit of larger houses and included a note about the type, design, etc.), and very usefully includes Notes and a Glossary. The Notes are informative especially for the reader new to antiquity and classical mythology: e.g., ad1.8.64 "Chalked feet" the reader is told that "[n]ewly imported slaves were marked by chalking their feet," while ad2.18.22-26 Krisak provides a marvelous brisk summary of the Heroides. The Glossary is likely to be even more useful given the density of proper names in the poetry. In a few places there are reasons to quibble— e.g., "Catullus" is bundled with "Calvus," both described as "Love poets and friends of Tibullus's," odd coming from someone who has also recently translated all of Catullus. But such oddities are few, and I think that overwhelmingly the volume will prove useful to new readers of Ovid.


1.   Listing only Krisak's translations from the Latin still shows him a startlingly impressive poet: 2014 Amores and Ars Amatoria; 2010 Eclogues; 2006 Horace's Odes.
2.   Sarah Ruden writes with similarly inviting excitement in her very fine, informative and usefully interpretive introduction to the volume: "if the genius of modernity is above all independent, individual creation, then Ovid is the foundational modern mind. Authors of all kinds had come before him, but in my opinion he was the first writer, and the erotic poetry seems a fitting prelude to the first writerly masterpiece, his epic Metamorphoses" (4). She goes on to suggest that the genre was something of a victim of his success: "though the entire Ovidian corpus was exuberantly popular during the Middle Ages, courtly love was built up as a separate edifice on a Christian model" (15).

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