In 1967 Louis Zukofsky made a poetic rendering of Plautus’ Rudens, which he incorporated into his a long poem “A” as the twenty-first of its twenty-four sections. This paper offers an introduction to “A”-21 aimed at classicists. Zukofsky’s “transliteration” (his term) of Plautus’ comedy is less well known than the complete Catullus he made in collaboration with Celia Zukofsky. It is also less easy to describe and evaluate, both as a poem and in relation to what, on the ordinary translation model, would be called its source text. Barry Ahearn, in the first full length critical study of “A”, asserted that to call “A”-21 “a translation expands that term beyond recognizable bounds,” suggesting instead that Zukofsky had used the text of Rudens as a “template” and a “frozen language on which he could play variations” (Ahearn 1983: 176).
More recently, in an essay referenced by Zukofsky’s biographer Mark Scroggins as “the definitive discussion” (Scroggins 2007: 540) and on which the present paper will expand, David Wray has described and in part elucidated the “ruthless concision” of “A”-21’s poetic form (Wray 2004/5: 58). Unlike the Zukofskys’ Catullus, where each Latin verse was rendered with a verse of matching syllable count (plus or minus one syllable) made out of English words chosen to follow the sound of Catullus’ Latin words at least as much as their sense, “A”-21 is not a “homophonic” translation of Plautus’ Rudens in anything like the ordinary understanding of that term. What Zukofsky does in “A”-21, intstead, is (most often) to echo the sound of a single Latin word or accented syllable, as if capturing only the climactic note of a musical phrase, or sketching with a few strokes of a pencil the physical attitude and energy of a model’s musculature.
This (1) “experimental” and rigorously tight constraint of accounting for each verse of Rudens with a line of exactly five words, combined with (2) the exploratory hyperattention with which Zukofsky had to comb the phonic surface of each Latin line (once he had construed it with the help of Paul Nixon’s Loeb translation) in order to “ping” what he took as its high point, and modulated through (3) a poetic consciousness steeped in the study of Shakespeare and Spinoza (among other poets and thinkers): these three elements conspire to give “A”-21 a wild dictional tone and feel that is also wildly cerebral, the way poetry might sound if every line of it were a crossword puzzle clue. At moments, Zukofsky seems to make his translation thematize precisely the set of quirky, almost mathematical qualities that inhere in its language.
For example, when Polly and Amabel (Plautus’ Palaestra and Ampelisca) end one of their pleas for safety with a captatio benevolentiae focused on their disheveled post-shipwreck appearance—“don’t be angry, we’re virgin / whatever bit unwashed we appear”—their speech suddenly veers all the way out of homophonic resonance with the Latin and all the way into a limpid clarity of sense. Here it is as if the translator-poet is momentarily speaking to his reader/hearers in a metapoetic, metadramatic, and programmatic aside. The verses themselves are as if they are begging you, their reader or hearer, for safe haven in the sanctuary of your mind’s ear. And when Track (Plautus’ Trachalio) answers the women’s plea with an intercessory prayer to Venus, his first line—“Venus, I believe they’re intelligent!”—corresponding to (and echoing, with ecstatic polyglot hilarity), but not exactly translating, Plautus’ Venus, aequom has petere intelligo, at Rudens 702)—it is as if the approving nod of the goddess (and the reader’s assent) is being called down on the space in his poetry that Zukofsky has opened up in “A”-21 for a dance of the intellect to a tune called by Plautus.