That’s from Robert DeMaria Jr.’s Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997). I remembered his digression into Roman book production while reading Selected Epigrams (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), a new translation by Susan McLean, and noticing the frequency with which Martial refers to the book his reader is holding. As with Tristram Shandy, this awareness of the medium creates a sense of intimacy with the reader. Many of his epigrams are addressed by name to a recipient, and we, the readers, are the privileged recipients of hot, 2,000-year-old gossip. It’s like having an acerbically witty, sometimes foul-mouthed friend dishing the dirt. Here is one of Martial’s (and McLean’s) best, Epigram I.110:
“`Write shorter epigrams’ is your advice.
Yet you write nothing, Velox. How concise!”
Here is McLean’s X.64:
“Polla, my queen, if you take up my books,
receive my jests without a frown of scorn.
Your bard, the glory of our Helicon,
who blew fierce war on his Pierian horn,
in bawdy verses didn’t blush to say,
`Cotta, if I’m not sodomized, why stay?’”
And her XI.108:
“Reader, so long a book should satisfy you,
Yet still `a few more couplets,’ you reply.
But boys want food and Lupus wants his interest.
Pay up! You’re silent? Playing deaf? Goodbye.”
And here, in the spirit of braggadocio, is her rendering of VI.60:
“Rome praises, loves, recites my little books.
I’m carried in each hand or pocket. See!
Someone blushes, pales, gapes, yawns, or hates it.
That’s’ what I want: my verse now pleases me.”
I prefer the punchiness and rhyming of R.L. Barth’s version of the same from Epigrams of Martial Englished by Divers Hands (ed. J.P. Sullivan and Peter Whigham, University of California Press, 1987):
“Rome praises, loves, and sings my little verses;
They’re in all hands, all pockets, and all purses.
Look there! One blushes, pales, gasps, longs, and curses.
That’s what I want! I’m happy with my verses.”
Here is McLean’s VIII.20:
“You write two hundred lines a day, but don’t recite.
Varus, you are wise, if none too bright.”
“Though Varus daily sits and writes—
Two hundred lines!—he neither tries
To publish verses nor recites.
He’s not too witty, but he’s wise.”
Barth writes almost exclusively epigrammatically. Among my favorites is “Don’t You Know Your Poems Are Hurtful?” (Deeply Dug In, 2003), which virtually defines the form:
“Yes, ma’am, like KA-BAR to the gut,
Well-tempered wit should thrust and cut
Before the victim knows what’s what;
But sometimes, lest the point be missed,
I give the bloody blade a twist.”
And “Lesson of War”:
“Hump extra rounds, frags, canteen, or long ration
But always shitcan the imagination.”