DemosNews: Carl Sesar: Poet Translator Extraordinaire
Carl Sesar: Poet Translator Extraordinaire
By: Anita Spertus

In the early 1970s, a New York radio station broadcast Carl Sesar reading a few of his new translations of the Latin poet Catullus. Listener response was so extraordinary that the reading was re-broadcast within hours -- unprecedented! Sesar's pitch-perfect renderings and New York voice made each character and sentiment in Catullus just as alive and searing today as in ancient Rome.

Catullus lived during the tumult of the first century BC, as brutal civil wars displaced older, disciplined Roman mores and values in the licentious last days of the Republic. He died at approximately age thirty, around 54 BC. The ancients spoke of him with reverence, and Propertius said that Catullus' lady love Lesbia was more famous than Helen of Troy.

The wit and sass of Catullus' poems, his toughness and tenderness in love, his lewd crude insults to the overweening, his scorn of power and pretense, his sharp eye and insight, and a gift for turning out a memorable line made him immensely popular and controversial in his own time. A single manuscript, found in a monastery in Verona, Catullus' birthplace, in the 14th century, survived to preserve his work.

Enter Carl Sesar, whose Catullus translations are so natural and seemingly spontaneous that one barely remembers that they emerge from another language and era. Carl's speaking voice and inflection, melded with the words, have reverberated in our minds ever since we first heard them on air over 30 years ago. Happily, he has agreed to release some archival recordings of the poems for DemosNews.

If Carl's translations, Selected Poems of Catullus (New York: Mason & Lipscomb, 1974), should appear in a new edition, it must include a complete accompanying recording. [SIX YEARS LATER: Selected Poems has just been republished, in a revised Translator's Edition (One Shot Press, 2013): ]

To hear a small sampling, from Carl Sesar's live reading at Wesleyan University on May 3, 1973, when the translations were a work in progress, click on

(Introduced by David Konstan. Line drawing: Arlene Dubanevich)

© 2024 Anita Spertus of DemosNews
The author is an art historian of Southeast Asian antiquities living in New York.

October 25, 2007 at 9:35am
DemosRating: 4.5
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Genre: Arts (Reviews)
Type: Critical
Tags: Catullus, translations, Latin, Wesleyan, Carl_Sesar, Carl, Sesar, carlsesar, poetry


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