POETRY: Catching Daphne

AFTER OVID: New Metamorphoses eds Michael Hofmann & James Lasdun, Faber £14.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"TIS much like dancing on ropes with fettered legs," observed Dryden of translating Ovid; "a man may shun a fall by using caution; but grace-fulness of motion is not to be expected." Three hundred years later, classical translators are still desp eratelysearching for new tricks. Generously, Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun, the editors of this collection of contemporary versions by some 40 poets, asked contributors not only to translate but "reinterpret, reflect on or completely reimagine the na rratives", of Ovid's masterpiece. The result is an overwhelming mix of forms and styles, from Kenneth Koch's (Bob) Dylanesque rhyming couplets ("Thesmophoriazusa/Somata-calapoosa") which would surely have made Ovid smile, to Alice Fulton's sprawling free verseromance ("I'd like you to meet Daphne"), which might well have made him weep.

Other unions are more harmonious. Thom Gunn brings a sense of movement to his sensual "Arethusa Saved"; Carol Ann Duffy's "Mrs Midas" is a characteristically poignant suburban housewife ("The toilet I didn't mind") and Craig Raine's extra-terrestrial Cadmus shedding snake-skins in the Post Office provides a welcome touch of ostranenie, the device of alienation, making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

Yet ask not what you can do for Ovid but what Ovid can do for you. Despite Dryden's caveats, by far the most successful poems here are those which translate as well as reinvent. Ovid's Latin shimmers beneath Seamus Heaney's crisp "Orpheus and Eurydice", while Fleur Adcock's gentle gender-bending "Iphis and Ianthe", or Amy Clampitt's spine-tingling "Medea", among others, are both artful and accessible. In Ted Hughes's "Creation/Four Ages/Flood" words glitter into place like the stars out of Chaos. He shuffles Ovid's taut images with the deft hand of a seasoned performer, conquering their concision but never afraid to tease out meaning as the "brazen people" of the Bronze Age ad horrida promptior arma (I.126) become Souls fashioned on the same anvil As the blades their hands snatched up Before they cooled.

But the modern world is never far away. In Ciaran Carson's two measured treatments of Hecuba's tragedy, the language of sectarian violence gradually seeps into ancient feuds. James Lasdun's "The Plague at Aegina" takes an age-old fear and infects it further, moving in and out of Ovid's text with ease, adding his - and our - own resonances of a disease "moulding its sumptuous cadavers/Out of prime flesh - young warriors, athletes, lovers."

It's here, rather than in the gay bars of J D McClatchy's "Apollo and Hyacinthus", or the eco-drama of "Erisycthon" (sic), another Lasdun contribution, that a "contemporary" Ovid might be found. Despite the editors' enthusiasm, the gulf between Ovid's world and our own is greater than any tenuous links: mythological incest, for instance, isn't interchangeable with modern sexual abuse, as Frederick Seidel's "Myrrha" suggests.

Ovid's startling tales present other problems. In Shakespeare's day, even "rude mechanicals" could be trusted to recognise and rework the romance of Pyramus and Thisbe, but today the universal currency of classical mythology has been lost. Without even abasic glossary, the deft allusions of Michael Hofmann's "The Log of Meleager's Life" or the humour of William Logan's small-town "Niobe" are rendered almost worthless to all but classical scholars. By a reverse process, Eavan Boland's "The Pomegranate" takes the well-worn myth o f Ceres and Persephone - so familiar we can all "enter it anywhere" - and creates it afresh for both mothers and daughters in one of the collection's most moving transformations.

The scale and coherence of Ovid's huge epic is also lost. After Ovid treats each episode as a separate entity, jettisoning the complex structure of the Metamorphoses, which weaves story upon story, change upon change, through 15 books and over 10,000 lines. Only in the final sections of the book, where Michael Longley provides lyrical, bittersweet codas to the more formal translations of both Derek Mahon's "Pygmalion and Galatea" and Ted Hughes's "Venus and Adonis", does a possible modus operandi present itself - like Adonis's windflower, a tantalising glimpse of what might have been.

In the meantime, at least Hughes et al prove that if their feet are tied, they will walk on their hands, negotiating the slippery tightrope between ancient and modern with skill and daring: star turns in an otherwise disappointing display.