A Lot of Iron, a Little Gold
by Dick Davis
One of the many pleasures of reading Susan McLean’s poetry is the delight that comes from noticing just how well-made individual poems are. For example, when writing in forms that require recurring lines, such as the villanelle, she is particularly adept at giving the lines in question a different meaning each time they reappear; she does this with apparent ease, but anyone who has tried to do the same thing knows how fiendishly difficult such “ease” can be. She is also brilliant at producing an apparently casual image, often in the midst of a mordant joke, that stays in the mind:
I had a budgie in a cage.
It molted in despair
and dropped dead at an early age,
its small claws clutching air.
This comes in the middle of a sardonic little piece about Philip Larkin and his childhood pets who all die on him (“Boy Larkin’s Pet Peeve” – note the unobtrusively accurate pun on “Pet”) but the sharp precision of “its small claws clutching air” is worthy of Larkin himself at his most serious. This is probably one of the reasons that her light verse is so memorable – it’s at least as well written as a lot of other poets’ (and very good poets’) “serious” verse.
In fact the “serious” and the “light” don’t so much rub shoulders in many of her poems as coexist inextricably. Though she can use a light bantering tone for, precisely, light banter (this is particularly true of her quite numerous and very funny poems about sex), she often also uses it to say very serious things. This is nowhere more true than in her poems about attempts to define her by her gender, for example her verses about a clearly ghastly math teacher (reading the poem one is convinced he really existed) who opined that “boys are smarter than girls”; the poem’s last line is, “Feminists are made, not born.” Similarly, the last stanza of her “The only Feminist in High School” reads as follows:
The boys were baffled and the girls disdainful,
For who would want to talk to, much less date her?
And what she lost was obvious and painful,
And what she gained was only clear much later.
The technique is quintessentially that of light verse – the regular, singsong (and quite singable) rhythm, the feminine rhymes, including the vaguely transgressive one (because slightly too off-beat in its dropped ‘h’ to pass in a work that was simply “serious”) of “date her” / “later” – but if there’s a smile there it’s one that clearly masks both pain and anger. And the pain and anger are all the more forcefully conveyed to us because, rather then hectoring us with clamorous complaint, the poem poses as, at first sight, not much more than a bit of clever fun.
One of the reasons for this habit of saying trenchant things with a jolly smile, may lie in Susan McLean’s poetic antecedents. She is a superb translator, and in particular the coruscating brilliance of her versions of Martial’s epigrams makes them second to none. Martial uses wit as a weapon and a shield; he was a poor provincial from Spain who needed sharp elbows to make it in imperial Rome, and his jokes and witticisms and stinging retorts come out of a life of hard knocks and street-wise survival. There is a wonderful epigram on him by the now unjustly neglected poet Alan Stephens:
Martial of Bilbilis
Nothing in Rome escaped his glance, he understood
This touchy sort of verse,
And mixed the poor ones with the good:
Your even book, he said, is worse.
Old and fed up this son of Bilbilis went home,
A harsh hill town with a cold
River below, that shipped to Rome
A lot of iron, a little gold.
There is more than a touch of this spirit in many of Susan McLean’s many memorable “light” poems that smile at you as the knife goes in, and it’s not too much perhaps to imagine that in choosing Martial to translate she was, consciously or not, following the 17th century poet Wentworth Dillon’s advice to a translator when he said, “Choose an author as you choose a friend”; in many of his moods Martial, we can say, comes close to being her soul-mate.
Though this is not the only kind of light verse Susan McLean writes, her frequent preference for writing within this classical tradition of “light” verse based on epigram, censure, and satire, sets her somewhat apart from those who write mainly in what we can think of as the gentler and more whimsical 19th-century Victorian British mode, typified by writers like Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan), Lear, Praed, and Calverly. But she does have sisters in the field, and it is sisters rather than brothers we’re talking about. A number of women poets in the last century have written exactly this kind of light verse, that is, like Martial’s, both a weapon and a shield; it’s a defensive and attacking strategy that often addresses the problems, wryly and wittily, but with real chagrin and anger, of being a woman in what is seen as still largely a man’s world. I emphasize that this is not Susan McLean’s only mode, but it is one she excels in, and this I think means she can be placed beside the two outstanding practitioners of the genre – Dorothy Parker and Wendy Cope; she makes a worthy third to this illustrious pair.
Dick Davis is Professor Emeritus of Persian at Ohio State University, where he was chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from 2002 to 2012. He has written scholarly works on both English and Persian literature, as well as eight volumes of his own poetry. He has been the recipient of numerous academic and literary awards, including both the Ingram Merrill and Heinemann awards for poetry; his publications include volumes of poetry and verse translation chosen as books of the year by The Sunday Times (UK) 1989; The Daily Telegraph (UK) 1989; The Economist (UK) 2002; The Washington Post 2010, and The Times Literary Supplement (UK) 2013. He has published numerous book-length verse translations from medieval Persian, most recently, Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz (2012). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and has been called, by the Times Literary Supplement, “our finest translator from Persian.”