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Sappho    
 




















 

In the second half of what has been known as the American century, interest in the earliest sources of classical Greek literature has shifted, on the part of serious poets, from the expansive theogony of Hesiod and epics of Homer to the ominously curt lyric fragments of the Lesbian Sappho (literally from the island of Lesbos). This gendered pattern fits the American literary mind perfectly, descending as it does from similar figures. On one side, there is the generously effusive Walt Whitman, with his barbaric yawp from the rooftops, his epic of the American mind. On the other, there is the eerily quiet Emily Dickinson, with her fertile meditations, who assumed no public presence, choosing instead to conceal herself, often literally, in her room. As with all modern presences, these examples are a bit degraded, proportionally speaking. Leaves of Grass is by no measure of fantasy an Iliad, nor could Dickinson's poems ever be so terribly brief as Sappho's fragments. Still, one is bardic, the other sibylline. One roars names, places, battles, causes, ideas, hopes, angers; the other whispers, for those able to hear, as much about humanity, possibly more, in infinitely fewer words.

Almost all of what we have of Sappho consists of fragments. Very little of what the Greeks wrote remains to us. One example among innumerable others is Plato, who was in his age a prize-winning playwright. He is to us a philosopher, the author of The Ion, The Republic, and other non-literary works. Not one of his plays remains. Many poets and philosophers, famous during their lives, exist only as fleeting references made by others whose writings, merely by fortune, have survived. Much of what survives does so only because Christian scripture was copied onto the reverse of manuscripts. It was blasphemous to destroy scripture, so many of the ancients came to us piggyback. While Muslim Neoplatonists preserved much of the Greeks, some earlier Christian sects sought actively to immolate any "pagan" documents they could get their hands on. The pre-Christian world was no more kind to the written word. Vast libraries were burned to the ground in reprisal for political slights, even on tyrannical whims. Unlike most poets today, Sappho was a musician and singer (this is to assert that few poets are serious musicians and almost no popular songwriters produce what one would feel comfortable describing as poetry, even according the radically diminished standards of our day). She is credited with the invention of a type of lyre, its pick, and the mixolydian mode (according to Aristoxenos via Plutarch; it should be noted, as it is not in the introduction to this book, that the modes we use today are not the same as those of the ancient Greeks; no record exists of their actual music, which was likely not intended to be transcribed, not unlike today's popular music; the modes used now, though bearing the same names as the ancient Greek, were devised around 1,000 CE in the anonymous Dialogus de musica and Guido of Arezzo's Micrologus; other modes, known to poets for their wonderful names, include the Dorian, Hypodorian, Phrygian, Hypophrygian, and Aeolian). Sappho represents the recorded origins of lyric poetry. This type of poetry was sung. Today, we think of short, emotionally concentrated poems as lyric poems, descending from a long European tradition—one will think of Pierre Vidal, Richard Lovelace, Francesco Petrarch, John Keats—but origins are telling. Our contrived suburban division between "song lyrics" and "poems" seems like a necessary partition, but it should not have to be the case.

The poetic imagination after T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land has been one willing to fill open spaces offered by the author, to write in the blanks and come closer to the poem (what Carson terms, in academic style, "a free space of imaginal adventure", not such a pretty phrase, but appropriate for these purposes; elsewhere, she is an enchanting essayist and a poet willing to take significant risks). A Sapphic fragment such as "you burn me" (fragment 38 in this edition), if read as a poem, supports energy unsustainable in a longer work. The question thus arises: should these be read as poems? With academic concerns in abeyance, the answer is yes. It is not merely permissible but should probably be encouraged, given the immeasurable impact these fragments have had on twentieth century poetry in English. It would be a mistake, or at the very least historically irresponsible, to read other ancient fragments in this manner, but this collection is not intended for scholars (though assembled with erudition and by professional standards). It is for general readers. For years, only more meager, and not particularly interesting, translations from Sappho were available in bookstores, so this collection is easily welcomed.

The denuded fragments from Sappho allow sea winds to blow through their brittle spaces. They had a significant impact on the aesthetic sensibilities of modernists like Ezra Pound and especially H.D. Reading the fragments, one is struck by their similarity to contemporary poetry. They are tattered, even mangled, by historical and physical circumstances. The parchments that have come down to the present day are dotted with holes, dissolved into webs, missing halves, pared down to dust save tiny corners. The language reflects this damage, but when reproduced on a broad white page it furnishes a mysterious sensation. Today, poets deliberately seek the same airy openness, the same intermittent emptiness. Poseidian gusts of the past century—Imagism, Cubism, Dadaism, Minimalism, Projective Verse, Concrete Poetry, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry, Cyberpoetry—have blown the lyric poem from its original course. Yet it is startling to see our own poetry in these ancient starts. Eliot remarked upon seeing Upper Paleolithic cave-paintings that "art never improves." If Not, Winter is a perfect clarification of his maxim. Only one of Sappho's poems exists in its entirety ("Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind", included in this collection). The rest consist of fragments, some translated from manuscripts smaller than a postage stamp. They can be read in any order with equal effect. Each is a beautiful shard, sifted up to sunlight from the ruins of the earliest literature of its type.

—Ernest Hilbert

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