Sappho: A Garland

In my current Carson inspired insanity, I’ve ordered her translation of Sappho’s fragments, entitled If Not, Winter. It is winging to my house now. I thought I’d reread this, my first and only meeting with Sappho, before I meet with Carson and her words. I have a really great anecdote about this translation, but I’ll wait to tell it later, because it is late and I’m tipsy.


I’m just going to take a deep breath and review this, because it’s not going to get any easier letting it sit on currently-reading for the rest of the year. I love this book. I love Sappho. I can’t really remember why I picked this up many, many moons ago, but I did, and it was the most fragile, most glass-spun, earthy, moonlit poetry I’d ever encountered. Its fragility is really strange though, more a product of history than the thinness of the words themselves; Sappho is not thin. Like many of the writers from the ancient world, her work comes down in scraps and quotes. Out of volumes, 500 lines remain. Many or most of them are not contiguous. 

I spent a chunk of my matriculation reading poetry, because I fell in love with the Romantics and the early Modernists. I loved the transition between the almost-backward-looking period of Romanticism and how it turns, changes, molded by fire and mechanization and the Great War. How you can go from Wordsworth crying about how he can’t believe:

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

To crispy old T. S. Eliot who writes:

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

It’s the same: the narrator standing with his toes in the water, considering the awesome power of the Old Gods, but the tone is so much different. Disbelief as sorrow, or disbelief as murder, as suicide. 

Or take the sonnet. There’s lots of sonnets about The Muse of Poetry, and how she gets chained in verse – this is pun on lines usually, because poets are as immature as the rest of us. Take this, from the boy Keats, at the very, very beginning of the Romantic movement: 

If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d,
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fetter’d, in spite of pained loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy;

Along comes Millay – who rocks so hard she burns the house down – and she twists this image of Andromeda’s foot into a Monty Python style smash in “Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare”:

O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

Do you see how funny this is??? She is not unaware of the double meanings of the word “shaft”, is all I’m saying. The Muse puts her foot down. All this joking doesn’t negate the power of Keats, I would say, but it’s such a fascinating turn in world view. 

I am so avoiding talking about Sappho. 

I don’t feel like I can talk about the Classics, and Sappho is a hard woman to look in the face. I have no training, none. I can shit-talk a little bit about prosody, because I really earnestly love the dusty, pointless end of analyzing poetry. This is what I love so much about it: it’s so freaking outdated and imprecise. Prosody is still sitting around adjusting its spats, just waiting for someone to come along and blow it out of the water like Chomsky did with linguistics. (We can argue about Chomsky all day, but he really did a number on all that sentence-diagramming bullshit with his generative grammar, thank Proteus and his Horn.) The note on translation in this book is so far gone into talking about unbelievably arcane prosodic knowledge that I could not even pretend to keep up, which makes me want to hug the translator a bit. You go with your bad self!! You have clearly thought about this so much more than I!! 

So I’ll just tell the anecdote that I mentioned at the first, even though it isn’t anywhere as funny as I let on. I plead mild inebriation. 

I got married about a dozen years ago. Richard and I are atheists, but we didn’t want to give our grandmothers heart attacks or make a big thing about it, because weddings are already difficult enough. We had a heckuva time trying to find an officiant to our wedding. We first talked with a New Age woman whom I really respect, but her weddings are total hokum and verbal bloat. I’m not ragging on her – she’s a really wonderful person – but I had profound aesthetic differences in how I wanted the wedding to go. But I was young, and stupid, and I was all like, it will be fine! We will work it out! Thankfully, she fired us. She understood better than we that we were not well matched.

Then, in the scramble, we were referred to a man named Waldo Asp. I am not making this up. He was named Waldo because he was born on Walden Pond a la Thoreau, which I am also not making up. He was a minister and a philosophy professor, which I continue not to make up. And thank the Lord whom I don’t necessarily believe in, he was both lazy and incredibly well-versed in marriage ceremonies.

We wrote our own vows, mostly stripping out any reference to God from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer that I was raised with. (My quip on the matter: I may not believe in God, but it’s a Episcopal God I do not believe in; the rest of you Gods I haven’t gotten around to disbelieving in.) I was exceedingly pleased with myself for adding in a line from Sappho – much of her poetic output was from marriage ceremonies, because she was an officiant of some kind herself – because I thought I was being all subversive, yo. Waldo took one look at the line, and was all casual, hey, did you know there is music for this section of poetry? Would you like me to sing it in plainsong? 


So he did. It was pretty great. 

I don’t really know what that has to do with this collection, and I’m sorry I’m so far off topic. These are amazing verses, amazing partially because they are not verses, but often just individual lines, just the word “chick-peas” and then the page is torn and then there is no more. It kills me that there isn’t more recorded, because Sappho’s verses spark and hiss like a downed power line. I’m looking forward to Carson’s take on Sappho, but I suspect that this will always be the collection in my heart. 

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