The endurance of Sappho, Alan Loney

Alan Loney records his long-lasting admiration for the lute-playing poet.

The persistence of the ancient Greek poet Sappho (c630-570 BC) in the literary imagination of the West is one of the most remarkable aspects of the poetic tradition. While many of her words have come down to us, those words are so frequently separated from other words, fragmented from whole poems, isolated by early grammarians, and broken up by torn and rotted documents, it is astounding that we can have any real sense of what we usually call a poet’s achievement.

Her reputation among her contemporaries – she was known as the “tenth Muse” in her own day – was very high. Yet only one of her poems has survived intact, a mere 28 lines, and the rest are fragments. In Anne Carson’s recent translation of the complete works, she lists 192 fragments altogether, many of which are a single word, and many more a single phrase. A body of poetry, perhaps, but hardly a body of poems.

Online, you can find around 40 translations of Sappho, published between the 17th century and this century in English, French, German, Italian, Turkish, Dutch and Danish. Her poems have been set to music by Finnish-born composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, illustrated by American artist Jim Dine, and finely printed by Giovanni Mardersteig in Verona. The fascination is widespread, and not confined to classical scholars or literary analytics. Feminist, gender and sexuality studies of Sappho and other ancient Greek poets abound. There is an academic and cultural industry that circles around the figure of Sappho like moths round a flame. Her reputation and the attention paid to her work are growing in scope and intensity rather than diminishing with time.

So out of this scattered and sporadic legacy how do we come to imagine that here is a poet of major significance in her time, and of major interest in ours? Of course, there is for Sappho, and her cultural publicity agents, an angle. The island on which she was born, Lesbos, is the origin of the term now given to women whose affections and sexuality are attached to women, and not to men. But whatever case for lesbianism or bisexuality can be made, the persistence of her poetry is based on the texts we have, whoever may or may not have been her lover.

There are plenty of studies available now that show decisively the critical import of sexuality and gender on our ability to read, in depth and breadth, the work of poets and artists, particularly where that sexuality is definitively known. Among men, one can cite Allen Ginsberg and Robert Duncan as examples, and among women Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser. But there are others whose deep affection and love for another woman is not quite translatable into knowledge of a sexual relationship. In New Zealand, for instance, there are Ursula Bethell and Effie Pollen, and in England the great scholar of ancient Greek culture Jane Ellen Harrison and novelist Hope Mirrlees. For these, all we have are the surviving documents and a bunch of rumours and assumptions (some of which may nevertheless be correct) to go by.

I first read Sappho in 1963 in the limpid and plain English translation of Mary Barnard (1909-2001), published by University of California Press in 1958. Barnard’s English Sappho became a model for my own short lyrics written at the beginning of my life as a poet in that same year (and later in Sidetracks, 1998). The book is well-designed, fits well in the hand, is of a size to put easily into a handbag or shoulder bag, and the very lightness of the physical book mirrors the lightness of touch in the writing, where even the deepest pain is rendered with a deftness any poet should be happy to achieve: “Pain penetrates//Me drop/by drop”.

What I did not know at the time of acquiring Barnard’s book was that part of what I was responding to was a book design by one of the finest book designers in America, Adrian Wilson. Although his name is on the titlepage verso, I did not know of his work until about 13 years later, after I had started printing. So the book in that sense was a double pleasure, one that I simply did not know enough to be able to articulate at the time.

As a moth that still hovers about Sappho, I remain fixated, even though I cannot read her original Greek, but I don’t expect ever to be burnt out by the experience. She is fresh, lively, intelligent. Carson insists she is highly skilled in the craft of ancient Greek verse-making. Looking at a page with barely three words on it, one can still hear resonances, echoes, even when the words seem to be unambiguous and precise. There is always the ghostly presence of what you don’t know, are not told, is not revealed: “192 – gold anklebone cups [chrysastragaloi]”.

Really? Where? In what context? Are they everyday cups? Or are they only used on special occasions? If so, what occasions? What happens at them? Who is holding them? Friend? Lover? Stranger? Does knowledge of ancient Greek society help? I don’t get a sense that Sappho was “religious” in any way, but who knows? What springs to mind? What sprang to your mind when you saw those words? In my mind I saw something gold around ankles, but that is probably wrong, though the “cups” may indeed be tiny decorative things worn by someone particular. Might they be wine-cups, and, if so, how does “anklebone” fit in?

It seems more as if we are released to have our own responses than being told “how it is” by a text that wants to tie us down to that. It isn’t that “anything goes”, but that we are free to dwell in the poem as a kind of suspended state without, as Keats wonderfully put it, “any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

Even when an object is more readily identifiable, as: “177 – transparent dress [rheudos]”, the same sort of questions can be asked; one does not have to be presented with an image with which one is unfamiliar. It comes down, I think, to language itself, and how words have a life of their own independent of the meanings with which we might want at times to burden them. And indeed we say of an argument or a case for something that its meaning is its “burden”. What if one lifts the burden and still has the words? For all burdens are paraphrasable. “Different words, same meaning” is a common experience in talking for all of us. But whatever else is not there, the words, her words, are there and remain – with this proviso, that, for non-Greek readers, we have translation, and translation is a special form of the paraphrasability of language. And ability to be paraphrased is, according to many commentators, not supposed to apply to poetry: these are the words, and they are not some other words. In this sense, poetry is ipso facto untranslatable, and of course poetry gets translated every day.

Sappho is the first lyric poet, who accompanied her poems on the lyre. There are contemporary painted vases that depict her playing this instrument. There are others that show her reading from a document. None of her handwriting has come to us, and we don’t know if she could read or write. Others could have written her poems down for her, and studies of the Homeric epics make clear that there was no need for a poet of that time to be able to write in order for their work to be preserved.

I still read Sappho, consulting several translations. I retain a special fondness for Mary Barnard’s version, as I do for Arthur Waley’s translations of Chinese poetry – also first read in 1963. These days I remain deeply committed as a poet in unqualified gratitude to much poetry apparently left behind in the notion of “a poetry fit for our time”. The list includes Shakespeare’s sonnets, Keats’s odes, Han Shan (8th century), Emily Dickinson (19th century), and Sappho the proto-lyricist who, in my view, most of us are still lagging behind in skill, sensitivity, intelligence, and heart. An academic and cultural industry circles around the figure of Sappho like moths round a flame.


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