Tuesday, May 03, 2005


Some reasons to read Sappho

Thirty-two degrees this morning when I got to work. Unusual here for this time of year, though not, apparently, a cold temperature record for May 3. I sit all day in an office full of gray cubicles, on the twelfth floor of a thirty-story steel-and-glass building, with gray windows. Reason enough to read Sappho, if a reason were needed...

The first Sappho I read was in Rexroth's Poems from the Greek Anthology, a selection of translations he did in the early 1960's of short poems and fragments from classical Greece, with a few translations of Latin poems thrown in. Archilochos, Anyte, Asklepiades, Kallimachos, Leonidas, Martial, Meleagros, Palladas, Petronius, Philodemos, Simonides . . . and, among them, Sappho.

. . . about the cool water
the wind sounds through sprays

of apple, and from the quivering leaves

slumber pours down . . .

This, Rexroth's version of a portion of the poem of Sappho's usuallly numbered 2 in the standard modern editions. Somewhere Rexroth has written about the elation, the almost transcendant sensation, he felt when he first translated the lines, sitting up all night, a woman he knew (whose name eludes me) helping him through the Greek. I don't have enough knowledge of Greek to comment with authority on the accuracy of one translation compared with another. Just taken as short pieces of poetry in English, Rexroth's versions, few and beautiful, are the best Sappho I've read.

The first full selection of Sappho I read was the widely popular translation by Mary Barnard, published sometime back in the '60's or '70's, I'm not sure of the exact date offhand. I enjoyed the bits of music, the flashes of color, the moments of something approaching a real voice of a real poet behind the poems -- something lacking in many translations (most of Willis Barnstone, for instance, or, mostly, Guy Davenport). I once asked the poet Olga Broumas if she preferred any Sappho translations. Broumas, a native of Greece who has lived her adult life in the United States and writes in English, commented about the "spare" quality of the language in Mary Barnard's translations which, Broumas felt, match a similar quality in the originals.

Over time, I became dissatisfied with Barnard's translations -- they seem to me too restrained, too orderly, sometimes more a recitation than poetry, a translation of a translation. Not long after I'd read Barnard's Sappho, I found the translation by Susy Q. Groden (published by Bobbs-Merrill in a paperback with a plain yellow cover), which became the Sappho I read for years after that. Groden abandons any attempt to recreate Sappho's stanza, even superficially on the page, translating instead into free verse stanzas.

I still have Groden's Sappho, though not on the shelf now, it's packed in the boxes of books I don't have room for on the shelves (by default, the books I don't go to frequently). Sometime in the early 1990's I found Sappho's Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece, translated by Diane Rayor (published 1991 by U. of California Press). Of the translations I've read -- other than Rexroth's -- Diane Rayor's Sappho translations have touched me the most intimately.
cold water ripples through apple
branches, the whole place shadowed
in roses, from the murmuring leaves
deep sleep descends
Sappho's verbs cause difficult for translators. I attempted once to "translate" the above lines from a Greek original, knowing little Greek, let alone the dialect Sappho wrote in (or, anyway, that her work survives in). One Greek dictionary says "warble" for what the water does (where Rayor says it "ripples"). One dictionary I checked had the leaves "shining," where Rexroth says "quivering," Rayor says "murmuring," and Groden says "shimmering." By triangulating several translations one may, sometimes -- lacking a knowledge of the original -- get a rough sense, a shape, of the original poem.

Most recently I've read some of Anne Carson's Sappho, in the finely done bilingual edition published within the past three or four years. I like Carson's care with the language, her lingering over a word to coax out its hidden history and dream. Ultimately, though, Carson's scholarship sometimes seems to me to weigh down the work; Carson seems more interested in presenting Sappho, and the translations, as a text (or set of texts) for its own sake. Sappho had, of course, a mind, and a brilliant one, but she was not primarily a poet of the intellect. Diane Rayor's Sappho translations remain my favorites right now.

One of the reasons I came to like the poetry of Olga Broumas -- especially her first book in English, Beginning with O -- is the similarity or affinity I found, that I could hear in the language, between Broumas's poems and what I had read of Sappho. Some of this is the fact that Broumas has a better instinctive feel for the Greco-Roman portion of the vocabulary of English than the majority of poets do who write in English.

you'd turn
in the paused wake of your dive, enter
the suck of the parted waters, you'd emerge

clean caesarean, flinging
live rivulets from your hair, your own
breath arrested. Something immaculate, a chance

crucial junction: time, light, water
had occurred, you could feel your bones
translucent as spinal fins.

(Olga Broumas, from "Sometimes, as a child" in Beginning with O.) Caesarean. Immaculate. Translucent. Much of Broumas's effective use of such vocabulary, which would grow thick and muddy in a great many poems in English, -- vocabulary normally reserved for science and technology --, is her careful placement of the words in the movement of the sentences, drawing out the onomatopoeic sound, the sharp edges of "immaculate," the wetness of "translucent" (accentuated by the word "glisten" which immediately preceeds it). The first time I read Broumas, on a warm night in July many years ago, I sat up late into the night reading out loud the poems in Beginning with O.

To regain an organic appreciation of music; to return to an affinity for shadows and light and leaves cool with water; to understand again the immaculate mathematics of roses; to articulate the dizzying heat of love that we feel when our beloved walks into the room; to gain a glimpse of a world and a knowledge not driven by the incessant hammer blows of a culture of numbers and machine parts that attempts to make every piece of existence into a commodity to be bought and sold, subject only to the psychotic whims of the 'free market" which is free for whoever owns the market; to hear, again, a whisper of what it is to speak with a true voice, and to listen: these are some reasons (by no means the only ones) to read Sappho.

Only fragments of Sappho's work survive. One complete poem, a half-dozen partially complete ones, a few more in partially legible pieces, on torn papyrus, a broken piece of pottery; some fragments, short phrases, single words, quoted in written works by ancient scholars, using examples from Sappho among other poets to illustrate details of the grammar or usage of a particular Greek dialect. For some centuries, her work was almost forgotten, fading into half-legend. In our time some little bit of her remains with us. And even now, after 2500 years, with most of her work lost, we still regard her as one of the greatest poets who ever lived.

For a time in my life I commented to friends from time to time that what I wanted, my ambition, was to be as great as Sappho -- to survive, in my poems, through the untold ages, now present, now on the brink of vanishing -- to be so great that even a thousand or two thousand years from now, even if only bits and pieces are left of my work, people who read poems will still consider me among the greatest poets who has lived on the earth. -- An easy enough thing to say, inasmuch as I likely won't have to answer for it when the time comes.

This has, at moments, been my ambition. But perhaps not so much any more. Reading her shining, shimmering, murmuring, quivering words coming to me through strata of time and layers of translation, I feel differently. If I can be great enough, in my life, to read Sappho, that may be enough.

Sappho in translation has suffered from efforts to bowdlerize her sexuality. The results have been that prudes condemn her, Victorians sanitized her, the GLBT movement has lionized her. The problem, though, as you allude to, is the paucity of her surviving work, and the difficulty of her Aolic dialect. Denys Page's "Sappho and Alcaeus;: An introduction to the study of ancient Lesbian poetry" is in my opinion excellent at setting out all you need to know.
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