My first exposure to Sappho was when I picked her as the subject of my Famous Ancient Greeks presentation in sixth grade. My most salient memory of this presentation was asking my teacher in a whisper before the presentation:
“Should I tell the class that she was a lesbian?”
Her answer, accompanied by smirk: “It depends. Do you think they can handle it?”
I do remember that her poems seemed pretty dry and nonsensical. Part of this I blame on the fact that only fragments remain of most of her work. But the other problem was that the language was boooorrrrriiiiiingg. It was like fake Shakespeare. This, to me, is tragic. Nothing detracts more from intimate loveliness and honesty than unnecessarily grand language. The truth of the poem gets weighed down and drowned by large words. It’s sad.
Seven years later, my dear friend gave me a copy of The Complete Poems of Sappho, translated by Willis Barnstone. She was very, very excited about this edition. So were the people who wrote testimonials in the front of the book.
“If there is any final justice, which there probably isn’t, the world of letters would erect a monument of Willis Barnstone and strew it with fresh wildflowers ever day.” – Jim Harrison
“…this is the book of Sappho you want on your bedside table.” – David St. John
And although these conjured hilarious images of venerable writers capering around in togas and throwing petals onto “The Complete Poems of Sappho” and/or snuggling with “The Complete Poems of Sappho” before bed every night, they were right. It’s a damn good collection of poetry.
I won’t try to wax lyrical overmuch about Sappho, because there are a zillion academics and published authors who have done it better. Instead, I’ll share a few poems that really hit me in the feels. And oh man, there are so many to choose from.
What is it about Sappho? On the surface, there are many things that make her remarkable. The first real prolific women writer, almost certainly queer, and the probably victim of book burnings and the erosion of time. What remains of her work is exquisite fragments.
And then there’s the fact that no one really knows what she looks like. Barnstone’s book illuminated her life as fully as he can, providing details and popular opinion about her appearance, sexuality, and family life. Although it’s fun to try to put her poems into the context of her life, a lot of her charm is in her mystery.
Also, that means everyone comes up with a different idea of what she looked like. Most artists decided that she was probably super hot. The Victorians made my favorite Sappho: Exasperated Fauxhawk Sappho.
Here are a few of my favorite poems from Barnstone’s translations. I picked these because they were especially potent to me. Sappho’s forte is transmitting distilled emotion in just a few words.
I treat well are just the ones
who most harm me
You I want
I know it
Ugh, who doesn’t know this? There are those people who hurt you and you cut them out of your life, there are those people that don’t really challenge you, and then there are those that cause you pain but have some astounding other qualities so you take them in anyway. On the other hand, you could read this poem as an example of someone in an unhealthy relationship, à la “Love The Way You Lie.” There are four missing lines between the first and second stanzas, so the reader can fill in the gaps for whatever fits them.
Sweet mother, now I cannot work the loom
Sweet Afroditi broke me with longing for a boy
Ah, longing for a boy/girl/person! All-consuming crushes happen to everyone, even enigmatic greek poetesses. Weaving? Ha! You have a crush, which requires 85% of your useable headspace to be devoted to reliving small conversations and mentally murmuring their name and being shocked by how cute their nose is. You’re in no condition to do… loom stuff. Sappho gets it.
Why are you bragging to me about a ring?
I love this one because it’s saucy. Saucy Sappho is the coolest. She also delivers poetic burns to her brothers, when they are acting like idiots, and to some of her immature ladyfriends. This is a fragment, and I can only imagine the incredible rant that must have followed those opening lines.
Someone, I tell you, in another time
will remember us
I love this Sappho. This poem feels like a conversation, like she has put her hand on my shoulder. She’s so sweet, reassuring the reader that nothing is lost. In her case, it’s true. We’ll be enjoying Sappho forever, even though she’s been in the Elysian Fields for the last few milleniums.