Many works of the ancients have become fragments; many works of the moderns begin that way.
May you sleep
on your tender girlfriend’s breasts
Leave Kriti and come here to this holy
temple with your graceful grove
of apple trees and altars smoking
Icy water babbles through apple branches
and roses leave shadow on the ground
and bright shaking leaves pour down
Here is a meadow where horses graze
amid wild blossoms of the spring and soft winds
of honey. Afroditi, take the nectar
and delicately pour it into gold
wine cups and mingle joy with
again, from Barnstone’s intro to his Sappho translations, all things for me to consider as I’m writing blessings.
“The fragments of Sappho’s poems contain the first Western examples of ecstasy, including the sublime, which the first-century Longinos recognized and preserved for us. They also include varieties of ekstasis briefly alluded to in these pages: the bliss of Edenic companionship, dancing under the moon, breakfasts in the grass; the whirlwind blast of love; the desolation and rage of betrayal; the seizure and paralysis before impossible love; and as all her ordinary senses fail, the movement near death–the ultimate negative ecstasy.
I’ve never been able to stand most love poetry (or most love songs, for that matter). Too much is just trite, too much is just sappy and pathetic (including, sadly, too much of my own!), and some of it is just outright creepy, predatory, and violent. I once had a male lover who held my waist-long hair around my neck and quoted a Browning poem about a man strangling his mistress. I wasn’t being strangled, or seriously threatened, but still — umm, ick, and I got rid of the hair and the male lovers not so long after that.
Anyway, now that I’m thinking about poetry pretty much all the time. Recently a lot of that focus on has been on Sappho, in case you’d not noticed in recent postings. I’m loving Willis Barnstone’s translation, and in particular his incredibly thoughtful introduction. (I’m sure the notes are great too, but generally more than I need to know as a poetic, not linguistic, reader). He has a passionate defense for reading her love poems as openly sexual and lesbian, with a great review of how attempts to hide this have distorted our understanding of her and of poetry in general. In the midst of that, though, he says this:
(Much of the world’s love poetry is homoerotic, and in ancient Greek poetry, the majority of love poems by known male poets, from Ibykos to Pindar, are addressed to other men)
Which has left me wondering about the connection between this and love poems in general. If so many of the models held up to us as “great love poems” have always been homoerotic/gay male homosexual, is it any wonder that so much of it feels completely inauthentic to me as a woman? For heterosexual men writing, at least in theory, to women, how have these models confined and defined their emotional reality? And how many love poems have ever been to an actual person and not to some muse, some unrequited passion viewed from a distance as perfection incarnate, some ideal of a lover utterly separate from the messy reality we are all as humans?
What would an authentic heterosexual love poetry be? Lesbian love poetry, allowed to develop outside of the models foisted on us? I’m really curious now about contemporary gay male love poetry, written from within a time and place where “gay” is a social identity, not just a sexual identity within a different social role.
For right now, I’m sitting with one small fragment of a fragment of Psapfo’s writing, a bit that may well be my next literary tattoo:
from Willis Barnstone’s translation of Sappho’s poems, a footnote on the intricacies of the pronunciation of her name.
I leave the hardest part of this essay to a footnote, still pondering on phi and eta, whether Greek phi = English ph or f, and whether Greek eta = e or i, and a few other enigma. My reasonable premise is that a literary translation is not a chart for imitating ancient phonemes. While it is fun to have an approximate knowledge of ancient Greek phonology, such knowledge is marginal in our pact with the original poet to be a poet in English faithful to song.
McCulloh correctly notes that the phi in ancient Greek was not a voiceless bilabial fricative f but an aspirated plosive p, like the p in pot.
Our traditional preference for the Latin ph misleads us as a good emissary for a Greek utterance. Roman Latin construed the double consonant ph to represent the Greek aspirated p. It worked until approximately the fourth century b.c.e., when the aspirated Greek p evolved into a fricative f. In Latin the ph evolved into a fricative f, which is how it remains today. In English the initial ph reveals only that etymologically the word came to us through Latin from Greek, a nice trophy, but offering just f. No more.
How can we hear an ancient Greek voice, since for most of us Latin ph fails? No way. English is not Greek. In modern tongues and by international phonetic convention, phi is not a plosive p but the voiceless bilabial fricative f. Hence, when the English name is not too sacred to change, I like to render phi as f rather than the Latin ph, keeping us close to Greek and escaping a Latin presence.
To be loyal to an ancient aspirated phi we should write pilosopy. Then, then initial p would be a plosive p and a bit closer to the classical and archaic phi. No one offers this nutty solution. Latin tongues don’t bother. Spanish gives us filosophia. Why are we loyal to a sign that no longer signifies an original sound in Greek? The strong tradition of shuffling Greek words through an adoptive Latin gives us Alcaeus, not Alkaios, for Sappho’s contemporary poet friend in Lesbos. I find the preponderance and authority of Latinization tough to swallow. As Greece becomes a vivid entity, it is easy to switch to Alkaios. Plato remains Plato, not Platon, the “broad-shouldered.” And when writing about Sappho, it is Sappho. But in her poems, she is Psapfo and, for all the reasons given above, not the mixed signal of Psappho.
from Willis Barnstone’s introduction to his translation of Sappho
While the ancient Alexandrian scholars preserved and fashioned Sappho, ordering and editing her poetry, since Horace and Quintilian there has been war between “grammarians” and “libertines” over the nature of translation itself, between fidus interpres, which the Latin writers mocked, and literary re-creation and imitation. In modern times the soft war goes on between translation as a literary art or a classroom language test, which is revealed in spelling. The combatants regularly have seats in the academy, and victory depends on which audience and publisher receives and acclaims them. […] As for the transcription of names, there is no single rule book for regulating transliteration. This free-for-all mode reflects language flux, which is always with us, no matter who is emperor.
The main lesson from all of this is that whatever one does will make a lot of people furious. One cannot be consistent, therefore one is incompetent and worse. Any linguistic change troubles like new currency and stamps.
you can always borrow this, from Apuleius’ Apology, written about Sappho:
She was a woman of Lesbos too, who wrote lasciviously yet with such grace that she reconciles us to her outrageous speech through the sweetness of her songs.
quotations from various ancient sources about Sappho, as listed in Willis Barnstone’s translation Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho
[She was called] “manly Sappho,” either because she was famous as a poet, an art in which men are known, or else because she has been defamed for being of that tribe [of homosexuals].
from Porphyrio, in Horace’s Epistles 1.19.28
The manly Sappho tames the muse of Archilochos through her prosody….
from Horace Epode
If you are squeamish
Don’t prod the
Sappho, fragment 84 in the Barnard translation.