Monday, April 9, 2012

Poem for an April Day #5: Fragments by Sappho

April is national poetry month.
I wanted to go old school for today's poem, and you can't get much more old school than Sappho.  Not much is known about Sappho, but it is believed that she lived in the seventh and sixth century B.C. in Mitylene, on the island of Lesbos.  She was the leader of an all-female cult that was faithful to Aphrodite, and many of her poems deal with the education and marriage-making of her female students.  

Sappho was a singer, not an author.  She sang her verse to the accompaniment of a lyre, and her words were written down by scribes and then passed along to us.  Most of her poems exist in fragments, and the oldest written copies that we have of them were written down three centuries after her death.

Sappho is about as remote a poet as we have, buther poems, especially in these translations by Mary Barnard, have always resonated with me for their simplicity, their directness, and their power.

Fragment 12

It's no use

Mother dear, I 
can't finish my 
                You may
blame Aphrodite

as soft as she is

she has almost 
killed me with
love for that boy

Fragment 53

With his venom

and bittersweet

that loosener 
of limbs, Love

strikes me down

Fragment 60

You may forget but

Let me tell you 
this: someone in
some future time
will think of us

Fragment 64

Tonight I've watched

The moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am 

in bed alone

Here is a postcard I made back in 2000 featuring a fragment by Sappho.

The poetry of Sappho is not for everyone!  Witness this bit of graffiti in my book, which reads, "Did some second grader write this last week?"

Work Cited:

Barnard, Mary. Sappho: A New Translation.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958.

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