The Georgics: A Poem of the Land (Penguin Classics)
Penguin Classics, 2011
224 pp., 15.0
Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments (Penguin Classics)
Penguin Classics, 2009
95 pp., 15.00
Martial's Epigrams: A Selection
Penguin Books, 2009
224 pp., 15.0
Something Old, Something New
Living and writing six centuries before Virgil, when no one had any idea that an upstart kingdom known as Rome would eventually colonize Greece, Sappho was born on the Greek island of Lesbos around 630 BC. She is associated with a school or perhaps a religious community, as well as with various romantic intrigues with both men and women, including some of her female protégés. Alexandrian scholars first collected her poems into nine books, consisting of a staggering nine thousand lines, as best as scholars can tell. Basically, she wrote tons of poems. And in turn, admiration for her poetry was nearly universal throughout antiquity. Socrates calls Sappho the "beautiful one" in the Phaedrus, and Plato himself declared her the "Tenth Muse," making of Sappho a free-agent addition to the traditional nine muses of Greek myth. By the time of Virgil's Augustan era, she was a lyric rock-star, but unfortunately the intervening centuries and the loss of nine-tenths of her verses have reduced this standing. Today a more selective group of poetry lovers admire Sappho, and can do so only through a thin offering of her poems. What's more, the poems are fragmentary, salvaged from quotations that appear in other ancient authors' existing works or, with a tip of the fedora to Indiana Jones, from verse-covered papyri that filled up empty spaces in coffins and even in mummies. (Think ancient packing peanuts here.) One poem was recovered from a mummified crocodile—no doubt one of the most literate of taxidermy pieces in recorded history.
In addition to a narrower audience, Sappho has endured other quirks of critical reception. Stories, legends, or invectives against her have hardened into biographical fact, and the small percentage of recovered poem fragments incline readers to see her almost exclusively as a love poet. She is one of the most superb love poets in the Western tradition—one of the first and still among the best—but she also composed religious songs, marriage odes, verses for formal occasions, and so forth. Finally, she has benefited from some great translators through the years, but even these efforts have obscured the formal qualities of her original lines. For example, some translators (see Willis Barnstone's fine versions) strive for sparseness and compression of lyrical effect. They often fill in lacunae or round off incomplete poems, all for the sake of a stronger English equivalent of the (hypothetical) complete original. These versions resemble more than anything those brief, reticent poems of the Imagist school or those great Chinese poems that often appear in English
as if the lines
Others (such as Guy Davenport) wish to make plain the fragmentary fate of Sappho's papyric verses, and the resulting versions are heavy with ellipses and brackets to signal lost lines and phrases. Recently the formidable Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson presented an edition in this style, built upon a sophisticated theory about how the absences or silences or emptiness in these poems contribute further to their often poignant and "sweetbitter" (to use one of Sappho's own famous coinages) expressions of love and longing.
Now a new version of Sappho's time-broken songs has appeared, also in the Penguin Classics series, and it promises to become for many readers a reasonably priced, helpfully contextualized introduction to this poet. That Imagist connection will soon become understandable; we find here "lotuses on the dewy banks of Acheron" or
A full moon shone,
And around the shrine
Poised in place.
The translator, Aaron Poochigian, has prepared this edition with the energy and boldness of the recently hired: he completed his PhD in classics in 2006, and also has a creative-writing background. (His own writing has appeared in Poetry magazine, for example.) So much of this edition feels like a labor of love that perhaps it carried Poochigian through the darker days of graduate study. The current English poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy provides the preface. As the author of the celebrated The World's Wife—featuring revisionist monologues by the likes of Shakespeare's wife Anne Hathaway and Mrs. Faust—Duffy seems like the perfect champion, but we have only a cursory two pages from her. On the other hand, Poochigian's introduction offers up a coffin- or mummy-full of information. He is not only a translator but also clearly an expert in Sappho's poetics and her shifting reputation, and highly knowledgeable about the political, religious, and social complexities of the poet's ancient Greek milieu. He places her in the context of Greek literature, within her mysterious school, and discusses her style, her overlooked versatility, and the likely performance of her works. His own writing makes him sensitive to specifics, as when he points out her frequent use of formal hymn structure and the ongoing popularity of her Sapphic stanza (a quatrain whose last line is truncated) among poets as diverse as Swinburne, Ginsberg, and the formalist Timothy Steele.