More of the Tenth Muse shows through the fragments in an astonishing new translation.
Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho
8 Her real name is ΨαπφοιPsappho, in Englishmuch more waterlogged and harder-edged than the downy s and faded fs we commonly use to pronounce it. Youve got to stutter when pronouncing Sapphos real name, and spit. She is vigorous, enigmatic, not-so-pretty, many-syllabled. She is not as easy to get as she initially appears. Yet as one scholar recently has pointed out, To exist in fragments and in Greek is a doubly perilous claim on the attention of our time. Thus the many sexy spackle-jobs her chipped and pitted poems have endured these past millennia. Thus the myths about her life weve invented over the years in order to fill in historys deep and unseemly gaps.
What we know for certain about Sappho is that she was born sometime at the end of the seventh century B.C.E., that she died sometime at the start of the sixth, and that she lived on the island of Lesbos, in a town called Mytilene, just off the west coast of Turkey. In Sapphos time, Socrates has not yet been born. Plato, also, at this time has not yet been born. Aristotle is unborn; Alexander is unborn; Herodotus is unborn; Pericles is unborn; Thucydides is unborn; Aristophanes is unborn; Pythagoras is unborn; Euripides is unborn. Unborn is the tradition of Delphic oracles in Greece, whose first temple wont be built for another fifty years. Unborn is the golden age of sculpture in Greece, which means statues in Sapphos favorite garden are still as rigid as those in Egypt, their feet still planted seamlessly in a plinth. Unborn, too, according to recent theories in ancient paleography, is Greek writing itselfeven the Iliad and the Odyssey wont be set into print for another hundred yearswhich means that Sappho herself is probably illiterate, that she probably first improvises her poems while she sings, that each poem likely has several versions therefore, and that consequently there is nowhere in the world these poems exist. Nowhere, at least, but in the sounds swooshing the air in Sapphos own head that once whooshed the poet privately to sleep.
It is in this spirit that Anne Carsons restrained treatment of Sapphos fragments in If Not, Winter seems to me most astonishing. Widely known in her own work for big chucks of appendices, nervous multiple epigrams, and introductions to introductions of cycles of poems or essays, Carson here provides just a four-page preface to a book that itself stretches to nearly 400 pages. And in the brief subsequent glossary of names, she is similarly concise:
In Carsons translations, too, clearly the significance of Sapphos accidental lacunae is as important as whats actually there. The text is at times a blizzard of brackets
each of which represents a word or line or whole stanza thats disappeared. She writes:
I emphasize the distinction between brackets and no brackets because it will affect your reading experience, if you allow it. Brackets are exciting. Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, that is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stampbrackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.
Think of Carsons brackets in If Not, Winter as a free space of lyrical adventure and the translation becomes immediately less a document of broken texts than an experiment in trust and imagination, as if each bracket were a flag that Carson was raising to signal us to run up and take over the baton. In her decision to give us less in her translation of Sappho, Carson has actually made the text ultimately more generous, and in this way has granted readers the pleasure of imagining their own versions of Sappho.
But if it were as easy as being hands-off with the texts, why all the fuss about Sappho translations over the years? There have been over 450 in English since the early eighteenth century; look for CatullusSapphos Roman counterpartand youll find no more than a hundred. Even during Catulluss own life, in the first century C.E., it was widely rumored that his sweetheart Lesbia, the subject of his poems, was not actually the poets gentlemanly pseudonym for his mistress who was married to a high-ranking Roman, but rather the pseudonym he gave his single greatest inspiration: the Tenth Muse, as she was calledthe lady poet from Lesbos. In medieval French literature, Christine de Pisan lists Sappho in The Book of the City of Ladies as one of the eighteen proofs that womens minds are just as capable as mens. In early Renaissance art, Raphael includes Sappho in his painting of Parnassus in a Vatican salonthe only mortal he admits into his famous convocation. In the English Victorian ladies journal The Pall Mall Gazette, Sappho tops the list of results in a poll asking readers to list whom they thought to be the twelve greatest women in world history. And in 1922, at the pinnacle of modern English poetry, T.S. Eliot offered Sappho the surest stamp of his approval by appropriating in his own work her fragment 104:
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
She is a mortal marvel, wrote Antipater of Sidon, who then went on to catalogue the Seven Wonders of the World.
Sappho fascinates us because she is there at the beginning of literature, rooted as deeply into the history of human imagination as any other writer. But she also fascinates us because unlike Homer and Archilochus, whose works essentially remain intact, she is a slate upon which anything can be written, about whom anything can be imagined, and from whom anything, therefore, is possible. Of her 189 fragments, twenty are only one word long, thirteen are only two words long, thirty-three are under five words long, and fifty-nine are under ten. There is in fact so little we know about the poet that upon approaching her work we must at least first acknowledge the extraordinary predicament of having neither text nor context with which to read it.
And after acknowledging that, we have a decision to make. Should the fragments be reconstructed? Or should the fragments be left alone?
Compare Carsons uncommonly faithful translation of the four spare words comprising Sapphos fragment 145
do not move stones
with the poet Mary Barnards version of the same four words in her 1958 best-selling collection entitled Sappho: A New Translation:
if you are squeamish dont prod the
Or, compare Carsons translation of Sapphos fragment 42
their heart grew cold
with Guy Davenports interpretation of the same fragment in his otherwise dazzling 1976 collection, 7 Greeks:
And finally, in comparison to Carsons translation of the virtual debris of fragment 92
how should we read Willis Barnstones version of the same papyrus scrap in his 1998 Sun and Moon collection, Sappho Poems, in which he saw in those eleven words not only an entire eight stanza poem, but even a title?
Recalling a Letter Atthis Wrote Me
Sappho appears naked in Greek, Barnstone explains in the introduction to his book, so to read her abroad she requires an attractive outfit in English.
How, then, to dress her? Make reasonable guesses at syntactic connections between isolated letters, words, and phrases in order to let Sappho sing, he says.
Sequins, false eyelashes, big heels, a wig.
After all, once one is committed to the goal of remaining faithful to the aesthetic quality of the originalto making a poem a poem, Barnstone argues, then Sappho becomes one of the most pleasant persons in the world to read.
Then Sappho becomes. It is these three words that are the real clincher in translating Sappho. Whats at stake here is the same as in any art restoration. Should the walls of Knossos have been rebuilt? Should the Sistine Ceiling have been left murky? Should Anselm Kiefers paintings be allowed to blister and flake and finally rot off their canvasesjust as the artist intended they doeven though museums have insured the paintings against such demise?
I like to think that the more I stand out of the way, Anne Carson says in the introduction to her translation, the more Sappho shows through. This is the Anne Carson we fell in love with years ago: the scholar so enamored of her subject that merely gesturing toward it with a grin was enough to hook the rest of us. This is the Anne Carson of Eros the Bittersweet and Plainwater and Glass, Irony and Godbefore all her friends from antiquity were dressed up like goofy soap opera stars. Whether you think Carson is soiling contemporary English literature with her own recent work or shining a great light on it, If Not, Winter is a selfless, faithful, and boldly delicate achievement in which one of the more controversial writers of the moment has simply blown off some dust from Sapphos crumbling oeuvre, turned it toward the rest of us, and said, Look.<
Originally published in the October/November 2002 issue of Boston Review