Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Grandparents

Babi and Dĕda

I recall the farmhouse in Shueyville ringed with sweet fruit. Behind was a garden with sun-warm strawberries and pale yellow-orange ground cherries in their papery husks. To its left of the house, by the workshop with its blacksmith’s anvil and well-worn, well-tended tools was a berry patch, while off into the fields to the right was an arbor with a pump where, even on the warmest days, one could lounge with a book under cool leaves and pluck the dark grapes. And in front, outside the chain-link fence, stood a cherry tree that provided a fine perch for a boy fond of both tart fruit and elevated perspectives.
The house was roomy with a large front porch and another on the side between the kitchen and the summer kitchen. The main door into the living room was not far from the door into the parlor with an etched forest scene on its glass. The parlor had such ornaments as a Victrola, a pump organ, and large photographs of the previous generation on the wall including great-grandfather’s posthumous portrait.

Though it boasted bourgeois amenities when built, the house was largely unimproved since. On the wall the wooden party-line telephone (operated by what must have been one of the smallest local companies) rang with its codes of longs and shorts. Connections were made by an operator. An indoor pump in a small room off the kitchen filled a large container from which the thirsty could always get a cool drink using a dipper. Babi was a wizard with the huge wood-burning iron cook stove. In the basement, roughly cut from the earth, were shelves of preserved food. Very likely the visiting grandchildren found the outhouse and chamber-pots the most dramatic variation from life in Glen Ellyn.

My sense of difference as a child visiting Shueyville reflected a number of gaps between my nuclear family and the Kopeckys: the passage of generations, suburban vs. rural cultures, issues of economic class and education, but surely it was language that interposed the greatest barrier. Though I think my grandparents were never really comfortable speaking English, I learned no Czech apart from the “jak se maš – dobře” ritual and a few words for foods: maso [meat], chléb [bread]. I remember my grandmother in her last years asking “co” [what]. As a child I was amused to find the Czech word for milk was “mléko.” Meanwhile, neighbors and relatives often fell into speaking what they, as descendants of 19th century immigrants, called Bohemian, and my grandparents tuned in to Czech programming on the local radio station.

We ate chickens that had been freshly slaughtered and plucked in a bloody basin. I recall an oddly shaped object that I learned was a sort of sausage made of a stuffed pig’s stomach. There may be no cuisine quite so emphatically meat and potatoes as Central Europe’s, but we had also the garden produce and baked goods: pies, poppy seed rolls, koláčes, and a dark cake-like gingerbread topped with whipped cream. (Cream, in fact, was used even in cereal, but a favorite child’s breakfast was “hash,” made by breaking rolls into bowls of sweetened milk and coffee.) Babi adhered, I think, to some version of the plan that makes Monday wash day, through the week to Saturday baking day, so it sometimes happened that a marvelous and excessive array of baked goods would appear all at once. Sorghum syrup from the Bowersox place up the road had not only a unique taste but also a remarkable odd painting of a woman on the gallon can.

Nearby was the little church we sometimes attended; the one room schoolhouse where our mother studied and then taught stood just beyond the property. When the gas station was operating it was a pleasure to get a soda there, and Uncle Bill would drive us children to a store in Swisher with a delightful selection of penny candies (later we would buy Mad magazine there). The whole compound was filled with fascinating objects, from the tools in the shed (grindstone, forge, sickles, and scythes) to the old car (which had shades for its windows and capacious storage pockets on the doors), and, of course, the animals (unruly roosters, indifferent hogs, a few big-eyed expectant cattle with tags clipped to their ears). Inside the house were boxes of old comic sections from decades of newspapers, providing the extraordinary, almost illicit, pleasure of reading the continuing stories (like Mandrake the Magician) one episode right after another. There were also old pulp magazines, all with lurid covers whether the theme was horror, cowboy or science fiction, as well as cigar boxes full of old soda and beer caps and nameless exotic gewgaws, charming in their mystery.

Dĕda’s death, on his way to feed the hogs, was only hearsay to me, but I recall attending Babi’s funeral in the Czechoslovak Society of America hall not far from Sykora’s Bakery and Polehna’s Meat Market on 16th Avenue in Cedar Rapids, the shops that sold the solid rye loaves and the natural casing frankfurters that Uncle Bill for some years to come continued to think essential for the good life.


Gammy

In films from the ‘thirties like The Pharmacist or The Barber, W. C. Fields plays a small businessman in a provincial town where his cynicism, self-indulgence, and bickering family come into conflict with the prevailing petit bourgeois proprieties. When I see these films, I think he may have been living in Spencer.

The Seatons aspired to rise above the local small yeoman norm. Thus my grandfather dealt in horse insurance and speculated in land. He owned a hotel, and, later, real estate and insurance businesses. (I recall the substantial Seaton Real Estate sign with neon elements in front of Gammy’s house.) They traveled to Florida in the ‘twenties, and Eva Letta’s social circle held ladies’ luncheons whose menus were duly reported in the local newspaper. His Masonic activities (Dad said, “When I was a boy, to be a 32nd degree Mason seemed the highest goal in the world.”) and hers in the Order of the Eastern Star and the Daughters of the American Revolution, their adherence to the Republican Party (including his holding county office as Holmes did after him), all these are consistent with the ideal caricatured in Babbitt.

Gammy was very fond of cards, of canasta in particular, and bridge, both so popular in the 1950s. (She lamented that she could no longer find whist players.) She played intuitively, declaring that some fortunate individuals, including herself and Dad, were blessed with “card sense.” She thought make-up essential to a lady and, in her later years, went about oblivious in a cloud of perfume. She delighted in brooches and earrings and other costume jewelry and had her hair done in a rather artificial way. All these things, which could annoy Mom with her frugal farmhouse values, reflected Gammy’s sense of genteel respectability.

But she had been born, as we often heard, at a farm on the Turkey River in northeast Iowa and moved by wagon to Clay County. She recalled Native Americans begging at the door. The same restlessness (in the notoriously rooted Midwest) is reflected in the great-uncles and Libby going to Montana and, in the next generation, Walter, Eddie, and Richard moving to California, not to mention our generation’s scattering. She liked “Mother Shipton’s Prophecy” and quoted lines from some other verse declaring “Ioway” to be “where the West begins.” Her D.A.R. application indicates the revolutionary fighter who provided her bona fides was her great-great-grandfather.

I recall walking the streets of Spencer alone or with James at quite a young age. We were expelled from the theater for boisterously cheering Robin Hood. I remember thinking that the sun on concrete became so hot to my bare feet that it felt cold. I went around Spencer with a little notebook making a collection of drawings of automobile trademark insignia – DeSoto, Pontiac, Studebaker – Gammy claimed a family relationship with the Studebakers and had a reunion photograph as evidence. Clay County took great pride in its county fair. There were freaks and exotic dancers on the midway and, in the penny arcade, a device that, when the handles were turned, gave the patron an electric current sufficient that one couldn’t let go of the machine, a rare sensation indeed.

Gammy’s élan vital carried her through three husbands – she kept up some real estate trade, I think, into her old age – she frequently traveled between the Midwest and California. She enjoyed her cards, rewriting her will (I was paid at least twice for typing it), exaggerating her age, and recalling the past. For many years she subscribed to the Spencer newspaper. She would turn at once to the obituaries, sigh, and exclaim, “He was a grand old man; I knew him well.” But she found the friends of her generation mentioned ever more rarely, and eventually hardly at all. At the last, in nursing homes, she became paranoid (“The doctors are trying to hurt me.”), absconded, headed for Spencer, but her Spencer was long gone.

Her image now comes to me among lovely undulations of ribbon candy, boxes of peanut brittle, the odor of horehound drops and generous rouge amid decks upon decks of playing cards.

March in Cicero

By the summer of 1966 many Americans, moved by the moral clarity of the photos in Life magazine, were sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement’s struggle for voting rights and against Jim Crow. But that year Martin Luther King came north, and, with a grand rally in Chicago’s Soldiers Field, launched a series of open housing marches that provoked a fierce racist reaction, forcing many to recognize that the legacy of slavery was not peculiar to the South.

At the same time, the movement was itself evolving. Earlier that year in Greenwood, Mississippi, Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) raised the cry of Black Power. That same summer he sent his white progressive allies out of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and into their own communities, and the righteous old liberal-radical-religious coalition against racism was shaken.

After marchers were attacked on Chicago’s west and southwest sides, King decided not to venture into Cicero, where a black man had been killed when he stopped to make a telephone call. Bob Lucas, the local leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (at that time still a genuine civil rights organization) led the march. The National Guard was called out to protect the small group of demonstrators.

The marchers included black ministers and long-time activists singing “Eyes on the Prize,” but there were also restless members of Chicago’s powerful youth gangs, as well as at least two college students from an affluent, all-white suburb. The roar of the mob of counter-demonstrators was audible long before we passed under the rail line that marks the city’s western boundary. As soon as we emerged in Cicero we saw the twisted faces of the white working class youth screaming insults. The minuscule band of cranks in the local branch of the American Nazi Party had seized their opportunity and had distributed racist posters with huge swastikas and slogans like White Power. Some of the Cicero residents folded the posters to obscure the Nazi symbol their fathers had fought to defeat in WWII, but others waved it unabashed.

The National Guard looked frightened (and the students at South Carolina State and Kent State were to learn how dangerous a frightened Guardsman or cop with a gun can be). They were doing their best to hold the counter-demonstrators back under a barrage of rocks and firecrackers from the tops of buildings and the rear of the crowd. The more volatile marchers surged toward the sidelines, and macho challenges and obscene taunts went both ways.

It would be difficult to claim that anything was settled that day, but history moved, perhaps, a bit of a step forward. We knew that civil rights had come north, and that the Black Liberation Movement was being born. And American racism was further unmasked: in Cicero it was potent enough that some people waved fascist emblems while others were mobilized, educated, and radicalized. The struggle continues.

Professors Kick the Willy Bobo

As a Greek living in Egypt in the second century C.E., Athenaeus of Naucratis straddled cultures. He was a littérateur, a rhetorician, and grammarian, with wide-ranging interests who literally wrote of “cabbages and kings” with equal relish. His single extant work, the Deipnosophists, is vast though incomplete. Using the form familiar to readers from Plato’s Symposium, Athenaeus portrays a group of scholars discussing food as well as health, music, pornography, and, above all, poetry and words. The dinner seems to stretch on forever, as the appetite of the guests for food and phrases and facts is never satisfied. Even at fifteen volumes, the work is incomplete. The title, “the dinner-wise-guys” is often translated as “doctors at dinner,” or something similar, but more literally means “the dinner experts,” that is, the gastronomers or, in the current American term, the “foodies.” In spite of the inaccuracy, I like my own version “professors kick the willy bobo,” because the talk covers many topics other than food, and the hiphop phrase carries the appropriate sense of expansive desultory recreational conversation.
Athenaeus’ book defies genre. It is a mighty river of words, or perhaps a swamp, since it has little apparent direction. Why, indeed, would a reader choose to ramble in this trackless slough of dead language?

Taste remains a mystery at the heart of aesthetics. Can any critic prove the superiority of Shakespeare to Superman? While some may be led to the café or the parkland on a bright summer day, others will lurk in the back corners of the less prosperous used book shops, perhaps vainly searching for Florio’s Montaigne, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, or even Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists. All these texts are notable for their hungry inclusivity, their vain but worthy attempt to encompass everything. While an author like Wang Wei or Hakuin shows the universe in the glint of one discrete phenomenon, a sunset’s ray or a breath of breeze, and a troubadour or an Elizabethan sonneteer will chase the same ox through the nuances of love, a poet like Whitman describes everything under the sun, piling detail on detail, word tumbling over word, trying to catch up to the truth. Today’s cultural critics are not the first readers to whom every detail is meaningful and worthy of contemplation. Thus Montaigne discusses odors, drunkenness, “a monstrous child,” and “a custome of the ile of Cea”; the reader of Rabelais is thrown by the barrage of learned and vulgar material; the visitor to Jubilate Agno finds that to Smart the postal service and the stretching cat are equally numinous. And these works tend to go on and on, as though their very length in some way could help to reproduce the fascination of the cosmos.

I read literature rather than philosophy because, while words are always slippery, experience seems a sounder ground for knowledge than authority or the syllogism, but experience may be processed to any point along a spectrum from unedited data to highly abstract, conventional symbols such as the World-Tree. At the limit one approaches monism: Parmenides, or Spinoza, or all is Buddha-nature. If every datum reveals the ultimate reality, each makes an equal claim on our attention, and thus the search for truth can become a wandering scan through the bewildering array of phenomena. Some writers have attempted to order this unmanageable field of information through the illusion of an exhaustive catalogue, which may take the form of epic or of anatomy. In the epic form the Mahabharata, the Iliad, Sundiata from Mali, or the synthesized Kalevala seek to include encyclopedic information: all the most relevant data about belief systems, behavior, and the received ideas of the culture.

While epic is typical of oral cultures in which one mythological/philosophical/moral system is shared by all, the anatomy is the product of a less certain society, one more confident with details than with dogma. In Montaigne’s prefatory note, he declares his true focus to be not the subjects he discusses, but rather himself, i.e. his reactions to those subjects. Though one cannot know the truth about cannibals, for instance, to take one of his most exotic and insightful essays, one can know one’s own reaction. Montaigne sets this down with admirable precision, making a lesson even of error: “My imperfections shall therein be read to the life, and my natural form discerned.”

Such a “natural form,” the “lineaments of my conditions and humours” (to quote another of Florio’s felicitous renderings of Montaigne) is for a skeptic the closest approach to truth. “Real” conversations such as those in television reality shows or those recorded in Visions of Cody or Louis Armstrong’s tapes of himself and his friends talking seem necessarily “true” because they sound like life itself. Even the marijuana (in the cases of Kerouac and Satchmo) appears to remove preconception and intention and bring the reader a step closer to Montaigne’s prelapsarian ideal: “my selfe fully and naked.” Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists reads like an ancient version of these wandering colloquies.

Being scholars the guests’ table talk is filled with allusion and citation. In fact, for years the book has been valued primarily for its many quotations from works now lost. Though it has never had many readers, Casaubon published an edition in 1612 and Sir Thomas Browne wrote a lovely elegiac essay on it. In the Victorian age James Russell Lowell combined harsh imagery with literary sentimentalism in his declaration that “the somewhat greasy heap of a literary rag-and-bone-picker like Athenaeus, is turned to gold by time.”

Gold or not, it is one of the most intertextual of works; topics are often viewed through the traces they have left in books. The guests are given the names of real people as though the event had really occurred, but this is a pose (though, like pastoralism, it gives itself the lie). In fact, Athenaeus projects circumstantial truth, a mediated and fragmentary reality. The text gives us an editor, a narrator, characters, and an author, none of whom claims authority. It is a highly artificial story told at fourth-hand, based on dubious memories, in a far-distant language. But is this not an accurate model for the greater part of our experience of reality?

Just as the cubist painters, while highlighting formal experimentation, used as their content the daily litter of the pleasures of urban bohemian café life (newspapers, wine bottles, musical instruments), Athenaeus’ characters talk of food and sex rather than of Platonic ideas. They may seem to be loafing, doing nothing whatever, but their dinner is a studied affair. In the book dining is not just healthful and pleasurable, more even than an artful activity. In Athenaeus the dinner table centers an Edenic commune which promises not only an equal share to every diner in a kind of charming appetitive egalitarianism, but which reserves as well an extra portion for “strangers.” The very word for dinner is assigned an etymology from the words for equal distribution.

Whatever else it may be, the book is a cabinet of curiosities, individualistic, whimsical, and eccentric. The word-play around tripod reads like nothing so much as a Abbott and Costello routine. One can learn, too, of Charmus the Syracusan who accompanied every dainty he offered his guests with appropriate poetic words. Athenaeus discusses the qualities, the taste, and the effects on health of more waters than Dean & Deluca could ever carry, and provides an explanation of the culinary use of swine’s uterus. The book is endlessly learned, its characters inspired by the pursuit of information, not toward the solution of a problem, practical or spiritual, but rather bits of information treasured like a child’s souvenir of rocks and shells from the beach, handled and examined as marvels. Where else might one learn that the same King Midas who was so fond of gold poured wine into a pond in an attempt to capture Silenus in his cups?

And the loping syntax of association is as odd and natural as the facts: the praise of topers as good fellows leads to mention of a hero called the “drinker of unmixed wine” which leads to several cooks with nicknames derived from their cooking activities whose celebrity had reached the point that statues were erected in their memory. In a momentary return to the starting point of conviviality, drinking is praised as the source of dinner-table joking and improvised poetry, but the speaker immediately adds that it can also bring obnoxious boasting. Wine is linked to meat as a cause of verbal aggression because it feeds false consciousness, and then a catalogue of the delusions of intoxication is suddenly capped with the identification of wine and literature, and the word tragedy is provided a false etymology to strengthen the link. Athenaeus has constructed a semantic field charged with the tensions between truth and lie, discipline and self-indulgence, love and aggression. The code is rich and suggestive. Indeed, this free flow of ideas, which might become tiresome and aimless, is often animated in the text with a mild glow of revelation, not unlike that available from wine in the belly.

Athenaeus is a late writer, as we, perhaps, are late in our own great imperial American Kali Yuga age. His fragmentary and circumstantial material, his close grasp on small and concrete facts and his coolness to generalizations, his tolerance of all and failure to claim access to Truth either religious or political, all these join him to our own time. His characters talk, not to pursue and finally capture the truth as Plato presumed, but to pass the time, yet their endless dinner escapes triviality. Signifying monkeys, as all men are, they talk as apes groom and the conversation has neither beginning nor end. Both eating and talking become arts, games, enough “human business” to occupy a lifetime.

The oral societies of the past typically granted poets a vatic voice with a unique connection to divine inspiration. This view was still influential in classical times, though not universal. In the Middle Ages the church asserted its own didactic imperatives, though the flourishing of secular literature eventually led to lesser claims: the poet as sensitive and insightful, inspired, but by his own genius now. With Chekhov and Joyce fiction came to treat of the apparently inconsequential. The “unity of action” became instead a slice of life, and the poet’s attention shifted focus as time passed from the details of realism ever smaller to imagism, objectivism, minimalism, and finally to the level of the word in language poetry, while at the same time scholars have moved from “great ideas” to minutiae. Athenaeus’ diners would find themselves at home, I think, at the MLA Convention, and perhaps they even lurk between you and me, scanning this essay.
Though the sloppier post-structuralists at academic meetings proceed as though every text were primarily self-reflective, concerned with its own verbal material, this is in fact true of Athenaeus. The speakers most often quote authorities, cite passages, and discuss words, their history, etymology, and regional variations. Whatever their putative topic they are skating on the edge of the semiotic resistance, uttering words not meant as transparent conveyors of content, but rather as material objects, whose procession bears within it the code of the cosmos, no less than the Milky Way itself. They live in citations, quoting one author after another, with the professorial conviction that, whatever the value of their own remarks, they have excellent taste in reading. But this pose only masks the conviction that keeps them reading, the conviction that reading, too, can lead to enlightenment. Their implied footnotes shape a map of consciousness at least as informative as their profile or the crazy pattern of gulls’ tracks on a beach.

Since the work strives to be encyclopedic after a fashion, it includes even the antithesis of this worship of the word. Cynulcus the Cynic denounces the diners both for their hedonism and their erudition, saying: “You glutton, whose god is your belly . . . you have misused your whole time in asking ‘is such a word found or not? Is it used or not used?’ And you test every word that occurs to your companions in talk as one tests a smooth surface by drawing his nail over it, collecting all the thorny places, ‘like one making his way through prickly plants and thorny licorice,’ forever wasting time, but never gathering the flowers that are the sweetest.”

Having gathered, I believe, worthy bouquets in Athenaeus, I would differ from Cynulcus. I fancy, for instance, the figure of a dancer called Memphis (a reference to “the oldest and most royal of cities”). This “philosopher-dancer” expounded, we are told, the Pythagorean philosophy in pantomime more effectively than it ever was taught in words. Whether such a dance is plausible or not, the implied glimpse of truth beyond words indicates that even Athenaeus’ professors, amid all the grubbing and eating and chit-chat through which they ordinarily attempt to sidle up to reality can also imagine a pole-vault into the beyond. If one person’s pole be meditation and another’s sex or sunsets, there are those, too, for whom it is words, and Athenaeus is a wordy writer indeed. But is it not often through words and the carefully constructed complexes of words that constitute literature that we can snare a new insight and even, on occasion, catch a glimpse of freshest vision just being born in our own consciousness?

Poetry Amid the Fierce Chaos of the World

In an essay titled “Will the Humanities Save Us?” (available on the New York Times website) Stanley Fish asks himself “of what use are the humanities?” and concludes “the only honest answer is none whatsoever.” [1] Now Fish, who attained academic superstardom by being entertaining and provocative, would not be appearing in a general publication like the New York Times were he not willing to become all the more entertaining and provocative. His motives and authentic opinions are, however, irrelevant to the value of his challenge to the profession of letters either as poet or critic.

Poets, even more than professors, are sufficiently embattled in twenty-first century America that they rarely feel the need to justify their pursuits, even to themselves. Further, the elevated spirits of artists, encouraged by two centuries of contempt for bourgeois philistines, have led to grandiose if largely unreasoned and unsupported claims. It is salutary now and then to glance at the foundation on which one stands. The question “Why read poetry?” is a serious one.

For some pleasure is sufficient motive, but most readers have believed that poetry delivers a kind of truth as well. But what truth? How does it relate to the scientist’s truth? the priest’s truth? the truth of everyday life?


1. poetry as the fount of knowledge

To the ancients, there was general consensus about the supreme value of poetry. [2] In his Poetics, Aristotle makes the celebrated claim that “poetry [indeed, the argument applies to art in general] is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history [meaning facts],” as “poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.” [3] Usually taken to mean that poets possess a higher, even “vatic,” vision, giving them privileged access to Truth, and thus the ability to prescribe dogma, values, and ethics, this view has been popular throughout history. How could poets “teach and delight” in the Horatian formula used also by Sir Philip Sydney [4] and by vulgar Marxists among a host of others, had they not greater knowledge than their readers?

This tradition has been dominant for millenia. For instance, in the 16th century, Sydney argued that poetry leads to virtue. In the Romantic era, Percy Shelley, though widely considered a libertine and revolutionary, insisted that poets are the source not only of moral and civil laws but also of science.

Could centuries of reliance on poetry to educate youth, in both character and cognitive skills, be wholly mistaken? Not only did the ancients trust that Homer was sufficient as a professor of theology; he also offered courses in ethics, etiquette, history, geography, seamanship, war and virtually every other topic of interest to his audience. For millennia in China the Confucian classics formed the heart of all academic study, while in India the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were thought to contain everything worth knowing. Parallels exist around the world: both illiterate and literate peoples considered poetry to be an epitome of knowledge.

Both Sydney and Shelley cited what they knew of the historical and anthropological data in their defenses. According to Sydney all learning was originally couched in verse so poets are “Fathers in learning” possessing “hart-ravishing knowledge”. “Since, then, poetry is of all human learnings the most ancient and of most fatherly antiquity, as from whence other learnings have taken their beginnings; since it is so universal that no learned nation doth despise it, nor barbarous nation is without it.”
All the fruits of culture: science, philosophy, morality, and civic virtue, are derived from poetry. Poetry is, in Sydney’s words, “directed to the highest end of the mistress knowledge . . . in the ethic and politic consideration, with the end of well-doing, and not of well-knowing only:” The poet will “imitate both to delight & teach, and delight to move men to take that goodnesse in hand.” Poetry’s  is defined in moral/spiritual terms: “the finall end is, to lead and draw us to as high a perfection, as our degenerate soules made worse by their clay-lodgings, can be capable of.”

Shelley likewise finds poetry’s origins no later than the origins of humankind. “In the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful.” To him poetry is the source of the arts, of law and civil society, and even of the category that Sydney dared not fully include: religion. After all, Shelley says, “all original religions are allegorical, or susceptible of allegory.” Poetry is “at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all.”

The idea that poetry produces knowledge is to such an extent normative that I will offer only a single further example: Keats, not generally regarded the most intellectual of poets, defines his goal in poetry as knowledge: “I mean to follow Solomon's directions of 'get Wisdom -- get understanding.’” [5]

The use of poetry for all forms of knowledge in antiquity and in oral cultures could be purely mnemonic, of course, and the claim for poets as inculcators of morality is considerably more dubious. Centuries of moralistic edicts against singers and actors, and ever-popular anecdotes of poets with lives less tidy than the average would imply the opposite.

Devotees of poetry in higher education have struck Fish as no more moral or more sagacious than other mortals; rather he asserts that their only special skill is in the understanding of texts. To demonstrate, he permits himself a well-turned explication of a line by George Herbert, only to note the utter uselessness of his acumen. “The satisfaction [from the interpretation of poetry] is partly self-satisfaction,” he says, “ – it is like solving a puzzle – but the greater satisfaction is the opportunity to marvel at what a few people are able to do with the language we all use.” For Fish, then, a taste for poetry resembles fondness for crosswords or appreciation of Olympic runners, having nothing to do with either wisdom or ethics.


2. poetry against reason

The fact is that poetry betrays a deep internal vein of contradiction concerning its truth value, a dialectic absent from history or science or business records. Fish’s challenge has been inscribed in poetry’s written records as long as they have existed. Every imaginative work, after all, is a work of fiction and therefore, in a sense, a lie. Every lyric might be prefaced by the words, “Once upon a time a person might have said . . .” Though poets’ experience is linked to their writing, the idea of simple mimesis or reflection is inadequate to represent the relation between life and art. Even in letters, histories, and memoirs the author edits and selects and mythologizes and fabulates. Black marks on a white page can have only a highly-codified symbolic relationship to trees and stars and flesh.

Poets themselves have often disparaged truth and reason. Thus Hesiod said the muses told him they could lie, and they could also speak the truth. Sydney provides the inverse formula, saying "the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth." For Shelley poetry is allied with “imagination” in a polar opposition to reason. He observes that poetry and religion alike are “allegorical, or susceptible of allegory, and, like Janus, have a double face of false and true.” The witty and illusionless Earl of Rochester ridicules reason [6] after identifying himself as “One of those strange, prodigious creatures, man,” and goes on:

Reason, an ignis fatuus in the mind,
Which, leaving light of nature, sense, behind,
Pathless and dangerous wandering ways it takes
Through nature’s fenny bogs and thorny brakes,
Whilst the misguided follower climbs with pain

Poetry has often been associated with magic or madness; when it does produce “truth”, that truth, though sublime and lofty, is often said to be ineffable or unreachable by reason. [7]


3. what is knowledge?

To determine the truth value of poetry it would be useful to be able to discern truth values in general. Every reader of Descartes knows that he sounds much more convincing when casting doubt than he does when striving to reconstruct the natural and supernatural worlds with which his readers were familiar. From Zhuangzi and Nagarjuna to Hume and Bishop Berkeley, many have questioned the certainty of even the most widespread convictions, and, more recently, post-structuralist thought has made a reflex of deflating received ideas.

Gorgias the sophist, one of the greatest masters of words in classical Athens, was a thorough skeptic. He maintained [8] that nothing exists; second, that should anything exist, it could not be known by human perception; and third, that were anything known to one person, it could not be communicated to another. Yet, to this same Gorgias, the word is “a great thing,” divine, universal, the source of love for humankind, “potent like a drug.” Those “deceived” by poetry are nobler and wiser than the “undeceived.” [9] Those who heard him were moved as by “magic incantations.”

Though such self-doubt might seem to lead to a dead end, both intellectually and pragmatically, later skeptics in the Pyrrhonian tradition developed this questioning of one’s own subjectivity into the concept of εποχη, or suspension [of certainty or belief]. This need not lead to inaction (indeed the very word skeptic means an active questioning, considering, “looking at” in the mind), but rather to a provisional truth based on experience, [10] fully cognizant of the limitations of the human sense apparatus and of reason, persuasive for the present, but ready to yield whenever a more likely answer rustles in the underbrush. This practical strategy resembles the method not only of meditation, but also of science, of much Buddhist thought, and, I think, of poetry.

While from later antiquity until the Renaissance, the Christian thought police limited the philosophers’ options, making true skepticism unavailable for over a thousand years, in Asia certain Buddhist thinkers (following an early Hindu tradition) insisted on questioning the reality of observed phenomena and at the same time of the perceiving subject. Nagarjuna’s “middle way,” rejecting both a conviction of the reality of everyday experience and likewise their dogmatic rejection [11] provides a theoretical parallel to Sakyamuni’s rejection of asceticism and sensuality in behavior. A tangled forest of speculative commentary rose with roots in the Heart Sutra’s insistence "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form." According to this view, which has been compared with the discoveries of quantum physics, [12] what we ordinarily take to be reality is neither real (substantial) nor unreal (empty). Without considering the exact formulations which reached super-subtle detail in the lively debates of Buddhist scholars (not to mention the physicists), a broad consensus developed among Mahayana philosophers that agreed that, though reality can be neither affirmed nor denied, the thinker finds in this conclusion no cul-de-sac but rather the initial step marking a route toward enlightenment.

As an example, Tung Shan questioned the Heart Sutra which states, “There is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind.” He suddenly felt his face and asked the teacher, "I have eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and so forth; why does the sutra say there are none?" and thereupon set out on his advanced studies. His own teaching practice was based neither in intricate logical structures nor in meditation and sutra-chanting. Tung Shan, very like a poet, would confront the mind with an image which, for the receptive consciousness, could precipitate enlightenment.

The process remained free of both supernaturalism and positivism. In an anecdote asserting the uses of the useless, “Ti ts’ang Kuei-ch’in asked, ‘What is the purpose of your wandering?’ and Fa-yen said, ‘I don't know.’ (This stupor, this stupidity is utterly fruitful.)” [13] Specifically the lack of knowledge, the “stupidity,” becomes an aid to bring one closer to the liberating truth.


4. the poets’ truth

Poetry is a similar kind of mental “wandering.” In fact specific descriptive data can have no meaning without their refraction through “the mind’s own light” of human consciousness. I once saw a stack of printouts that recorded collisions of subatomic particles. They looked like CIA messages: pages and pages of numbers in groups of ten. Yet this form of representing reality is no more stylized than our retina’s recording of the full moon. The numbers mean something to the physicist who knows the code, and the moon means something to me because of a lifetime of acquired information about its luminous disk. Chinese poems that seem to record reality directly are in fact heavily intertextual. All meaning is learned, socially-constructed meaning. The miniature solar system atomic structure we see in books is a metaphor, a useful one, no doubt, but thoroughly allegorical in that word’s original sense of saying something in place of something else. Poetry constructs new territories of meaning and fertilizes the fields of long-established significance.

As long as Ultimate Reality cannot be put into words, all language is metaphorical. In a fascinating passage, Sydney says that, if a man is to be praised as wise, he might be called a “Cyrus.” This is thought to refer to a figure that once lived, but as Sydney says, we know the “real” Cyrus only from other texts. Even if one were to have been acquainted with the king from the sixth century BCE, one would gather from him no more than from the texts influenced by his existence, certain symbolic, perhaps misleading clues, a whiff in the air, what might be truth’s tail disappearing around a distant corner.

The “lie,” then, would arise from the literal-mindedness of those who take appearances for reality and miss the point by seeking to eliminate the humanity of consciousness, our proclivity for pleasure, our irrationality, our absorption in sense impressions, our affect, our tolerance for ambiguity, contradiction, and paradox, our obsession with certain mysteries (which may in shorthand be labeled god, sex, death, etc.). The fact is that, as “objectivity” is impossible (and is, in fact, simply another pose), to accommodate such “distortions” affords art a more precise register, encoding more accurate data, not less. For a poet like Sydney “moving [the emotions] is of a higher degree than teaching.” He records the algorithms of mind as concrete exhibits based inevitably on his own consciousness, which may then elicit a sympathetic response from the consumer.

Shelley noted the uncertainty principle arising from the interdependence of subject and object: “All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient.” Art recognizes the true nature of the human consciousness by privileging those elements (catalogued above) that dominate our own minds. In Shelley’s words, poetry “reproduces [or recreates] all that it represents.” This approach toward the “lamp” as opposed to the “mirror” (in Abrams’ terms) requires conditioning thought to make it human, “mind acting upon those thoughts so as to color them with its own light.”

Donne’s “Busy old fool, unruly sun,” may reflect the experience of a particular morning, waking with a lover, or it may be wholly “fictional.” Historicity is not an issue, just as the historicity of Troy or Jesus or Madame Bovary is irrelevant. These texts are “truer than true;” universality arises not because they express some dogma, but because the mood of a Briton four hundred years ago is a mood I own as well as do all readers with sufficient imagination. The reader’s response to the poem is based on the joy of its rhythms, the clash of its phonemes, the passions shared by author and reader for both an intellectual dance and sexual desire. By saying he could extinguish the sun with a blink and insisting “nothing else is” except for his love-bed, the poet asserts the primacy of subjectivity.

In this way poetry does not deign to attempt dogma or, as they say in the classroom, “great truth.” Art is always tentative, provisional, exemplary, a matter of impressions and expressions: saying “the world could have looked this way at one time to a person whom I can imagine.” This vision, though, may be precise and significant, detailed and beautiful, the nearest human approach to truth, and its revelatory details are available only to the observer with a straight and penetrating gaze. If you wish to learn what’s most important about death, love, and god, will you consult biologists, psychologists, and theologians? The poet’s truth delivers more data but brings beauty as well, which, like grace, hovers, shedding a numinous glow over people and people alone.

This is precisely what Keats had in mind when he wrote the famous letter defining Negative Capability, “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” [14] And Shelley, though hostile to Christianity, praises its symbolic restructuring of the world as a creative triumph. Claiming that the Christian trinity is a second-hand appropriation of Plato, he is nonetheless enthusiastic: “But mark how beautiful an order has sprung from the dust and blood of this fierce chaos! how the world, as from a resurrection, balancing itself on the golden wings of Knowledge and of Hope, has reassumed its yet unwearied flight into the heaven of time. Listen to the music, unheard by outward ears, which is as a ceaseless and invisible wind, nourishing its everlasting course with strength and swiftness.” The resurrection here is not the mere physical magic-act of the fundamentalist imagination, but a redemptive work in words, a work the effects of which are altogether real, though stimulated by a fiction. Both the “fierceness” of life, the “iron gates” of which Marvell wrote, and the “chaos,” its frightening unintelligibility, are inevitable. Unable to alter the conditions of existence, the mind may yet influence itself by images and stories and outbursts of song.


6. conclusion

To many thoughtful people nineteenth century advances in Higher Criticism, comparative religion, and anthropology have made the claims of revealed religion obsolete. In general, logic as social consensus gets us through the day: the most widely supported ideas are called self-evident, while those with more complex underpinnings are considered rational. Any dissenter is simply exiled from the discourse as stupid or prejudiced or mad or wrong, though a diachronic view will show that heretical views sometimes displaced the accepted. Furthermore, philosophy is obliged to rely on words, and those slippery things are never quite up to the task.

No consensus can be sufficient to answer the skeptic’s questioning the only human means of perception, cognition, and expression. Archimedes was famous for having said, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth.” We have no psychic equivalent of a place to stand outside the human consciousness. Readily conceding this impossibility, poetry has found a way to concede the vulnerability and even to make it a virtue.

Though I have relied on Sydney and Shelley most of all, similar ideas persist in George Santayana, Wallace Stevens, Charles Olson, Frank O’Hara and many of the leading poet/theorists of the twentieth century. [15] Socrates and Nietzsche practiced poetic philosophy in their skeptical searching, their pursuit of an answer that may never appear, their letting go of the pretense of certainty and with it dogma. They recognized the strength of the mysterious, the irrational, the sensual, and the aesthetic (the unacknowledged sources of most of our actions, reinforced though they may be with rationalization).

It is as if Orpheus, instead of singing to trees and touring the underworld of the subconscious, adopted the guise (one of the thousands available to that old confidence man) of a film noir detective tailing Ultimate Reality through a district of poorly lit warehouses, each dark and misty street of experience leading to others, never quite making the collar, but never on that account ceasing the restless ardent pursuit. That he is sometimes plugged or drugged or blackjacked and is often dead wrong shows only that he is human, all-too-human, and for this reason the viewer or reader or listener can accompany him and redeem the “fierce chaos” of the world with words.



1. John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts? generated a similar discussion in Britain. Carey, like Fish, trivializes art to a mere pastime. Unlike Fish, though, in the end Carey reserves some value for verbal art, asserting that words do have the capacity to represent reality and to represent moral concepts essential to humanity. Fish goes no further than grudgingly to grant art some mysterious “intrinsic” value without qualities.

2. In Plato, of course, the question is more conflicted, specifically because of the affective and irrational power of poetry. Though in many passages Plato affirms poetry’s divine power, his Republic can function more smoothly without its potentially subversive influence.

3. This translation is Samuel Butcher’s.

4. Through this essay, I refer primarily to Sir Philip Sydney’s “An Apologie for Poetrie” (also called “A Defence of Poesie and Poems”) and Percy Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry” as they are two of the most significant theoretical essays written by major poets.

5. Keats’ April 24, 1818, letter to John Taylor.

6. From John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, “A Satyr against Reason and Mankind.”

7. This widely distributed association was especially popular during the Romantic era. For details on the concept of the Romantic furor poeticus, see Frederick Burwick. Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. Burwick treats both representations of madness and the reception of writers considered mad.

8. In a book with a title that sounds nearly Buddhist, Concerning Nature, or What is Not.

9. These terms are from the Helen and the Paladon. I discuss Gorgias further in my article "Gorgias of Leontini," Ancient Greek Authors. Ed. by Ward W. Briggs, Jr. , Dictionary of Literary Biography series no. 176. Brucolli Clark Layman.

10. Sextus Empiricus, who wrote an authoritative and compendious exposition of Pyrrhonian skepticism, was called “empiricus” both because of his reliance on experience and experiment in his medical practice, and his approach to philosophic questions.

11. In the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.

12. See Christian Thomas Kohl, “Buddhism and Quantum Physics: A strange parallel of two concepts of reality.” Available at http://www.newdualism.org/papers/C.Kohl/Buddhism-QP-Parallel.htm.

13. Shoyoroku, Case 20, translated by Robert Aitken Roshi and Yamada Koun Roshi, unpublished manuscript, Diamond Sangha. Ti ts’ang Kuei-ch’in (Dizang Guichen), (Jizo-in Shino), 869-928.

14. Letter to George and Thomas Keats dated December 21, 1817.

15. Charles Olson. “Equal, That Is, to the Real Itself” from The Poetics of the New American Poetry (175-181) Olson invokes Keats’ Negative Capability, declaring that mere facts end in Supermarket triviality: “the exact death quantity does offer.” On the other hand, he quotes Melville: “By visible truth we mean the apprehension of the absolute condition of present things.” This implies that observed reality is the only entry-point through which one can glimpse truth. Olson notes that his goal as a writer has been “trying to get a measure of language to move himself into a book [that is, his unique “take” on things] and over to another man’s [subjective] experience.” To Olson 20th century physics confirms his consciousness-centered epistemology as “man, knowing how well he was folded in,” is implicated in all reality: “Nothing was now inert fact, all things were there for feeling, to promote it, and be felt.” For him “things, and present ones, are the absolute conditions; but that they are so because the structures of the real are flexible, quanta do dissolve into vibrations, all does flow, and yet all is there to be made permanent, if the means are equal.” Wallace Stevens continues to mystify readers with his successful business career. (The type may seem rare, but not unique. For example, R. Gordon Wasson, whose fascinating and scholarly work was a product by his enthusiasm for psychedelic substances, was a vice-president of J. P. Morgan. Two varieties of psilocybin mushrooms are named after him.) Hartford Accident and Indemnity’s corporate vice-president wholeheartedly endorsed Rimbaud’s call for the “dereglement de tous les sens” and declared flatly that “life is mysterious.” “By the aid of the irrational [the poet, according to Stevens] finds joy in the irrational.” He defines his goal in writing as “to apply my own sensibility to something perfectly matter-of-fact. The result would be a disclosure of my own sensibility or individuality” “Manner . . .means the attitude of the writer, his bearing rather than his point of view. His bearing toward what? Not toward anything in particular, simply his pose.”
In a more offhand way, Frank O’Hara’s “personalism” expresses similar values. “ Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you.”
Compare also, Santayana’s comments, on the one hand: “Beauty as we feel it is something indescribable; what it is or what it means can never be said.” [The Sense of Beauty, Pt. IV, Expression] Yet at the same time and from the same text: "To have imagination and taste, to love the best, to be carried by the contemplation of nature to a vivid faith in the ideal, all this is more, a great deal more, than any science can hope to be. The poets and philosophers who express this aesthetic experience and stimulate the same function in us by their example, do a greater service to mankind and deserve higher honor than the discoveries of historical truths."

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Sappho’s Holy Tortoise Shell: Eros and Poetry in Ancient Greece

Sappho is an unusual writer in that, like Hemingway, her name is known to many who have never read a word of her work. Thus her reputation is a cultural force partially independent of her poetry. The facts about her are few, but treatment of her has never been limited to the facts.

Sappho (or  in her own Aiolic dialect) is an early Greek poet, who wrote centuries before the classical time of Periclean Athens. She lived in Lesbos, an island just off the Turkish coast, about 2600 years ago. It may well be that she didn’t actually leave written texts of her work herself, though writing was known in her time, but later editors collected her poetry into organized volumes. Her principal theme is love, love for other women, though she also wrote an entire book of marriage poems, and she is known to have had a husband and daughter. The bulk of her work has disappeared, with only those passages quoted in ancient books, fragments that could be deciphered from papyrus recovered from Egyptian trash-heaps, and a few lines from pottery still extant. Apart from the bits and pieces of her work, the facts of her biography, cobbled out of a handful of dubious references, are scant indeed, and add little to our reading of the poems. Doubtless she was an aristocrat and a friend of the poet Alkaios. She seems to have spent some time in political exile, and we may even know the names of some of her family members. Her brother seems to have been prey to his own love-madness which led to an embarrassing affair with an Egyptian courtesan.

In the history of literature, Sappho contributed toward the definition of the lyric genre by her assertion of the primacy of the data of individual lived experience. Instead of writing genuine liturgical hymns for public use (or patriotic songs or general moralizing), she wrote about specific persons, specific feelings, specific days. At a time when much poetry was choral, and most art traditional and collective, she insisted on the irreducible value of her potentially subversive subjectivity. Like the troubadours, like Villon, and Frank O’Hara (as well as many others), she uses her own name, her friends’ names, and seems very much to write about her most intimate affairs.

Part of poetry’s precision arises from just this close-up view of the author’s consciousness. The “truth” of experience is undeniable, while its interpretation is elusive. This perspective inevitably privileges the irrational, the subconscious, sense impressions, and the imperatives of desire. Most of us rarely acknowledge the extent to which we are governed by desire, while Sappho insisted on her eroticism; indeed, she deified it. Like many insightful artists from the makers of palaeolithic fetishes through Freud and the screenwriters for musicals in Bombay, Sappho realized that eros is, in the words of D. H. Lawrence, “of the great gods.” [1] As the first century author of On the Sublime says, “Sappho in her poetry always chooses the emotions attendant on the lover’s frenzy from among those which accompany this emotion in real life. And wherein does she demonstrate her excellence? In the skill with which she selects and fuses the most extreme and intense manifestations of these emotions.” [2] Yet, unlike some Provençal troubadours, her love was not idealized into ether, but rather altogether realistic, complete with selfish, envious, and vindictive thoughts, nonetheless divine despite all-too-human ego. In the great hymn to Aphrodite, pursuing a woman who rejects her, the goddess does not promise future bliss, but rather that Sappho will find acrid satisfaction of Schadenfreude when she can take her turn in rejecting the one she presently loves. Sappho can be cantankerous at the same time as she is sublime.

Oddly, the element in Sappho that has attracted the greatest share of attention since antiquity – her apparent Lesbianism in the modern sense (we owe this usage, of course, to her reputation) – seems all but irrelevant to understanding her. So far as I can tell, her “gay” sensibility so closely corresponds to my own “straight” experience that the “othernesses” of nationality, era, personality, gender itself, all seem more significant.

Yet for 2600 years Sappho’s sexual orientation has presented a conundrum to moralistic and misogynist critics. A celebrated poet active at the dawn of European culture, she was praised in the very highest terms by the best critics of ancient and modern times. Yet her explicit sexual preference for women, the theme of many of her poems, disturbed some readers from the start. Before long the cognitive dissonance was unbearable, and readers created an extraordinary body of calumnies, evasions, and myths [3] to avoid facing Sappho directly. A survey of such reactions, while it rarely sheds light on the poet, reveals a great deal about the history of sexism and homophobia. [4]

Sappho’s prestige in the ancient literary world was unquestioned. Plato called her the “tenth Muse”5 and Antipater “the mortal Muse.” Longinus made one of her poems the centerpiece of his essay On the Sublime, and Dionysos of Halicarnassus likewise pointed to a poem by Sappho as a model of excellence in his On Literary Composition. A famous story (whose historical truth is irrelevant since its evidence as to her reputation is the same whether it originated with a statesman or a creative critic) has the great law-giver Solon so impressed with a Sapphic song that he said he was satisfied to die, having heard the beauty of her words. Meleagar called her works “few, but roses.” The most prestigious Roman poets – Horace, Catullus, and Ovid among others – paid homage to her art, beginning a tradition that extends to the present day. [6] She was honored in vase paintings (a few of which survive), statues, [7] and coins.

For all that, in the generation following Sappho, the attacks on her reputation began. A poem attributed to Anacreon uses Lesbian in its modern meaning including a modern sneer:

Golden-haired Eros
tossed a purple ball my way
and asked me to play
with that young thing
in fancy sandals.

See, she comes from well-built Lesbos.
She can’t stand my white hair,
and ogles another girl.

While this text might be read as satirizing the speaker who attributes his rejection to lesbianism rather than his age, the malice and distortion in Sappho’s image was soon unmistakable. Comedies with her name in the title were written by Diphilus, Aphippus, Ameipsias, Amphis, and Antiphanes. Menander was the first to tell the fanciful tale of the Leucadian leap. In this reworking of myth, [8] Sappho gave up her sexual preference at the sight of the handsome Phaon. Rejected by him, she killed herself by leaping off a cliff. [9] In this glorious suicide, both the poet and the “problem” of lesbianism die. In other comedies [10] she is depicted as a whore, a nymphomaniac, and, in general, a model of moral depravity rather than artistic achievement.

Thus she was denounced in the second century A.D. by Tatian [11] as “a love-mad, whorish woman.” Some of the stories of Christian and Muslim moralists targeting Sappho’s works for censorship have been shown to be dubious or false, but it is clear that the great majority of her poems did not survive the destruction of the ancient libraries. [12]

The split between literary praise and increasing popular ridicule and condemnation led Aelian (in 200 A.D.) to conclude that there must have been two different women of the same name in the same time and place. The encyclopedic Suda repeated this same notion centuries later, and it persisted into the 19th century.

While there were surely no two Sapphos, the division of attitude persisted. She was praised by Boccaccio, Christine de Pisan, and Ariosto; in John Lyly’s play Sappho and Phaon, the author compliments Queen Elizabeth by associating her with Sappho. Donne refers to “the holy fire” of her verse. [13] Raphael managed to get her inside the Vatican by including her as the only mortal woman in the scene of Parnassus in the Stanza della Segnatura. Still, once her sexual preference became known, she was attacked by such prominent writers as Pope.

In more modern times there have also been writers who glorified her as an outsider, a transgressor, a quasi-bohemian role model, and she became a heroine to aesthetes, decadents, and rebels as well as to gays. The French were particularly fond of this image, with Baudelaire [14] in the lead. Louys and Daudet wrote novels about her while in England, Swinburne declared her the greatest poet ever, and Symonds celebrated her in overripe prose, well worth reading.

Scholars and critics, too, participate in the prejudices of their cultures. Some of the most expert professors exercised immense ingenuity to understand how an undoubtedly great poet, endorsed by the best ancient authorities, could seem, on the face of it, to be guilty of the most unthinkable immorality. Thus Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, toward the beginning of the last century, was so gallant as to propose the notion that Sappho operated a school associated with a religious cult. Thus she was made as respectable as a headmistress, which to Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, was surely respectable indeed, and what had looked like erotic enthusiasm for millennia, became professional concern, perhaps slightly warmed by maternal feeling. Robinson indignantly maintains that her very artistic excellence precludes her homosexualityand even her capable modern editor, while he must concede the passionate character of her attachments, insists tortuously that there is no evidence of her having actually acted on her impulses! [15]

But it is time to bring Sappho to this new stage in my own words. Though she has been translated countless times, I suppose my own motives for producing yet more versions resemble those of Kenneth Rexroth, who speaks of his “ecstasy” when first translating Sappho, and says, “what matters most is sympathy – the ability to project into Sappho’s experience and then to transmit it back into one’s own idiom with maximum viability.”16 The imaginative projection across the miles, the years, and the very real gaps of personality, gender and sexual orientation I believe I have managed. As for the “viability,” only those who hear these poems can judge.


1 In “Benjamin Franklin,” Studies in Classic American Literature.

2 Chapter 10.

3 Among the fuller treatments of her reputation are the traditional David M. Robinson, Sappho and her Influence (George Harrap & Co., London, 1925) and the more modern Joan DeJean’s Fictions of Sappho 1546-1937 (University of Chicago, Chicago, 1989). A broader, less scholarly narrative emerges in Margaret Reynold’s A Sappho Companion.

4 See Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality for the best general source for attitudes toward homosexuality in the ancient world, though its value for Sappho is limited by the facts that Boswell has little to say about gay women, and his principle chronological focus is in the Christian era. Still, he documents such striking points as the fact that neither Greek nor Latin even had a word corresponding to the English “homosexuality” (itself invented only a century ago).

5 This is the name of a bar in Mytilene today. Present-day Mytilene has also a Hotel Sappho and a taverna offering “Aphrodite Home-Cooking.”

6 The most recent example being Erica Jong’s novel Sappho’s Leap.

7 The one in Syracuse was inscribed “I surpassed women in poetry as greatly as Homer surpassed men.” Today a modern statue of the poet stands at quayside in Mytilene.

8 Phaon is an epithet of Adonis, and the mythic origins of the story have many parallels.

9 Since this story was repeated by Ovid, it became better known for the Middle Ages than Sappho’s own work. Other comedies, while not including her name in the title, did include references to Phaon or Leucadia, and thus may reasonably be considered treatments of the theme of Sappho.

10 None exists in its entirety, but plot summaries and quotations are extant from several.

11 Once a significant Christian missionary, Tatian is now regarded as a heretic. To him, even marriage is a form of fornication.
12 Other factors also led to the loss of her work: the preference of later ancient writers for Attic dialect instead of Sappho’s Aeolian, the sack of Constantinople by crusaders in 1204, and, of course, the general ravages of time.

13 in “Sappho to Philaenis,” where the fact of her lover’s femaleness seems not to trouble Donne in the least.

14 He had originally planned to call Les Fleurs du Mal Les Lesbiennes, and it is the poems on lesbian themes that brought down censorship.

15 Denys Page. Sappho and Alcaeus: An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press: 1955. p. 144. Page was troubled by phrases speaking of her sleeping with her beloved, but he prefers, he says, retreating into Latin, not to take these “in malam partem.” This thoughtful reaction foundered, though, in the face of new fragments which seem to speak of a lover “wet as pasture”, and of a leather dildo (“receivers of the dildo,”  in fr. 99.5), so he simply concludes, “There would be more to say on this topic if the Alexandrian collection of Sappho’s poems had survived intact.” Indeed, but would Page find the voice to say it?

16 The first quotation is from p. 154 of An Autobiographical Novel. Garden City: Doubleday, 1966. The second from p. 28 “The Poet as Translator.” Assays. New York: New Directions, 1961.


I tell you straight: I would be dead.
Leaving me, she wept

so much and told me this:
"What awful woe we have, Sappho!
I swear I go against my will."

Atthis, you know our love Anaktoria,
although she lives in Sardis far away,
she thinks of us a thousand times a day,

of when we used to take our time together
and she thought yours a goddess' face.
Your singing was a thing she loved to hear.

And now her light among Lydian women
is just like when the rosy-fingered moon,
shining after setting of the sun,

pours out a light that overwhelms the stars
and flashes on the sea as bright
as its flood of light on fields thick with flowers.

Transparent dew then settles on the earth
and fills the rose and thyme with life
and also clover, rich in honey.

Often though she's far away,
our lover thinks of Atthis' love.
Exquisite longing grips her heart.

She calls for us to come. We hear --
for many tongues of night
relay her call across the sea.

Sappho (Lobel and Page 96)



And then I answered her and said,
"Rejoice and go. Remember me.
You know how we all cared for you.

If not, then I'd recall your thoughts
of good times we've gone through.

Wreaths of roses, wreaths of violets,
at my side you put them on,

woven wreaths around your tender neck.

And you took perfume fit for queens
and rubbed it on . . .

Lying on soft beds
you'd satisfy desire.

Sappho (83)


Sappho, I tell you, you'll lose my love
if you keep this up.

Oh, pull your shapely body out of bed,
take off your Chian robe and bathe
like a simple lily by a stream.

Kleis will bring us saffron robes
and dark clothes from the cedar chest,
and all just for our joy.

You'll get a fresh dress,
a flower wreath to crown your charms,
those charms that make me mad.

Praxinoa'll roast up nuts
and I will bring a proper drink --
we'll make a party fit for gods!

All this will come when you, most beautiful
of women, return, bringing joy
to the white city of Mytilene.

It'll be just like it was, like a mother
with her children. Just think --
and remember the days we've passed.

Sappho (82)


The moon and the Pleiades
gone down, middle of the night now.
Time passes;
I lie alone.

Sappho (6)


Immortal Zeus-born Aphrodite,
weaving wiles on a rich-wrought throne.
I'm your supplicant. Give me now
no further grief.

But come -- if ever you heard
my call from far and hitched
a chariot to leave
Zeus' golden home.

Fine swift sparrows thickly beating
strong wings over land
and under heaven brought you
to the black earth.

Once come, blessed goddess
with a timeless smile
you'll ask, "What now
that you need me?

What'll I do, wild heart?
Who'll feel the snare of your love?
Tell me now, Sappho,
who's done you wrong?

If she flees, soon she'll follow.
Having spurned your gifts, she'll
offer the more to you. Indifferent now --
she'll love you soon."

Come to me then and chase
my blues away. Lend
your help to grant my heart
its joy.

Sappho (28)


Virgins . . .
all night long . . .
we’ll sing of you and your young lover
(violets between her thighs).

So rouse your brothers, man,
and hit the streets with them.
Tonight we'll know less sleep
than the clear-voiced bird.

Sappho (Lobel and Page 30)


The man's all but a god
who sits with you and pays such heed
to your sweet talk
and lovely laugh --

listening excites me --
my heart's at odds, unsettled.
And when I look at you my mouth
can't form a word.

My tongue stopped, I'm filled
with thin flames -- vision fades,
and my ears hear the beating
of my blood.

Cold sweat on my side, I'm taken
with trembling and blanch like straw.
Little short of death,
I must last it out,

without you . . .

Sappho (2)