Poems and Fragments

Poems and Fragments

Poems and Fragments

Poems and Fragments


A new Sappho by a master poet and translator that treats the fragments as aesthetic wholes, complete in their fragmentariness, and which is also, as the translator puts it: "ever mindful of performative qualities, quality of voice, changes of voice...".


Searching for Sappho

Sappho was a Greek poet who lived on the island of Lesbos in the late seventh and early sixth centuries B.C.E. But she is also a construct, a phantom, an icon. Writing about her is a hazardous enterprise. The surviving texts are few (just one full poem, plus the scattered remnants), and the legends are vast. With so few verses and so many myths to go on, a writer inevitably exposes more about her own context than she can reveal about Sappho’s.

Even the textual tradition of Sappho’s poems has mythic qualities. To start from what might have been the end, legend has it that the early church ordered Sappho’s books to be burnt, and thus reduced us to eking out our text of Sappho from scraps and leavings. Whether or not deliberate book-burnings hastened the damage wrought by time and bad luck, the survival of the slender corpus as it exists today is as good a story. More than half of the fragments translated in this volume were lost for over a millennium, to resurface only in the first decades of the 20th century. Some survived in improbable ways. The poem printed here as Sappho’s sixth fragment provides a striking example. Broken clay pots were often recycled into “scrap paper” in antiquity, and among the usual receipts and shopping lists one occasionally finds an oddly enchanting message such as: “Leave the saw under the sill of the garden gate” (scratched on a potsherd found in Athens). But one particular broken pot delivers a message of a different order:

down from the mountain top

and out of Crete,
come to me here
in your sacred precinct, to your grove
of apple trees,
and your altars
smoking with incense,

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