Sappho part 1: Accidental Silences

October 18, 2022

    Our recent discussions of silences in poetry brought to mind Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter, her 2002 translation of 189 Sappho fragments, with the Greek on facing pages.  What most struck me when I opened it the first time was all the white space–most pages are white with a sprinkling of brackets and a few words.  I was surprised at first, because other versions I’d read filled in the blanks.  But almost immediately Carson’s translations–which look like lace on the page in imitation of the papyrus fragments–felt more compelling, more accurate in their rendering of what’s been lost as well as the little that’s left.   According to Anne Carson’s introduction, Sappho lived in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos from about 630 bc on.  She describes her first as a musician–a prolific musician.  But none of her music survived.  She was also a poet.  Carson: “Of the nine books of lyrics that Sappho is said to have composed, one poem has survived complete.  All the rest are fragments.”

I didn’t know that when I first read her work in translation, in Mary Barnard’s versions.  I loved them at the time, and also some other versions I read over the years–single poems or a few, nothing complete.  As soon as I began to read Carson’s, I was shocked by how much those other versions (I wouldn’t call them translations anymore) made out of so little.  In many cases the originals seem to have been treated more as writing prompts than as fragments of powerful poems on their own–they seem presumptuous to me now, however well written they might be as poems of their own. In Carson’s versions, I can feel the time that has passed since Sappho wrote them, eating away.  The words that are there arrive over all that distance, and I feel enormous gratitude that they traveled so far to reach me–almost like light from a dead star.  The emptiness reminds me as I read how much of the context has been lost, and cautions me against treating them as if they were contemporary.

My sense of the great distance only grew as I turned to a book by Margaret Reynolds, The Sappho Companion, which immediately strips away layer after layer of the false intimacy that puts images labeled “Sappho” on coffee mugs and calendars.  To begin with, the name we pronounce softly, almost in a whisper, Saffo, would have originally been pronounced  more like psappho, full of p‘s “spitting and popping.”  We know very little about her life, beyond tiny hints in the fragments and later stories about her.  Most of us are reading the fragments in English, not Greek, another step removed.  And back beyond that, even those who can read the precious fragments  aren’t face to face with Sappho.  Her poetry was oral, and first written down from handed on memory roughly two hundred years after her death.  That’s how wispy the connection is.  As Reynolds says: “‘Sappho'” is not a name, much less a person.  It is, rather, a space.  A space for filling in the gaps, joining up the dots, making something out of nothing.”

And yet, somehow, the few words speak to us, as they did to those who first wrote them down.  How is that?  This week I’d like to talk about the silences, and then next week compare some translations.

Please post your own thoughts about the silences and about translating.  And if you want to try filling in any of the blanks, post that too.  I’m looking forward to our Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.


fragment #23 Original Greek


]ἔρωτος ήλ̣π̣[


ὠς γὰρ ἄν]τιον εἰσίδω σ[ε,

4.φαίνεταί μ᾿ οὐδ᾿] Ἐρμιόνα τεαύ[τα

ἔμμεναι,] ξάνθαι δ᾿ Ἐλέναι σ᾿ ἐίσ[κ]ην

οὐδ᾿ ἒν ἄει]κες

] . ις θνάταις, τόδε δ᾿ ἴσ[θι] τὰι σᾶι

8.]παίσαν κέ με τὰν μερίμναν

]λ̣αισ᾿ ἀντιδ[ .. ]´[ . ]α̣θοις δὲ̣


δροσόεν]τας ὄχθοις





from Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho

fragment #23


] of desire


] for when I look at you

] such a Hermione

] and to yellowhaired Helen I liken you


] among mortal women, know this

] from every care

] you could release me


dewy riverbanks

] to last all night long

]    [




fragment #21



] pity

] trembling


] flesh by now old age

] covers

] flies in pursuit


] noble

] taking

] sing to us

the one with violets in her lap

] mostly

] goes astray



fragment # 4

] heart

] absolutely

] I can


] would be for me

] to shine in answer

] face


] having been stained




fragment #26


] frequently

]for those

I treat well are the ones who most of all

] harm me

] crazy




] you, I want

] to suffer

] in myself I am

aware of this






fragment # 16

Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot

and some men say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing

on the black earth.  But I say it is

what you love.


Easy to make this understood by all.

For she who overcame everyone

in beauty (Helen)

left her fine husband


behind and went sailing to Troy.

Not for her children nor her dear parents

had she a thought, no–

] led her astray


] for

] lightly

] reminded me now of Anaktoria

who is gone.


I would rather see her lovely step

and the motion of light on her face

than the chariots of Lydians or ranks

of footsoldiers in arms.


]not possible to happen

]to pray for a share






toward [





out of the unexpected




fragment #105 a, c


as the sweetapple reddens on a high branch

high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot–

no, not forgot: you were unable to reach


like the hyacinth in the mountains that shepherd men

with their feet trample down and on the ground the purple flower



fragment #105 a, c

trans. Anita George


You: an Achilles’ apple

Blushing sweet on a high branch

At the tip of the tallest tree.

You escaped those who would pluck your fruit.

Not that they didn’t try.  No,

They could not forget you

Poised beyond their reach.


O my mountain hyacinth

What shepherds trod upon you

With clumsy, rustic foot?

Now you are a broken seal:

A scarlet stain upon the earth.



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  • Reply Anne Myles October 19, 2022 at 11:08 am

    I don’t have any deep thoughts on translation, except maybe that the previous fuller versions ask us to broaden what we typically mean by it. Translating into a possible fuller existence, re-visioning (-versioning?). I have the Carson book, and will spend some more time with it before Friday.

    I am hung up on how much the translated fragments look like erasures to us now, when erasure is so popular, though they are really the opposite — the words we see are left over, not chosen. But we can’t help reading them to find their own coherence or poetic suggestiveness, as if just those words were somehow meant to be left for us. Like Sappho was really meant to be a postmodern poet all along.

    And somehow the sparse fragmentary nature of the words feels so appropriate for a poetry of desire … for which absence, missing something, is required. (I think Carson has written something akin to this in her prose study, Eros the Bittersweet, but I don’t recall exactly — I found that book very hard going without knowing the material.) I keep thinking of one of my favorite Robert Hass lines (favorite lines, period), “Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances.” Of time, of silence, of unknowing. Well, in my world at least….

    On a more humorous note, if you’re on Twitter, @sapphobot posts a fragment from Carson’s translation daily. (Also there’s @ebishopbot, a fragment of her poetry daily — probably others too, but those are the two I follow.)

    • Reply Sharon October 19, 2022 at 11:39 am

      Yes, these are actual erasures, the ravages of time. And how are we to think about that?

      • Reply Anne Myles October 19, 2022 at 11:44 am

        It equally makes me wonder how we are to think about contemporary, designed erasure poems … are they imitating by intention a ravaging without intention? Gagging texts to produce the aura of a different kind of silence? (Erasures would be a good topic for a session!)

  • Reply Sharon October 21, 2022 at 1:14 am

    from Hermine: Oh, it is so good to see these. I too have the Barnard translation. That is the one that I know. The silence here in the original translations feels profound, full of what can’t be said but only felt. Those emptinesses between the lines even if not intentional hold so much mystery. All that has been alive, thought and lost. How she could not have known what would remain. i love very much those silences in poetry, and on the page, and how much is held in them.

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