Poems of Daily Life

November 20, 2022

 

 

 

Now that we’ve spent a couple of weeks immersed in the sublime, talking about it and reading poems written out of encounters with it, I’m thinking about the many, many poems I love and would describe as great that are written out of something else.  They’re emotionally powerful, and moving to me, but they don’t seem to speak on the edge of the abyss.  They’re more grounded in things of this world, for the most part, and often on relationships with other people rather than one person alone confronting the overwhelming.

I’d say that emotions in poems cover a wide range, from mild to intense, with what we’ve been describing as sublime at one end.

Here’s a landscape analogy that’s related to what I’m getting at.  I grew up in a valley bordered on the east by the Rocky Mountains and on the west by the Nevada desert.  Both landscapes were awesome and terrifying–people died in both.  When we drove across the desert on the way to California, the emptiness was so overwhelming I hid on the car floor.   But the sight of the mountains was central and powerful, and I missed them when I moved east.  When I took the train home I spent the last few hours staring out the window, desperate for my first glimpse of them.  Westerners are landscape snobs–I needed that scale.  In the east I sneered at the hills people referred to as mountains.  When people said, “Isn’t this landscape beautiful?,” I literally couldn’t see what they were talking about.  If it wasn’t awesome it didn’t even matter.  It took me years of living in it to realize one day, setting out for a hike (walk) with friends: Oh, this landscape is human scale, you can just walk out into it without risking your life.  And for the first time I saw the value in that.

I think the sublime has to do with extremity and intensity, with things larger and deeper than the human scale of things, with situations where one person encounters whatever it is–the void, the abyss, the unfathomable, immeasurable.  I think the sublime is something we can visit but not live in–the intensity would crush us, as Rilke says.  And the solitude.  Most of our lives include relationships with other people.  When it comes to poetry, the awesome/ sublime may be the most powerful, but I think more poems, including many great ones, are written out of our human relationships–that scale, the one with emotions that range from happiness to rage to love to sadness, subtle and nuanced, looked at closely.  I don’t think I’d describe any of Shakespeare’s sonnets as sublime, for example, however beautiful and moving they are.

I take enormous pleasure in the poems here, and find all of them moving.  They include transcendent moments and powerful emotions, but I wouldn’t describe any of them as encounters with the sublime. I’ll be curious to see your examples, and your comments.

THOSE WINTER SUNDAYS

Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

*

HOMAGE TO MY HIPS

Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

*

MY PAPA’S WALTZ

Theodore Roethke

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

*

WHAT THE DOG PERHAPS HEARS

Lisel Mueller

If an inaudible whistle
blown between our lips
can send him home to us,
then silence is perhaps
the sound of spiders breathing
and roots mining the earth;
it may be asparagus heaving,
headfirst, into the light
and the long brown sound
of cracked cups, when it happens.
We would like to ask the dog
if there is a continuous whir
because the child in the house
keeps growing, if the snake
really stretches full length
without a click and the sun
breaks through clouds without
a decibel of effort,
whether in autumn, when the trees
dry up their wells, there isn’t a shudder
too high for us to hear.

What is it like up there
above the shut-off level
of our simple ears?
For us there was no birth cry,
the newborn bird is suddenly here,
the egg broken, the nest alive,
and we heard nothing when the world changed.

*

BURNING THE NESTS

Peter Pereira

Atop an orchard ladder my father
stands half-hidden by the black cherry’s
tangled branches, holding a gasoline-soaked
rag wrapped on the end of a broomstick.
He flicks open his silver lighter, tells us
to stand back as the torch ignites
and he thrusts the burning thing up
where the white nets of caterpillars
tent the upper branch tips.  A terrible
crackling like singed hair
fills the early April evening
as we squeal, and the smoldering
bits of caterpillars fall to the ground.
Weeks later we will eat the spicy
meat of the cherries, not even thinking
of this carnage.  Or if we do, only
as the kind of work that fathers
will do, for their children.

*

WE’RE EXTREMELY FORTUNATE

Wisława Szymborska                (trans. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)

We’re extremely fortunate
not to know precisely
the kind of world we live in.

One would have
to live a long, long time,
unquestionably longer
than the world itself.

Get to know other worlds,
if only for comparison.

Rise above the flesh,
which only really knows
how to obstruct
and make trouble.

For the sake of research,
the big picture
and definitive conclusions,
one would have to transcend time,
in which everything scurries and whirls.

From that perspective,
one might as well bid farewell
to incidents and details.

The counting of weekdays
would inevitably seem to be
a senseless activity;

dropping letters in the mailbox
a whim of foolish youth;

the sign “No Walking on the Grass”
a symptom of lunacy.

*

TALKING IN BED

Philip Larkin

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

*

LILACS

Kathleen Flenniken

As though we could string pearls into a necklace

of only good moments, between knots of waxed

string. Tonight, a month after the last lilac bloomed,

I finally noticed, and no hothouse could make the bushes

flower again late, early, whatever you call the period

after you’ve lost everything. Still, cells replicate,

shed skin is replaced. We are not who we were.

I’d seen the lilacs, gone through the motions

of breathing in, swirled the scent in the goblet

of my brain but I wasn’t listening until

this evening, after the first warm day in June

when I considered how fine a bunch of lilacs

would be, enough to fill my arms, to hide my face

in their tender, sweet nostalgia for ordinary life.

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More on the Sublime

November 14, 2022

 

          Well, last week ‘s discussion was sublime, so we might as well have more of that.  Also, I forgot to add poems from the Comments section, so I’m putting them in this week’s post.

As I read more and more of the history of the concept, a couple of issues seem central: the distinction between the sublime and the beautiful, for one.  For another, the location of the sublime–in the world, in the human imagination, or in the encounter between the world and the imagination.  Here are just a few historical landmarks.

Longinus wrote his treatise Peri hypsous, translated as On the Sublime, in the 3rd century, but it was Nicolas Boileau’s translation into French in the 17th century that brought it to the attention of writers and philosophers: Burke, Kant, Hegel, and others, and then to the 19th century Romantic poets who followed them.  Boileau also coined the phrase “Je ne sais quoi,” to describe something that didn’t fall into an existing category.

Best known statement from Longinus’s On the Sublime: He initially referred to passages in Homer, Sappho and others that stood out from the others on their own power, not because of their language but the greatness of the soul imagining them: “As if instinctively our soul is lifted up by the true sublime; it [the soul] takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.”

In a coda Longinus wrote that literature can be the origin of the Sublime, not only its recorder.

The Romantics, on the other hand, ascribed the Sublime to the world itself.

Edmund Burke, in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, described beauty as a matter of proportion, gradation, and serenity that produces pleasure.  The Sublime, on the other hand, is associated with pain, danger, and anxiety.  Our emotion confronting it is one of fear, followed by intense, profound relief; it could kill us, but won’t.  It’s a mattter of danger courted and overcome.  It’s also associated with obscurity, uncertainty, and speed.  And, he said: “Literature can fill one with the exaltation of the unrepresentable.  Painting can’t.”  And right now it seems to me that of course painting can, and that it’s perhaps harder to do in literature.

Immanuel Kant says that humans feel themselves as nothing compared to the natural world, and so their minds shift from transcendental aspirations, and move their commitment from the empirical world to the world of the imagination. Despite all its power, the world [even the universe?] is finite, but the imagination is infinite.  Sounds like Dickinson’s poem to me.

I definitely think that there’s more than one kind of sublime, as you’ll see in some of the examples.  Or maybe you’ll have a different word in mind.

I hope you’ll add your own examples in the Comments section.

 

from Martha Zweig:

TO JUAN AT THE WINTER SOLSTICE

Robert Graves

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison to all true kings that ever reigned?

Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.

Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
How many the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.

Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
Whose coils contain the ocean,
Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
Battles three days and nights,
To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?

Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.

Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed

*

from Elizabeth Brown;

Great point about “echo” –how the sublime “refers to the human response to an event or encounter, not the event itself.” So much is about perception.

Lately I’ve been thinking of the tenor of silences. There is the silence of despair (as in Celan’s “January”), the sense of “void.” And also, as you point out, the silence of the sublime. How silence can encompass these extremes –how it veers toward the unsayable the way ultraviolet and infared (and beyond) veer into the unseeable.

I love these lines, attributed to Crowfoot, a Blackfoot warrior, in 1890 (His last words):


What is life?
It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass
and loses itself in the sunset.

Also:

TELESCOPE

Louise Glück:

There is a moment after you move your eye away
when you forget where you are
because you’ve been living, it seems,
somewhere else, in the silence of the night sky.

You’ve stopped being here in the world.
You’re in a different place,
a place where human life has no meaning.

You’re not a creature in body.
You exist as the stars exist,
participating in their stillness, their immensity.

Then you’re in the world again.
At night, on the cold hill,
taking the telescope apart.

You realize afterward
not that the image is false
but the relation is false.

You see again how far away
every thing is from every other thing.

 

from Dave Hurst:

My thoughts on the sublime start with one of its alternative definitions as a verb, to sublime, the act of a solid becoming vapor without first becoming liquid. Dry ice does this, but it is also a lovely metaphor for the way poetry (or the experience of something) transforms in us to awe or something similar. A solid (of sorts) becoming vapor (of sorts). I think this is the feeling you are writing about here.

I personally find that feeling in what I can only describe as “quiet” poetry, though I don’t doubt there is an argument for feeling sublime in Whitman or Ginsberg or O’Hara, though I think of their poems as often “loud” (okay, don’t ask me to define it, I guess). But I experience it as in this excerpt from a poem by Li Po (during one of his exiles):

Gibbons call early along the cold river,
the moon among pine shadows already risen

and boundless, how boundless– moonlight,
and the sorrow in a gibbon’s pure cry,

unbearable as I toss my walking-stick aside
and leave the mountains for this lone boat.

Even if the gibbons in the poem are loud, it feels like the poem rests on a stillness that raises the hairs on my neck when I get to that last bit. The “boundless, how boundless– moonlight/and the sorrow” just raises an ache in me, I guess. Maybe that is what I experience as sublime, that ache that expands into yearning of some sort. I guess I find this kind of “quiet” in poems by James Wright, for example, like in “A Blessing.” I find it in some of Larry Levis too, and often in Gary Snyder.

 

*

opening of THE FIRST DUINO ELEGY

Rainer Maria Rilke     (1911, trans. Edward Snow)

 

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic
orders?  And even if one of them pressed me
suddenly to his heart: I’d be consumed
in his stronger existence.  For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we can just barely endure,
and we stand in awe of it as it coolly disdains
to destroy us.  Every angel is terrifying.
And so I check myself and swallow the luring call
of dark sobs.  Alas, whom can we turn to
in our need?  Not angels, not humans,
and the sly animals see at once
how little at home we are
in the interpreted world….

*

THE DARKNESS

Weldon Kees     (about 1950)

I have seen it in the green tree
For a long time now,
In the shapes on pavements, oiled

And streaked with rain, and where
Hands have touched at doors,
Over the roofs and streets,

On face after passing face
I have watched it spread,
At the edge of the sky at noon

Until it stains the dead
Weeds in some empty place
And saturates the sun

–As though one had pulled a string
In an unfamiliar house,
Of a dim light, darkening.

*

A BLESSING

James Wright     (about 1960)

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

*

WHAT HE SAID

Heather McHugh     (about 1990)

For Fabbio Doplicher

We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for
ourselves (our sense of being
Poets from America) we went
from Rome to Fano, met
the Mayor, mulled a couple
matters over. The Italian literati seemed
bewildered by the language of America: they asked us
what does “flat drink” mean? and the mysterious
“cheap date” (no explanation lessened
this one’s mystery). Among Italian writers we

could recognize our counterparts: the academic,
the apologist, the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib. And there was one
administrator (The Conservative), in suit
of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide
with measured pace and uninflected tone
narrated sights and histories
the hired van hauled us past.
Of all he was most politic–
and least poetic– so
it seemed. Our last
few days in Rome
I found a book of poems this
unprepossessing one had written: it was there
in the pensione room (a room he’d recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?) to whom
he had inscribed and dated it a month before. I couldn’t
read Italian either, so I put the book
back in the wardrobe’s dark. We last Americans

were due to leave
tomorrow. For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant,
and there we sat and chatted, sat and chewed, till,
sensible it was our last big chance to be Poetic, make
our mark, one of us asked

“What’s poetry?
Is it the fruits and vegetables
and marketplace at Campo dei Fiori

or the statue there?” Because I was
the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn’t have to think– “The truth
is both, it’s both!” I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest
to say. What followed taught me something
about difficulty,

for our underestimated host spoke out
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

The statue represents
Giordano Bruno, brought
to be burned in the public square
because of his offence against authority, which was to say
the Church. His crime was his belief
the universe does not revolve around
the human being: God is no
fixed point or central government
but rather is poured in waves, through
all things: all things
move. “If God is not the soul itself,
he is the soul OF THE SOUL of the world.” Such was
his heresy. The day they brought him forth to die

they feared he might incite the crowd (the man
was famous for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask
in which he could not speak.

That is how they burned him.
That is how he died,
without a word,
in front of everyone. And poetry–

(we’d all put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on softly)– poetry

is what he thought, but did not say.

 

 

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Sublime in Poetry

November 7, 2022

I think this is the concept we’ve been circling in recent discussions of silence in poems, fragments, and immensities in time and space.  Here are some of the associated words and phrases that come to mind: awesome, terrifying, engulfing, infinite, transcendent, beyond our understanding, beyond words, ecstasy, the invisible, the uncanny.

The origin of the concept in western tradition is usually traced to a first century work On the Sublime, by Longinus,  who defined it as “the echo of greatness of spirit” in the creator of the art, rather than in a balance of technical elements in the writing. He offers examples from Homer, and, for the intensity of the emotions described, Sappho’s ode (fragment #31) about her longing for a woman she loves who’s with a man.

“Echo” is a crucial word here–the sublime refers to the human response to an event or encounter, not the event itself.  Sublime doesn’t describe the landscape Turner painted, but his response to it–and in turn the viewer’s.

In western literature, the sublime is most associated with the Romantic poets, including Blake, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, among others.  Wordsworth described it as “The mind trying to grasp at something towards which it can make approaches but which it is incapable of reaching.”

Many of my own experiences of the sublime have happened when I was listening to music, from Glenn Gould playing Bach to the Budapest Quartet playing Beethoven to k.d. lang’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  Or when I was on the edge of the land, facing the ocean,  or surrounded by stars in the desert.  Looking at Jackson Pollock’s paintings, or Mark Rothko’s.  In his book Mark Rothko: from the Inside Out, his son Christopher Rothko says, “The classic works…articulate the language of the sublime….They are essentially the painted expression of what it is to be human and alive….”

And of course I find it in poetry.  I’ve included a few examples here that I’d consider examples of the sublime.  I’ll be very interested to hear about your own experiences of it in different situations, and especially to see poems that make you feel it.

I found this Helen Vendler talk, Emily Dickinson and the Sublime, illuminating.

The images above, left to right: paintings by Mark Rothko and JMW Turner, first photo of a black hole, ocean wave and sailboat.

 

WHEN I HAVE FEARS

John Keats

 

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain,
When I behold upon the night’s starr’d face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance,
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I may never live to see thee more,
Never have relish in the faerie power
Of unreflecting Love–then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone and think,
`Til Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

*

 

#632

Emily Dickinson

 

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

 

*

DESERT PLACES

Robert Frost

 

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it–it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less–
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars–on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

*

 

THE IDEA OF ORDER AT KEY WEST

Wallace Stevens

 

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

*

FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY DEATH

W. S. Merwin

 

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

*

A DRINK FROM CRANMERE POOL

Alice Oswald

 

Amphibious vagueness
neither pool nor land
under whose velvet
three rivers spring to their tasks

in whose indecent hills
tired of my voice
I followed the advice of water
knelt and put my mouth

to a socket in the grass
as if to an outlet of my own
unveiled stoneliness
and sleepless flight

they say the herons used to hang
like lamps here giving off gloom
now walkers float
on the wings of their macs

to this weephole
where you can taste
almost
not water exactly

 

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Sappho, pt 2: Comparing Translations

October 24, 2022

 

As promised, this week’s post continues our discussion of Sappho.  I’ve included her three versions of the almost complete fragment #1, along with several others, translated by Carson, Barnard, and others.

There seems to be wide agreement that Mary Barnard’s were a revelation when they came out in 1958–clean and simple, without the flowery ornamentation, accretions, and completely unsupported elaborations of earlier versions.  Barnard’s are the ones I first knew, and I still find them very readable and moving.  The only caveat I have is that she’s added first lines not in the text that serve as titles/ context.  I find that unnecessary and intrusive, and one of them (you’ll see) is cringe-worthy.  But I think her translations are indeed a gift.

Barnard translated a hundred, but since then more have been found–Carson’s If Not, Winter, published in 2002, includes 192 fragments.  And once again, more have been found since then, including two substantial ones–all included in Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works, by Diane Rayor, published in 2014.  But this volume doesn’t include the original Greek, as Carson’s does.

Other contemporary translators of some Sappho fragments include Guy Davenport and Richmond Lattimore–I’ve included one of Lattimore’s here.  I also highly recommend the book I mentioned last time, The Sappho Companion, by Margaret Reynolds.  She includes a wide range of translations over time and interesting contemporary examples.  This is where I found versions of fragment #32 by William Carlos Williams and Robert Lowell.

Sappho’s poems were composed (not written) in 4-line stanzas, now called sapphics.  The first three lines have 11 syllables, and the 4th 5 syllables.  Ancient Greek measured length of syllables rather than stress, which is very difficult for us to hear, so long and short are converted into stressed and unstressed in English.  The feet are a combination of trochees and dactyls:/- /- /- – /- /- for the first three lines, a dactyl sandwiched between two trochees on either side; the third is a dactyl followed by a trochee.  Some versions try to carry over elements of that form.

Please post your comments, and any other versions you come across that you find compelling.  As always, I hope to see you at this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.

 

FRAGMENT #1  (Hymn to Aphrodite; the most complete fragment)

trans. Anne Carson

Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind
child of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you
do not break with hard pains

O lady, my heart!

but come here if ever before
you caught my voice far off
and listening left your father’s

golden house and came,

yoking your car. And fine birds brought you
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky

through midair—

they arrived. But you, O blessed one,
smiled in your deathless face
and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why

(now again) I am calling out

and what I want to happen most of all
in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again)
to lead you back into her love? Who, O

Sappho, is wronging you?

For if she flies, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather she will give them.
If she does not love, soon she will love

even unwilling.

Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You

be my ally.

*

fragment #1

trans. Mary Barnard

[Prayer to my lady of paphos]

Dapple-throned Aphrodite,
eternal daughter of God,
snare-knitter!  Don’t, I beg you,

cow my heart with grief!
Come, as once when you heard my
far-off cry and, listening, stepped

from your father’s house to your
gold car, to yoke the pair whose
beautiful thick-feathered wings

oaring down mid-air from heaven
carried you to light swiftly
on dark earth; then, blissful one,

smiling your immortal smile
you asked, What ailed me now that
made me call you again?  What

was it that my distracted
heart most wanted?  “Whom has
Persuasion to bring round now

to your love? Who, Sappho, is
unfair to you?  For, let her
run, she will soon run after;

if she won’t accept gifts, she
will one day give them; and if
she won’t love you–she soon will

love, although unwillingly….”
If ever–come now!  Relieve
this intolerable pain!

What my heart most hopes will
happen, make happen; you your-
self join forces on my side!

*

fragment #1

trans. Willis Barnstone

On your dappled throne, Aphrodite,
sly eternal daughter of Zeus,
I beg you: do not crush me with grief,

but come to me now—as once
you heard my far cry, and yielded,
slipping from your father’s house

to yoke the birds to your gold
chariot, and came. Handsome swallows
brought you swiftly to the dark earth,

their wings whipping the middle sky.
Happy, with deathless lips, you smiled:
“What is wrong, why have you called me?”…

God’s wildering daughter deathless Aphrodita,
A whittled perplexity your bright abstruse chair,
With heartbreak, lady, and breathlessness
Tame not my heart.

But come down to me, as you came before,
For if ever I cried, and you heard and came,
Come now, of all times, leaving
Your father’s golden house

In that chariot pulled by sparrows reined and bitted,
Swift in their flying, a quick blur aquiver,
Beautiful, high. They drew you across steep air
Down to the black earth;

Fast they came, and you behind them, O
Hilarious heart, your face all laughter,
Asking, What troubles you this time, why again
Do you call me down?

*

fragment #104A

trans. Anne Carson

Evening

you gather back

all that dazzling dawn has put asunder:

you gather a lamb

gather a kid

gather a child to its mother

*

fragment 104A

trans. Mary Barnard

[You are the herdsmen of

evening]

Hesperus, you herd
homeward whatever
Dawn’s light dispersed

You herd sheep–herd
goats–herd children
home to their mothers

*

fragment #105 a, c

trans. Anne Carson

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

trans. Mary Barnard

[Lament for a maidenhead]

Like a quince-apple
ripening on a top
branch in a tree top

not once noticed by
harvesters or if
not unnoticed, not reached

Like a hyacinth in
the mountains, trampled
by shepherds until
only a purple stain
remains on the ground.

*

fragment #31

trans. Anne Carson

he seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close

to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing–oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking

is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming

fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, green than grass
I am and dead–or almost

I seem to me.

But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty

 

*

fragment #31

trans. W. C. Williams

Peer of the gods is that man, who
face to face, sits listening
to your sweet speech and lovely
laughter.

It is this that rouses a tumult
in my breast.  At mere sight of you
my voice falters, my tongue
is broken.

Straightway, a delicate fire runs in
my limbs; my eyes
are blinded and my ears
thunder.

Sweat pours out: a trembling hunts
me down.  I grow paler
than dry grass and lack little
of dying.

*

fragment #31

trans. Robert Lowell

I set that man above the gods and heroes–
all day he sits before you face to face,
like a cardplayer.  Your elbow brushes his elbow–
if you should speak, he hears.

The touched heart madly stirs,
your laughter is water hurrying over pebbles–
every gesture is a proclamation,
every sound is speech….

Refining fire purifies my flesh!
I hear you: a hollowness in my ears
thunders and stuns me.  I cannot speak.
I cannot see.

I shiver.  A dead whiteness spreads over
my body, trickling pinpricks of sweat.
I am greener than the greenest green grass–
I die!

*

fragment #132

trans. Anne Carson

I have a beautiful child who is like golden flowers
in form, darling Kleis
in exchanged for who I would not

all Lydia as lovely

*

 

fragment #132

trans. Mary Barnard

[Sleep, darling]

I have a small
daughter called
Cleis, who is

like a golden
flower
I wouldn’t

take all Croesus’
kingdom with love
thrown in for her

*

 

 

 

 

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