Dear Common Readers,
Do yourself a favor and read “The Wise Sappho” by poet H.D. This essay begins as a meditation on Meleager of Gadara’s description of his anthology selection of Sappho’s songs as “little, but all roses” but evolves into much more. H.D. explores the impact of Sappho’s work with vivid imagery and a poet’s gift for metaphor. Even if (like me) one has not read H.D.’s poetry yet, one can tell from this essay that H.D. feels a profound connection with Sappho’s songs. This essay is intimidatingly good. It makes one wish to throw away one’s pen and never attempt to write about poetry again.
For example, H.D. writes,
Yet not all roses —not roses at all, not orange blossoms even, but reading deeper we are inclined to visualize these broken sentences and unfinished rhythms as rocks — perfect rock shelves and layers of rock between which flowers by some chance may grow but which endure when the staunch blossoms have perished.
This is how one should write about Sappho.
For a fictional take on Sappho’s life, I recommend Sappho’s Leap by Erica Jong. Ms. Jong puts her own spin on each of the legends and bits of gossip about Sappho’s life. Best of all is Ms. Jong’s take on the infamous legend that Sappho threw herself off a cliff over unrequited love for a younger man. I won’t spoil it for you. It’s that good.
This book is a near-perfect fit between writer and subject matter. Ms. Jong is a natural heiress to Sappho. Sappho’s themes have always been Ms. Jong’s themes, too: romantic love, sexuality, creativity, motherhood. However, Ms. Jong brings to those themes a Baby Boomer’s conflicted anxiety about combining creative work and motherhood that is never apparent in Sappho’s fragments.
I first read this novel during a period in which I had just read Homer, Aeschylus, and Sappho (for the first time). I could tell that Ms. Jong had been reading and absorbing these same works as she wrote. Something in her prose echoed the rhythms of these Ancient Greek works (or at least those of the English translations).
The real treats, though, are the original poems by Ms. Jong in a section called “Talking to Aphrodite” that follows the afterword. Ms. Jong is first and foremost a poet at heart and it shows in these provocative poems. Take these lines from “Sappho: A Footnote” for example:
& Christians burned
The poems are written in the voices of Sappho, Aphrodite, and the poet herself. One can hear in them echoes of Sappho, of course, but also of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and even of Ms. Jong’s earlier work. There are many passages I could quote, but I’ll close with my favorite stanza of “Conjuring Her.”
Before I curl
Like incense to the sky
Before I study how to die,
Drizzle the honey
Of my wishes
On my waiting tongue…
teach me how to fly
I hope you enjoy these works as much as I do.
Your sister reader,