Lost Poetess: What Sappho Did for Poetry

To me, as a poet, Sappho is no less than a Goddess. As celebrated by the Ancient Greeks as Homer, and titled ‘the tenth muse’ by Plato, it is hard to deny that her work was outstanding. She invented her own meter, and was apparently among the first to write poetry from a personal perspective.

Via censorship from the Church, Sappho’s voice has been almost lost. I am indescribably grateful to the archaeologists and historians who dedicate so much of their time to recovering this sort of data from the past. Nonetheless, it is difficult to piece together the words of a poet who can no longer offer her artistry. Even before this barrier, is the more common complication of translation.

For me, poetry’s most powerful force is that of belonging to the author. When we read poetry, the author is speaking to us.¬†When Sappho is translated, this is immediately lost. Apart from the words having slightly different meanings and connotations, there is also the sound and flow of the piece, which would have been particularly important for Sappho who wrote to music and intended to speak her words aloud.

These translations, however, are not meaningless. I love reading the various translations of Sappho’s work, because it seems to me that the translator holds an important position in terms of creativity. The translator says, ‘this is what Sappho said to me.’

Sappho is hidden behind numerous other voices who try to explain her words and her essence.¬†This is what Sappho still does for poetry. Her life and work contains so much mystery, but we in modern times get to play with this. It’s a challenge: we get to make something from her memory, we get to reinvent her, to piece her together from the bits that we have.

I’ve always felt that the more I know about an artist, the less value I give to my own interpretation of their art, and hence the less personal it becomes to me. Sappho throws fragments at me, puts me in awe, and then refuses to explain herself. I love this about her.

I may still attempt to learn a dead language solely for the purpose of getting closer to Sappho but, for now I’m already overwhelmed with the quantity of rewritten poetry that I have to compare and learn from.

I thank Sappho for writing with a passion that got her work (partially) buried, and I especially thank the scholars who work so hard to revive it.

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