Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska) was born in Warsaw, Poland, to an artistic though impoverished family. She worked from an early age, supporting herself while she attended university to study medieval Polish literature. In the 1930s she worked for a teachers’ association, served as an editor, and began publishing poetry. Swir joined the Resistance during World War II and worked as a military nurse during the Warsaw Uprising; at one point she came within an hour of being executed before she was spared. In addition to poetry, Swir wrote plays and stories for children and directed a children’s theater. She lived in Krakow from 1945 until her death from cancer in 1984.
Her poems have been collected in English translation in Building the Barricade (1974), Happy as a Dog’s Tail (1985), fat like the sun (1986), and Talking to My Body (1996), translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan.
Swir’s poems about war and death use direct, simple language. In Building the Barricade she includes a section called “Poems about My Father and My Mother,” which affectionately describes scenes of her parents. Swir also wrote candidly and passionately about the female body; in his introduction to Talking to My Body, Milosz identified her central theme as “Flesh. Flesh in love and ecstasy, in pain, in terror, flesh afraid of loneliness, giving birth, resting, feeling the flow of time or reducing time to one instant.” Eva Hoffman, reviewing Happy as a Dog’s Tail for the New York Times, commented on Swir’s adept depictions of erotic love: “The quick, decisive strokes in which she registers moments of meeting, coupling or parting are almost abstract in their lack of surface detail, but they give us glimpses of a turbulent, even ferocious internal life.”
Swir’s awards include the Krzyz Kawalerski Oderu Odrodzenia Polski (1957), Krzyz Oficersk Orderu Odrodzenia Polski (1975), Nagroda miasta Krakowa (1976), and Medal Komisji Edukacji Narodowej.
Anna Swir (1909-1984) is a Polish poet sadly little known in America, despite the efforts of her great admirer and associate, the Nobel-winning Czesław Miłosz, on her behalf. This out-of-print selection of her love poems was translated by Miłosz with the help of Leonard Nathan and published the year after her death. They teamed up again for an expanded collection called Talking to My Body (1996). The latter is somewhat easier to find and contains much of the same material, so unless you find Happy as a Dog’s Tail in a used bookshop, like I did, you’d probably be better off choosing that one.
Happy as a Dog’s Tail is relentlessly monochromatic in selection. In the first half of her career, Swir did a series of war poems based on her experience in the Warsaw resistance and as a military nurse. Later in life she turned her attention solely to love poems – though they could more accurately be called hate poems – and those are what Miłosz and Nathan chose for the exclusive subject of this collection. At first glance it looks like a mistake but rereading reveals a method to the myopia.
Swir in translation is forthright and easy to handle but hardly “confessional.” She is invested in a woman’s point of view but her voice is full of irony and detachment. Comparisons could be drawn between her work and Anne Sexton’s in Love Poems and Transformations – both women speak in a tone arch, energetic, mocking and cold. Unlike Sexton, Swir keeps this coldness pressed sharply close to the point at all times. And though their stylistic approaches are very different, there is also an unexpected similarity between Swir’s poetry and Djuna Barnes’ novel Nightwood.
Make no mistake: despite the title, Happy as a Dog’s Tail is a frightening and astonishing book. Swir’s vision is dark, frigid and ascetic. To flip through the pages of this slim volume is to grow apprehensive, recognising the nihilistic cliff her poems teeter upon. They’re the easiest things in the world to read, but much harder to absorb. One of the shortest of them all is ‘I Cannot.’
I envy you. Every moment
You can leave me.
Her obsession is with alienation. Flesh and spirit are in an unrequested marriage, forcibly bound even as the body degrades (nowhere better summed up than in the poem ‘Large Intestine’). The struggle for spiritual supremacy is painted through the abandonment of lovers and the stern, bitter triumph of isolation. It is her especial focus in the middle portion of the book, taken up with the three ‘Love’ cycles (Felicia’s, Antonia’s and Stephanie’s). These women depart relationships to achieve liberation and each cycle concludes with them living alone, their pain unshared; they choose to return to a virginal solitude that for all of its sorrow and loneliness is theirs alone. Longing / … / fashions the soul / as work / fashions the belly. God is not an image in Swir’s work, and yet her poems carry the weight of Monasticism, of isolating and offering oneself up to the scourge, to be cauterised and purified.
There is a sacrificial ecstasy manifesting itself in the lines of many poems: ‘I Starve My Belly for a Sublime Purpose,’ ‘Fireproof Smile,’ ‘Song of Plenitude,’ ‘Intensity of Atmosphere’ – too many to quote from. Happy as a Dog’s Tail takes a Medievalist quandary and writes it into the secular, sexually liberated landscape of the modern world. In ‘Iron Currycomb’ she writes:
Oh, I toil hard,
with an iron currycomb
I scrub my body to the bone,
the bone to the marrow.
I want to be cleaner than the bone.
I want to be clean
Physicality and eroticism are ever-present in this book. Swir does not shy from the topic but she often treats it as more trouble than it’s worth. Sexual acts are maligned, dark things; primal practicalities; sardonically accepted gifts; a beautiful song of the night / a song of combat. In older times, the goddess of fertility was often also the goddess of war and Swir unabashedly revels in these mythical traits of womanhood. She gives no sympathy to men, only a terse and mocking laughter. Stephanie claims I walk obediently / in the dog collar of your adoration only a few poems away from breaking things off with her lover. True tenderness is saved only for old women, as in the poems ‘The Same Inside’ and ‘The Greatest Love.’
Swir’s poems are ferocious and uncompromising; her vision potently, almost murderously, feminine. She more than repays a weekend spent pouring over her writings. But her obscurity in this country is terrible, so American feminism didn’t do her much good. Rather, lovers of poetry both male and female should seek her out as too unique to be missed. See if you can find this or Talking to My Body and help propel Anna Swir to the resuscitation she deserves.
Anna Swir (1909-1984) was a Polish poet whose verse, arid and ominous yet full of life, is too little known today. Thankfully, in 2011 Calypso Editions made a selection of her war poems available in a new translation by Piotr Florczyk with a foreward by Jericho Brown. This decision can only be applauded (though I still hope to see the Complete Poems one day).
Swir worked as a military nurse during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and her first-hand experience led to the sequence of poems Building the Barricade, first published in Poland in 1974. While her later love poems are psychological labyrinths with a strongly feminist outlook, Building the Barricade recounts incidents, reviving the small and forgotten characters of war: civilians, volunteers, looters, infants, nurses; all the people that history remembers on the sidelines even while being in the middle of it all. The sole poem to make mention of the higher military is not actually about them at all but the girls who deliver their orders:
‘Said the Major’
“This order must be delivered within an hour,”
said the Major.
“That’s not possible, it’s an inferno out there,”
said the second lieutenant.
Five messenger girls went out,
one made it.
The order was delivered within an hour.
The poems are arranged as an evolving narrative; this if anything heightens the intensity of Building the Barricade – from the immediacy of ‘Beauty Dies’ and ‘Conversation Through a Door’ it leads us to the uprising’s end and then come Madrigals, ‘Waiting Thirty Years’ and ‘Poetry Reading’ as the war becomes internalized and life somehow continues. More than that, when you read the Madrigals (“That first night of love…” the first after the War?) they perfectly match the tone of her love poems (collected in Happy as a Dog’s Tail and Talking to My Body). Piotr Florczyk preserves the voice from the earlier Czesław Miłosz/Leonard Nathan translations, which is the highest praise I can give any translator.
It was only a moment of life,
though it wanted to be a conclusion.
it wanted to understand the mystery of the world.
That night of love
Above all else, Building the Barricade is a survivor’s narrative, exhausting and stark. The more I read it, the more it drained me. The titular poem shows Swir surviving as others die at random, a motley assortment, smuggler girl, dressmaker, tram driver / all of us cowards. The chaos and unpredictability of the uprising is a common theme. ‘He Got Lucky’ refers to a professor who escaped with only a beating while ‘The Child Lives One More Hour’ deals with infant starvation with brutal calmness. Looters perish by the very chaos that enables them to steal and museums burn.
What a sin to spy
on naked flames,
what a sin to eavesdrop
on breathing fire. I flee this speech
on earth before the speech of man.
‘Talking with Corpses’ eventually finds her apologizing for being alive but the dead have no envy of the living and forgive her: Life / after all was so dangerous back then. I would not hesitate to call this necessary poetry. Truthful, vivid memories of the rubble of World War Two.
“Poetry creates around a man a delicate, tender miniworld” Anna Swir declared, “to protect him from the dreadfulness of the maxiworld.” Talking to My Body, the collected works Polish feminist Anna Swir, takes us on a journey of “that which is most important.” What can we learn from the world contained within Swir’s miniatures? How do Swir’s poems which were written from the 1930’s – 1970’s inform and refresh our modern 21st century approach to mind, body and spirit?
In the first section of Talking to My Body titled “Poems About My Father and My Mother” Swir creates “mini worlds” that give tender glimpses of her nuclear family (the speaker and her parents). The collection begins with a speaker who defines herself as part of a threesome. She evokes the preciousness of this magic threesome effectively in “Three pieces of Candy” “We taste. Three paradises melt /in our mouths.” And in and the final line of “Christmas Eve,” “ How good it is we’re here, / we three.” And shows us the touching vulnerability of a child talking about her parents in “My Father’s Workshop,” “I would wake up at night/ afraid they both would die, / I listened to their breathing…” In “An Artist Moves,” the speaker describes her relationship with her parents with a sibling-like quality of joy and mischief. There is a sense of “the us” (nuclear family) against “the maxiworld” in the circumstances of life. Swir creates a world in which these 3 characters are working together as a single organism to survive and makes us see family in a way that seems fresh to modern eyes.
An Artist Moves
We leave on tiptoe
Father carries the easel
And three paintings, mother
A chest and the eiderdown
Inherited from grandmother, I myself
A pot and a teakettle.
We load it all on a car, quickly,
So the janitor does not see.
My father is pulling the cart, quickly,
So the janitor does not see.
Is pulling the cart, quickly,
My mother pushes at the rear quickly,
I push also, quickly, quickly, quickly,
So that the janitor does not see.
A half-year’s rent.
As the collection progresses, there is still a magic threesome, but now it is the speaker who becomes the mother, her husband and their child. “In Felicia’s Love – Three Bodies” the final image has the effect of echoing the earlier familial images and communicating this special tenderness is passed down to the next generation. “And the three bodies pool their warmth/ At night, when a pregnant woman/ lies by her man.” Swir’s vision of the nuclear family is strikingly different than what we see in modern culture where we are surrounded by images of the failure of family. In present culture we are encouraged to look beyond family, beyond what we have, and we ask ourselves if we are happy. Yet, while the soul of Swir’s family may feel ideal to us, it also feels like the most natural thing in the world. We rediscover something about what family means the way we do when we watch a nature documentary and see animals acting instinctively. Milosz calls Swir’s poems “anti –psychological.” The lack of psychology and plainness of the language helps us see family in its natural form. Between political family values and teen angst the soul of the 21st century family can often get lost. We are surrounded by art and media that aim to expose the imperfections of family. Family is often portrayed with sarcasm as something you need to escape from, something that inspires therapy. Swir’s poems remind us that family survives as the sum of the parts. What’s interesting about this section in Talking to My Body in relation to the rest of the collection is the speaker’s strong sense of self. There is never any doubt that the speaker isn’t exactly where she belongs. Yes there is poverty, hardship and extreme vulnerability, but the speaker’s identity is unshaken.
In the next section of “Talking to My Body” there is a shift in tone and the speakers of the poems seem very disconnected and alone in the world. Swir uses the technique of writing about flesh and body parts in a plain unsentimental way. It’s as though the speakers in her poems are aliens trying to make sense of body and soul. In “Myself and My Person” Swir writes, “There are moments/when I feel more clearly than ever that I am in the company/of my own person” Then she asks “what would happen” if she physically turned left but her “own person walked to the right.” In Czeslaw Milosz’s introduction he says ”The language of theology lost its hold over the minds of even the most fervent believers. The language of philosophy is hardly possible. The language of science is in it’s optimistic nineteenth century variety has suffered a loss of self-assurance. In this situation a poet trying to come to terms with experience has had to discover his or her own improvised means.” We find ourselves in a similar time of rugged individualism. There is this sense that everyone is walking down the street listening to the sound of a different drum - literally on their Ipods. In Swir’s case it’s almost as if she has created the most simple unit of religion where she has made her body the temple or church by which she seeks and prays in search of self. In her often painful search for self, there are moments of ecstasy in which the mind body and soul align in just the right way. (These days we have a drug called “ecstasy” that will do that for us.) In “A Woman Talks to Her Thigh” she describes a profound soulful state which she reaches through physical intercourse– “The souls of my lovers/open to me in the moment of love/…I read as does an angel/thoughts in their skulls/…I enter their souls,/I wander/ …I come to myself slowly.” She concludes – “the most exquisite refinement” of her soul cannot do for her what the good looks of her thigh can.
In “What is a Pineal Gland” the speaker describes her lover sleeping and the physical work going on inside his body, his lungs and digestion. And asks “do you belong to me?/I myself do not belong to you.” She then describes her own body processes, lungs and digestion and with an outer body perspective writes, “homeless, I tremble looking at our two bodies.” She further dissociates between the self and the body in “Large Intestine.” “Here is my naked body. /Apparently you like it, /I have no reason to./Who bound us, me and my body?….Where am I, I, I myself?” She wonders where her real self is— if it’s in her belly, her intestines, her toe, and concludes “apparently in the brain.” The repeated use of “apparently” is darkly comedic and resigned. She continues, “Take my brain out of my skull. I have the right/to see myself.” And at the end of “Large Intestine” she is further resigned and defeated by the eventual decay of the body. “slowly annihilated because of the body/I will become kidney failure/or gangrene of the large intestine. /And expire with shame.” Between soul and flesh, the mind struggles to find the self in Swir’s poems. Swir is flesh-obsessed, as we are. While our culture replaces flesh with silicon, freezes flesh with injections of Botox, worships giant billboards of flesh that looks like it will never die, Swir is obsessed with the body decaying. In “You Sleep” – the speaker is so debilitated by this struggle she cannot answer a simple question from her lover - if she is happy –because she is flooded with images, fear of death and the end of the body and earthly relationships. The question “are you happy” is something we as 21st century Americans feel entitled to ask ourselves everyday. And depending on the answer we will abandon jobs, parents, friends, marriages, kids to strive towards a more perfect happiness.
Towards the end of Talking to My Body we see another slight shift in tone. The poems in which Swir talks to her body become more resolved and even ecstatic at times.
Thank you My Fate
I made love with my dear
As if I made love dying
As if I made love praying,
Over my arms and his arms.
I don’t know whether this is joy or grief,
I don’t understand what I feel, I’m crying,
I’m crying, it’s humility
As if I were dead,
Gratitude, I thank you, my fate,
I am unworthy, how beautiful, my life.
In “Thank you My Fate,” the speaker embraces her fate as she understands it and is in a unique state of euphoria which her body and soul worked in unison to reach.
Similarly in “The Iron Hedgehog,” Swir restores a sense of inner world and although vulnerable, the speaker is connected to something in her poems about family. She returns to her ‘miniworld” against the “maxiworld”.
The Iron Hedgehog
A happy woman,
I am as an embryo in the mother’s womb,
I sleep hidden in you.
Don’t give birth to me yet,
I want to be in you always….
…The world is freezing, I am afraid…
Do not ever give birth to me
I want to sleep in you
Swir’s detached, matter-of-fact way of talking about the flesh and organs, strips out the sexiness and deflates our modern notions of body. It removes us from a perpetual state of denial and “by expressing reality, attempts to master and overcome it.” Swir’s quiet style has a similar effect in her war poems which are discussed in the afterward of Talking to My Body. In “Manhunt,” in very simple strokes, she conveys every citizens’ vulnerability under the Gestapo—
“…the man who stepped up to the door holding a sleepy child on his shoulder did not know that the house was surrounded.” In “Ghetto: Two Living Children” she writes of a shooting of 2 children in the ghetto “ hidden behind a street corner, wrapped in mist, a German soldier at a machine gun…” Again, the power in Swir’s poems comes from her plain approach on matters unspeakable, like decay of flesh and war. Swir said “Let our words be as necessary and useful as once were words of magic. This is an unachievable idea.” Yet Swir herself is able to achieve a certain magic by connecting us to our deepest unarticulated fears about “that which is most important” and concluding in “I Talk to My Body” “splendid possibilities/are open to us.”
Wiersze i proza (Poems and Prose) (1936) Liryki zebrane (Collected Poems) (1958) Czarne słowa (Black Words) (1967) Wiatr (Wind) (1970) Jestem baba (I am a Woman) (1972) Poezje wybrane (Selected Poems) (1973) Budowałam barykadę (Building the Barricade) (1974) Szczęśliwa jak psi ogon (Happy as a Dog's Tail) (1978) Cierpienie i radość (Suffering and Joy) (1985)
COLLECTIONS IN ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS
Thirty-four Poems on the Warsaw Uprising (1977), New York. Transl.: Magnus Jan Kryński, Robert A. Maguire. Building the Barricade (1979), Kraków. Transl.: Magnus Jan Kryński, Robert A. Maguire. Happy as a Dog's Tail (1985), San Diego. Transl.: Czesław Miłosz & Leonard Nathan. Fat Like the Sun (1986), London. Transl.: M. Marshment, G. Baran. Talking to My Body (Copper Canyon Press, 1996) Transl.: Czesław Miłosz & Leonard Nathan. Building the Barricade and Other Poems of Anna Swir Tr. by Piotr Florczyk (Calypso Editions, 2011).
Little is known with certainty about the life of Sappho, or Psappha in her native Aeolic dialect. She was born probably about 620 B.C. to an aristocratic family on the island of Lesbos during a great cultural flowering in the area. Apparently her birthplace was either Eressos or Mytilene, the main city on the island, where she seems to have lived for some time. Even the names of her family members are inconsistently reported, but she does seem to have had several brothers and to have married and had a daughter named Cleis. Sappho seems also to have exchanged verses with the poet Alcaeus. Scholars have discussed her likely political connections and have proposed plausible biographical details, but these remain highly speculative.
In antiquity Sappho was regularly counted among the greatest of poets and was often referred to as "the Poetess," just as Homer was called "the Poet." Plato hailed her as "the tenth Muse," and she was honored on coins and with civic statuary. Nonetheless, an ancient, scurrilous tradition attacked and ridiculed her for her evident sexual preferences. Indeed, the facts of her life have often been distorted to serve the moral or psychological ends of her readers. An Anacreontic fragment that was written in the generation after Sappho sneers at Lesbians. Sappho was lampooned by the writers of New Comedy. Ovid related the story of Phaon, who, according to some traditions, rejected Sappho's love and caused her to leap from a rock to her death. Christian moralists pronounced anathemas upon her. Many modern editors have exercised "gallantry" and "discretion" by eliminating or changing words or lines in her poems that they believed would be misunderstood by readers. This history of her reception is itself part of Sappho's significance.
Perhaps the text that best represents the more purely poetic influence of Sappho is number 31, which catalogues the physical symptoms of love longing in the writer as she watches her beloved chatting with a man. This poem is preserved in On the Sublime (circa first century A.D.), whose author, traditionally known as Longinus, cites it as an example of the attainment of great sublimity by skillful arrangement of content. Noting the great passion, the accuracy of observation, and the felicitous combination of detail, he asks, in the impressionistic way characteristic of Sappho's admirers, "Are you not astonished?" For this critic, Sappho illustrates "the most extreme and intense expression of emotion," and his reading surely exemplifies the primary way in which her work has been read. For all her metrical complexity and innovation (one of the meters in which she composed her poems later became known as the "Sapphic" meter), for all the vowel-rich melody of her verse, it is the content that has fascinated her readers. Her poems are, for all their dazzling craft, repeatedly praised as spontaneous, simple, direct, and honest.
This particular poem was imitated by Theocritus and Apollonius of Rhodes; it was translated by Catullus; Sir Philip Sidney; Percy Bysshe Shelley; George Gordon, Lord Byron; Alfred Tennyson; and many others, including the nineteenth-century Greek poet Aléxandros Soútsos. That list alone may suggest something of the nature of Sappho's influence on the Romantic idea of the poet as a creature of feeling, one whose solitary song is overheard, as opposed to the classical model of the poet as a socially defined craftsperson who speaks to a group.
The same emphasis on the overwhelming power of love appears in many of Sappho's songs. Indeed, even when she wrote in the more conventional genres of ancient poetry, Sappho's erotic themes find expression. Poems addressed to individuals (such as the epistolary poem number 2) and ritual and religious poems manifest a similar content. What was once a considerable body of marriage songs, now known only from a few fragments, may be read as public, ceremonial affirmations of Eros. Similarly, the majestic hymn to Aphrodite (poem 1), while belonging to a familiar poetic form, strikes most readers as a personal outcry, more self-interested than religious in feeling. Only when one really takes seriously the testimony on the primary power of sexual energy in human life from the earliest so-called Venus figures of Anatolia to the work of Sigmund Freud do the nature and force of Sapphic piety become more explicable.
In her poetry, though, veneration for the erotic is freed from agricultural associations and traditional formulas and seems rather the natural expression of an individual whose observations are true to the complexity of her experience and include conflicted and aggressive emotion. Love, though apotheosized, is neither censored nor simplified. In poem 1, the hymn to Aphrodite, passion is strained almost to the point of vindictiveness. The author seems to seek mastery and not mutuality; it is ambiguous or irrelevant whether divine intervention will result in happiness for all. The urgent imperatives of the body rather than social or cosmic harmony suffice to motivate the goddess and her devotee. In other poems Sappho is yet more acerbic, approaching the level of a curse in poem 37, for instance. Rivals or those who reject her approaches provoke violent hostility, as may be seen in poems 55 and 158.
Most often, however, the emphasis is on the poet's own suffering, caused by "bittersweet" love (poem 130). The conventions of lovesickness -- uncertainty, sleeplessness, bondage, slavery -- familiar from Ovid, the troubadours, and more recent writers including the lyricists of blues songs are fully developed in Sappho. For examples, one might cite poems 51, 134, and many others. One small fragment, number 38, says simply "you burn me." In powerful and memorable images the poet declares that her heart has been shattered by love, which has struck like a tree-battering mountain wind (poem 47), while in another she compares her beloved to a flower trampled on the path (poem 105c). Most commonly and movingly the emotion is simply awe before loveliness (as in poems 156 and 167 and others) or longing, as in the beautiful image of the fruit just out of reach (poem 105a).
Her attitudes toward love attracted a great deal of attention, both positive and negative. It is perhaps as an icon of the erotic that Sappho has been best known. In antiquity and in modern times there have been those who enthusiastically applauded her celebration of physical love. Catullus, Algernon Charles Swinburne, John Addington Symonds, Pierre Louÿs, "Michael Field," some contemporary feminist critics, and many other readers have found in her valorization of subjective experience an affirmation often absent in the European tradition. The critical vocabulary reveals this orientation, as when Kenneth Rexroth repeatedly uses the word ecstasy to refer to his reading of Sappho, thereby blurring her life experience into his own and into the literary experience of the text.
Much of the history of Sappho's reputation, though, is the story of her appropriation by moralists. Those New Comedians who picked up the strain of abuse initiated by the Anacreontic fragment mentioned earlier rendered the poet a popular burlesque comic figure on the stage. A good many plays centered around Sappho, though most were wholly unrelated to her life or her poetry. Later Christian censors in various ages in Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople condemned her in words such as those of Tatian, who called her "a whore who sang about her own licentiousness." Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and Pope Gregory VII ordered her works burned.
In fact, a curious case study of the conflicts induced by Sappho's status as the world's most renowned Lesbian might be made from the comments of her learned editors in recent times. The classical scholar Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff defended her with great self-righteousness as a schoolteacher like himself who was devoted to educational and even spiritual aims, while Sir Denys Page strained to maintain that, while the nature of her desires is beyond doubt, there is no evidence that she actually made love to women in practice.
Surely the attitude of Maximus of Tyre is reasonable when he suggests that her group was similar to the group that surrounded Socrates. No perceptive reader can read Plato's accounts of the Socratic milieu without being aware of the erotic atmosphere that is often evident, although to accuse Socrates of hedonism would be ridiculous. In the present era, when homosexuality is widely accepted and the sexes are not so artificially polarized as in the past, it is time to go beyond the attacks and defenses of Sappho's supposed behavior. She remains an extraordinary poet of the Eros that animates every human being, and her works speak to both heterosexual and homosexual readers, to men as well as to women.
Apart from her fascination with the theme of love, Sappho contributed in other ways to the conventions of the lyric genre. Her emphasis on emotion, on subjective experience, and on the individual marks a stark contrast between her work and the epic, liturgical, or dramatic poetry of the period. Much earlier poetry had been liturgical, ceremonial, or courtly -- in various ways emphatically public. But much of Sappho's work is intimate and putatively private, addressed to specific women or to her friends; and her tone of colloquial familiarity anticipates medieval and modern practice. Just as the troubadours recorded the names of friends and enemies with meticulous precision and modern poets often insist on the paradoxical importance of ephemera (for instance the American poet William Carlos Williams's wheelbarrow or plums), Sappho's texts assume an immediate net of circumstance and imply that only through the particular can the universal be manifested. Unlike earlier singers, who had memorialized the values and ideology of a whole social group while remaining themselves in anonymity, the lyricists, Sappho prominent among them, found the truest and most significant material in individual experience.
In terms of ideas this stance meant that, while much earlier literature had been sustained by the social consensus of collective vision expressed in myth and legend, Sappho was free to be critical, to point out the gaps and problems in the received opinions of her society. Like Archilochus, she challenges the heroic ethos that buttressed patriotism (most strikingly in poem 63), and throughout her work she asserts, in a way little known in archaic and traditional societies, the potentially subversive primacy of the individual consciousness and the validity of its opinions and impulses.
This does not, of course, mean that her poetic practice was wholly modern. Her work, though perhaps composed in writing, was meant to be performed orally, as can be seen from poems 118, 160, and others. Many of her texts suggest that she adhered, consciously or not, to the view that poetry was a form of magic and that, by manipulating language, one could also manipulate the reality that it described. Her poems of praise and blame contributed to the development of the epideictic, the most distinctly literary of the rhetorical types. But even these poems have not wholly lost the original sense of language's sympathetic magic, though that sense is sliding toward wish fulfillment in poems such as numbers 2 or 17. In these the aesthetic ends are replacing the shaman's reliance on external events to validate the efficacy of the word. The locus amoenus that had been that vision of heaven which by initiating the worshipper assured admission is moving here toward the less enchanting trance of modern Unterhaltungsliteratur and the glowing television tube. In the same way the negative images that had originally been designed to avert evil become instead critical, defamiliarizing explorations of contradictions in human experience or tensions in the psychic self.
In literary history and critical theory Sappho's greatest importance is to be found in her contribution to the idea of the lyric genre. Her work, which claims to be direct, impassioned, and simple and which is addressed to a circle of close friends and lovers rather than being impersonal or directed at connoisseurs, has significantly influenced the evolution of poetry. Her celebration of love has reechoed through the centuries not only in the work of translators and direct imitators, but also in all those other voices that have dared declare their love to be radically important, more compelling and serious than abstract notions of truth or justice or piety. At the same time Sappho reminds modern readers of poetry's roots in magic and religion while occupying a firm place in Greek literary history as a metrical inventor and an expert practitioner of her art. Finally, she is widely recognized as one of the great poets of world literature, an author whose works have caused her readers to repeat in many different forms Strabo's amazed epithet when he wrote that she could only be called "a marvel."
Known for early poetry written by a woman poet, including some poems about love of women for women. "Lesbian" comes from the island, Lesbos, where Sappho lived.
About Sappho of Lesbos
Sappho, a poet of ancient Greece, is known through her work: ten books of verse published by the third and second centuries B.C.E. By the Middle Ages, all copies were lost. Today what we know of the poetry of Sappho is only through quotations in the writings of others. Only one poem from Sappho survives in complete form, and the longest fragment of Sappho poetry is only 16 lines long.
The poems of Sappho are more personal and emotional than political or civic or religious, especially compared to her contemporary, the poet Alcaeus.
Sappho lived in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, where women often congregated and, among other social activities, shared poetry they'd written. Sappho's poems usually focus on the relationships among women.
This focus has given rise to speculation that Sappho's interest in women was what today would be called homosexual or lesbian. (The word "lesbian" comes from the island of Lesbos and the communities of women there.) This may be an accurate description of Sappho's feelings towards women, but it may also be accurate that it was more acceptable in the past -- pre-Freud -- for women to express strong passions towards one another, whether the attractions were