fragment of Sappho's poem on old age, assigned to Book IV, based on its meter

Papyrus strips with bits of Sappho’s poems used to wrap mummies, stuff sacred animals, and wrap coffins in Egypt… What?

The so-called sapphic stanza or strophe snagged me as I read along the other day. Poems by Marilyn Hacker started it.

Sappho. They say there once were nine (poetry) books of hers at the Alexandrian library. She was called “the tenth muse.”

One of the great Greek lyrists of the ancient world, Sappho was born some time between 630 and 612 BC… Given the fame that her work has enjoyed, it is somewhat surprising to learn that only one of Sappho’s poems is available in its entirety–all of the rest exist as fragments of her original work… Late in the 19th century, however, manuscripts dating back to the eighth century AD were discovered in the Nile Valley, and some of these manuscripts proved to contained Sappho’s work. In the excavations that followed, strips of papyrus–some containing her poetry–were found in number… The work to piece these together and identify them has continued into the twentieth century.                                                       From < http://www.sappho.com&gt;

“Sappho fascinates us because she is there at the beginning of literature, rooted as deeply into the history of human imagination as any other writer. …she is a slate upon which anything can be written, about whom anything can be imagined, and from whom anything, therefore, is possible. Of her 189 fragments, twenty are only one word long, thirteen are only two words long, thirty-three are under five words long, and fifty-nine are under ten. There is in fact so little we know about the poet that upon approaching her work we must at least first acknowledge the extraordinary predicament of having neither text nor context with which to read it.” This is from John D’Agata, “Stripped Down Sappho,” his review of Anne Carson’s book: If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho.

I once spent an hour with Carson’s book. I think it was at Poetry at Round Top Festival in Texas. Pages are etched in my mind. Here’s one:

Fragment 92 (The bracket marks a lost line, torn apart or full of holes):
]
]
]                                                                     
]
robe
and
colored with saffron    
purple robe
cloaks
beautiful
]
purple
rugs
]
]

 But this is a side track – the remarkable historical figure and her mysterious writing.

 SAPPHICS: the definition from Timothy Steele ~

“Sapphic Stanza: in ancient poetry, a stanza of four lines, the first three of which have eleven syllables… and the last of which has five syllables. The stanza’s named after its most famous practitioner, Sappho of Lesbos.”

Here is the pattern./x  /x  /xx  /x  /x, three times, then /xx  /x  No end rhymes.

I offer one section of a poem I’m working on. Four lines of blank verse followed by a sapphic stanza. The metrics are in contrast, the plodding camel moves in iambic pentameter: x/ 5 times; while interruption and danger speak in trochees /x, and dactyls /xx.

 …Detained, a caravan could be at risk,
but he’s not brisk with her, and keeps her close.
She rides behind him on his mount; the way
is toward a vital well and next night’s camp.
 
        Fatima sees the dust up ahead, a worry.
        Clouds like that can mean that the well is held and
        thirsty travelers slapped with a hefty tribute.
        Outlaws and water…
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 Marilyn Hacker writes powerful Sapphic verse. This from “A Braid of Garlic.

 At the end of elegant proofs and lyric,
incoherent furious trolls in diapers.
Fragile and ephemeral as all beauty:
The human spirit–

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