FROM THE ARCHIVES: The following article was originally published in print by Teachers & Writers Magazine, January/February 1999.
by Eleni Sikelianos
Who was Mary Shelley?
What was her name
before she married?
If Lorine Niedecker’s lines challenge us to think about assumptions we might make about women writers (and their names), think about this: How many women writers from Greek antiquity can you name? If you’re a classicist or an early lyric poetry fanatic, you might be able to name more than two or three. But if you’re the average or even better than an average literary citizen, you might be able to name one, maybe none. There were, in fact, a number of women writing in those early years, just past the dawn of written language: Erinna, Telesilla, Korinna, Myrtis, and Nossis were a few. According to the first-century B.C.E. poet Antipater of Thessaloniki: “Great Heaven created nine Muses, but Earth / bore these nine.” By other accounts, there were at least sixteen highly regarded women poets who lived between the seventh century B.C.E. and the end of the Greek period. But history has not always been kind, and many of these texts have been wiped out entirely, by fire or flood or censorship or by indifference to women writers. Those that have survived exist only in fragments, rummaged from other texts, or ancient trash piles. What do these fragments offer? For one thing, many are simply exquisite pieces of writing.
The most famous of these poets—and the first woman writer we have in the Western tradition—is, of course, Sappho. Recently, I have been using poems by Sappho and by a lesser-known Greek woman of antiquity, Praxilla, with my elementary and high school classes.
What do we know of that illustrious and sometimes infamous poet, Sappho? Facts about her life are as scarce as her poems. Born in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos in the late seventh century B.C.E., Sappho was writing not much more than a hundred years after the time we believe Homer was composing his accounts of wars and wanderings. Of an aristocratic family, Sappho was bisexual. She married and had a daughter named Kleis, which was also her mother’s name. From Herodotus, we know that Sappho had a brother named Charaxos and that her father’s name was Scamander or Scamandronymos. She may have had two other brothers. She may or may not have run some kind of school, training young women in the arts of poetry and the worship of Aphrodite. From inscriptions found on Parian marble, we know that she was exiled to Sicily, but we don’t know why. These are some of the “facts” of Sappho’s life; fictions about her abound. One famous legend has it that, love-struck, she leaped to her death from the white cliffs on the southern edge of Lefkas.
Whoever Sappho was doesn’t matter so much, perhaps, as the poems she left behind. The Roman poet Catullus and the contemporary American poet Bernadette Mayer were influenced by her, as were a great many poets in between. She was highly respected by the Ancient Greeks. If to Antipater of Thessaloniki she was one of the nine mortal muses, Plato bade us look again: to him, Sappho was “the tenth Muse.” The ancient library at Alexandria housed nine books of her poems, most of which were destroyed by censors or by time. What fragments we have today come to us from citations in other authors’ works or rehabilitated papyri (from books recycled into mummy wrappings—some found in the wadding stuffed into a mummified crocodile’s mouth) discovered in Egyptian sands. Sappho’s poems are passionate, vehement, gorgeous, and—according to the third-century scholar Longinus—sublime. Her longest surviving poem is her invocation to Aphrodite, with those much-quoted lines “yoking sudden sparrows to your swift chariot….” Sappho wrote in what translator Richmond Lattimore calls “simple but superbly articulated stanzas,” in the Aeolic dialect of Lesbos, and was the inventor of at least one form, the eponymous sapphic.
Both a meter and a stanzaic form, the sapphic is composed of two hendecasyllabic lines followed by a sixteen-syllable line. The sapphic was taken up by many Latin writers (including Catullus and Horace); by the Middle Ages, it had made its way into French, English, German, and Italian, and reappeared in the Renaissance.1
One of the most interesting things about Sappho is her position in the history of literature. “Sappho,” writes classicist Page duBois, “is a part of a great turn in the poetic tradition and the very history of the development of subjectivity.”2 In simpler terms, Sappho and a few contemporaries were the first poets to begin writing in the first person. The shift that took place from the Homeric emphasis on heroes and the collective doings in an ancestral past, tales that were repeated over and over through the centuries, to an emphasis on the individual “I” and what it does and experiences, was momentous. Although Sappho’s work is still part of an oral tradition, she and other Greek poets of this era initiated a new sense of self, a self that is differentiated from its ancestors, and with this, they initiated the birth of lyric poetry.3
Meanwhile, back in the twentieth century, at Manhattan’s P.S. 19, it was Women’s History month and a sixth-grade teacher had requested that we read women poets. Another teacher was doing a unit on Ancient Greece and wanted me to focus on Greek poets. Who would fit the bill better than Sappho? I had taught Sappho at the college and high school levels, yet it had never occurred to me to use her poems with young students. Her poems seemed too sophisticated, and it’s hard to talk about Sappho without talking about love and sex. But why not talk about Sappho simply in terms of intensity of feeling? Usually, I don’t ask kids directly to express their feelings in poems, because it seems too solicited and it’s hard for them to escape clichés. They tend to express their feelings anyway, in much more interesting ways, when they write about, say, dreams or colors. But these were classes of sixth graders, eleven- and twelve-year-olds already battling (or exalting in?) massive hormone diffusion. I decided to try out a poem of Sappho’s that I use with college students: Fragment 31, in which she turns “greener than grass” with jealousy.
I began by giving a little history. I told the students that most of Sappho’s poems were lost and that all we have left are fragments. I told them the story about the papyri being recovered from a mummified crocodile’s mouth. This is a real attention-getter; afterward, the students are game for anything. With high school kids, I always clearly state that Sappho wrote many of her love poems to women, but with these sixth graders I chose not to broach the subject of Sappho’s sexuality. “The gender of one’s sexual partner may have been irrelevant to the ancient Greeks,” according to DuBois, but to many contemporary Americans, it is not. Brave souls may use Sappho as an opportunity to dive into the subject of homosexuality; others may want to say simply that Sappho was from an island in the Aegean close to the coast of Turkey.
Here is most of Fragment 31, which the translator calls “Seizure”:
To me he seems like a god
the man who sits facing you
and hears you near as you speak
softly and laugh
in a sweet echo that jolts
the heart in my ribs. For now
as I look at you my voice
is empty and
can say nothing as my tongue
cracks and slender fire is quick
under my skin. My eyes are dead
to light, my ears
pound, and sweat pours over me.
I convulse, greener than grass,
and feel my mind slip as I
go close to death…
—Translated by Willis Barnstone
At this point, we have broken off into fragments. Part of the poem’s beauty is its ambiguity: who is the speaker jealous of, the man who is doing all the talking or the woman who is being talked to, or both?4 Catullus tried his hand at translating this poem, and Longinus admired how Sappho “summons at the same time soul body hearing tongue sight color, all as though they had wandered off apart from herself.”5
Yet the emotions are not ambiguous. I asked the kids at P.S. 19 to tell me what was going on with poor old Sappho. Several students immediately shouted out, “She’s jealous!” Why? “She sees her guy talking to someone else,” I asked them to tell me what happens to Sappho’s body when she sees these two talking. “Her heart jumps, she can’t hear anything, her tongue cracks, there’s a fire under her skin, she can’t see, she hears thunder, she starts sweating… She’s dead.” They liked the drama. Does she really die, or does she feel like she died? (Here answers varied.) Have any of you ever had really strong feelings about someone, feelings so strong that your ears buzz, you can’t see, and maybe you feel you’ve gone “close to death”? “Yes!” (of course). What kinds of feelings? When? “When my mom left, when Andrew punched me, when my grandmother died when my dad wouldn’t buy me a Sega 64, when I raise my hand and the poetry teacher goes to someone else….” Okay, so what did it feel like? Describe what happened to you physically—make me really see it unusually, so that I know exactly how you felt. Here are some of the poems they wrote:
The Girl I Cannot Have
She looks very nice I like
her but cannot have her I laugh
at all her jokes that are not
funny I like her like I like
a beautiful day but when she
is with a boy I feel like a
bomb’s going to blow up
I was happy to see that Tarik tried using enjambment, much like that in the Barnstone translation I had handed out, even though we hadn’t yet discussed line breaks.
Beating Up Andrew (excerpt)
When Andrew plans jokes at me
I get angry
The feeling makes me want to punch him
Andrew makes me feel dumb
He makes me feel like fighting someone
But I don’t want to fight
So I try hard
not to show my feelings
My mind breaks and feels
like tornadoes coming
and going, to blow my mind away
My head turns
I can’t even think
Storms shake my body
It breaks me like
I feel like fire is all over me
I can’t stand it
I don’t know how I am going to end it
—Mary Joyce (Mary J.) Tagatac
Although Mary J.’s poem is pretty much a straight imitation, I was impressed by how she expressed herself so directly about a difficult conflict, and by how the speaker’s feelings change. The poem begins with a long, blow-by-blow account of the mounting dispute, during which the poet mostly wants to fight. As the poem continues, the desire for retaliation diminishes; the author begins to focus on what happens to her physically, and how she might end the conflict. Since this poem, Mary J. has been writing up a storm, sometimes two or three poems a day.
Another student wrote about an entirely different “other”:
Wanting to Be in Union with the Other Me
When I see myself
the one who comes in my
dreams every night, I feel
why am I trapped here and not
one with him, but a different and
yet similar Matthew sharing one
life and one soul. I am only
with half and not whole with the
Admittedly, some of the kids’ poems fell into the trap of clichés about first kisses and so on. But the unusual directness in some of the poems made the exercise worth it.
Another Greek girl to use in the classroom is Praxilla. Although Praxilla was first on Antipater’s list of mortal muses, even less is known about her than about Sappho. Praxilla was from Sicyon, on the Gulf of Corinth, and was well known in her own time (the fifth century B.C.E.) and for several centuries following. There is evidence that Praxilla wrote poems to be performed publicly at symposia, an unusual honor for a woman, and her drinking-party songs were sung in Athens well beyond her time. These drinking songs often gave advice, such as “O friend, watch out for a scorpion under every stone.” One of her most famous poems is “Hymn to Adonis.” Adonis, in the afterworld, when asked what he misses from the earth, replies:
Loveliest of what I leave behind is the sunlight,
and loveliest after that the shining stars, and the moon’s
but also cucumbers that are ripe, and pears, and apples.
—Translated by Richmond Lattimore
Of the eight remaining fragments attributed to Praxilla, this is the longest, and all that remains of the “Hymn.” The story goes that Praxilla was made fun of for her love (in this poem) of simple things. Lattimore cites the saying, “Sillier than Praxilla’s Adonis.” But the exaltation of simple things is exactly what makes this a wonderful poem.
Although I read and discussed this Praxilla fragment with my sixth graders at P.S. 19, we didn’t do any writing from it. But recently I used Praxilla as a writing model, in conjunction with Sappho, while teaching American high school students in a summer program in Paris. In this class, at the Oxbridge Academie, I had the luxury not only of being in Paris but of three hours in which to work, rather than the standard forty-seven minutes.7
The first thing I did with the Oxbridge students was to talk briefly about how we view history—how we tend to imagine it as a kind of seamless fabric even though it is in fact a series of outbursts and events, sometimes simultaneous, sometimes years and years apart. We talked about how there are many kinds of histories occurring at once. I asked the students to imagine everyone in the room writing his or her own history of our times. How would these histories be the same? How would they differ? What if everyone in Paris was asked to write history? We talked about how history is constructed by a person—an historian—from a series of fragments (documents, objects, etc.) connected to form a narrative. Can one person be objective? (“No!” the students answered resoundingly. This seemed to touch something.)
From here I told them about the birth of the first-person voice, how Sappho was one of the first poets to use it. We spent some time discussing subjectivity and objectivity. We read Sappho’s Fragment 31 and the quotation from Longinus. Once again, the emotional immediacy of the Sappho poem worked its magic on the students. To help make the transition into Praxilla’s poem, I wrote another poem on the board, one by Ezra Pound:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Here, I introduced the concept of luminous detail, Pound’s idea about the kinds of sensory details that leap out at us and make a poem. Notice how Pound has distinct faces that arise out of a crowd in just two lines. Then I read aloud Praxilla’s “Hymn to Adonis.” What are the details in Praxilla’s poem that leap out? We talked about why Praxilla might have found these “simple” things beautiful. (You might try bringing in cucumber, a pear, and an apple, and slicing up each.) Some students may notice (as mine did, and I hadn’t before) how the things that give light in the poem—sunlight, stars, the moon—reflect off the cucumbers and pears and apples, making the latter luminous.
I then asked the students to think of simple things they themselves find beauty in. What do you see every day but take for granted? Can you recall strong, sensory memories of any “luminous details”? (One student said she remembered lying on the closet floor with her mother’s purple dress with little yellow moons on it.) What small things would you miss if, like Adonis in Praxilla’s poem, you left Earth? I asked them to write down one or two “luminous details” from the past—maybe the first things they remember seeing or smelling or touching. Then I had the students find details in the present. I asked them to note down at least one or two more details while looking carefully and attentively around the Luxembourg Gardens across the street.
When we met up again under a big plane tree, I asked the students to recopy their details on new sheets of paper, ones they could tear out of their notebooks. As the students finished, they handed me their copies, which I proceeded to tear up. This certainly got their attention! I then collected the fragments and handed one to each student.8
For the next part of the lesson, I asked the students to resist the temptation of finding out who wrote the fragments of which they were now in possession. Instead, try to rebuild the full original from what you have. Was it a poem? A recipe? A journal entry? You decide. Once they had “reconstituted” a poem (or whatever they decided it was), I asked them to invent a history for the piece and its author, again using clues, but this time from their own reconstructions. What period of history was the poem from? Where was it from? Was the author a man or a woman? What was his or her profession, what were his or her loves, dislikes? I asked students to use their imaginations, to let strange things come in, if they felt so moved.
When everyone was done, I had each student read first the fragment, then the reconstruction, then the “biography.” Ali Berman, from Connecticut, received this on a scrap of paper:
to see who
From this, she wrote:
entering a blanket of wind
where being new is grueling and dead, as are
the sick, boarded in the strange shadowed houses
too aged to help each other; the other
empty time is over
too raged, too bent to recover
This poem was written by a woman in her early twenties living in London in 1665 at the time of the Great Plague. She did not survive from the plague nor did anyone else from her house, where she lived with her mother, father, and brother. It was discovered in 1893 in a trunk full of papers.
The exercise seemed to allow room for all kinds of mysteries to creep in. What the students wrote, and how they responded to the exercise, gave me the sense that they felt a certain liberation from the need to “construct” a poem of their own. Recognizing the fragments from their own original notes in someone else’s newly made piece—and comparing the biographies to the real-life authors—was exciting, too.
After everybody had read their pieces, we talked about Sappho and Praxilla again. What had they learned about the effects of history on a writer’s work or biography? “It makes me see how we don’t know at all who Sappho really was, and how they keep trying to piece her together again,” said one student. Beyond that, many of them had created interesting new pieces from fragments left by someone else (much like Catullus did with Sappho). I encouraged them to think of these new creations as their own. Jessica Shaefer started with this:
on me, the
the world. Next to the laugh is
green and brown.
the hot sun,
And ended up with this:
physical and vocal
terraces only exist
in my mouth. The
sun came down on me, the
tongue of the world. Next to the laugh is
green and brown. I still cry out in the
morning of a crowded cosmos but for
the hot sun, pounding again a
perfect murder, slaying my
guilt or pulling itself like
a moving photograph across me.
Given these results, I’m starting to cook up ways to teach poems by the other fourteen known women of antiquity.
- You can find a twentieth-century example of the sapphic in Ezra Pound’s “Appurit.”
- Page duBois, Sappho Is Burning (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 6.
- Sappho and the other poets who initiated this shift in consciousness usually performed their poems alone rather than with a chorus. Generally, they performed to the accompaniment of a lyre; hence the term “lyric poet.” Sappho is said to have played the lyre herself and even to have invented an instrument.
- Translators have argued both sides, although in the original the pronouns make it fairly clear that Sappho is addressing the woman.
- It is actually because of Longinus’s treatise On the Sublime that we have Fragment 31. Quoted in duBois, op. cit., p. 67.
- Sicyon still exists—barely—as a small fishing village called Sikya (which means fig), about an hour from the city of Corinth. In antiquity, there was a statue of Praxilla in the town square.
- If you are working in standard class periods, I would suggest dividing this lesson into three parts, or perhaps cutting out the first part dealing with Sappho.
- This process can be time-consuming. An ideal thing to do is to have the students note down the details in one class. Then you can tear the students’ papers—or better, photocopies of them—into fragments at home, and continue the exercise the following day. Be sure to use one fragment from each student.
Eleni Sikelianos has published four books of poems, including To Speak While Dreaming (Sun & Moon) and The Book of Tendons (Post-Apollo). The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, she lives in New York City and teaches writing for Teachers & Writers Collaborative.