21 January 2013

on words in two translations of sappho

The Poetry of Sappho, translated by Willis Barnstone and Anne Carson

These two volumes actually cover the same expanse of work by Sappho (namely all of it that is left), but they have very different approaches. Whereas Carson emphasizes the fragmentary nature of the surviving texts by structuring them on the page with their missing lines displayed as blank space, Barnestone writes out each piece as if it had been completed, as if Sappho had structured them the way that we have them now. Both are important for my poetics. I cannot think of a poet who has inspired me more than Sappho. Fragments have a power that so called “complete” poems do not. Their words hang in the air, and you are forced to think about their language from every conceivable direction and angle. Take Sappho fragment six, as translated by Anne Carson for example:

so we may see
of gold arms

Each word lives within itself as well as within the poem. Each word must be digested by the reader on its own. What does “doom” mean here? Is the lady of gold arms doom incarnate? Does she foretell some kind of impending doom? There are possibilities in each word and line, which is something I actively try to bring over to my own work.  When a word is by itself, but still in a larger context endless possibilities spring up.