Note from dimanche: The fragmented nature of Sappho’s incomplete existing work forces us to look at the space between: the lines that live on are surrounded by the unknown.
IN THE MOOD FOR
Ancient Greek poet Sappho was a pioneer of lyric poetry, exploring her own personal identity within stories of gods and heroes. As years went by much of her poetry was lost or destroyed, and today the only existing works that survive are in fragments on parchment that is falling apart and decaying.
In Anne Carson’s book If not, Winter, she translates Sappho’s poetry from ancient Greek. She marks the missing words with empty space and brackets. This striking visual organization allows the reader to mark the space where words once were, highlighting the beauty of the existing phrases and pushing the imagination to invent the rest.
Looking at Fragment 78, the role of space in Sappho’s poetry becomes clear. Though the poem only consists of 10 words today, through the brackets and space around the text we understand that this was once a complete lyric poem. Despite this, the fragment remains beautiful, providing flashes of images that evoke a blossoming desire and delight.
The empty area on the page surrounding Sappho’s words magnifies their impact and highlights their beauty. She often focuses on beauty, floral imagery, and the power of love- wrapping these motifs together through imagined conversations or mythical stories. Although they are unfinished and sometimes difficult to understand, the poems retain their power.
Although dimanche was first drawn to Sappho’s work for its treatment of empty space, we also value Sappho’s role in creating space for women and LGBTQ+ perspectives in the classical canon. Sappho was revolutionary in her early articulations of same-sex love. Sappho expressed desire for women throughout her poetry, and her home island of Lesbos became the root of the modern term “lesbian.” Though early translators of her work reworked her ideas in heteronormative terms, changing pronouns and altering phrases, today we recognise much of Sappho’s poetry as written to female lovers (imagined or real).
Ancient Greek writer | Female poet | LGBTQ+ Icon | Incomplete text
Words by Elena Scott