Title: If Not, Winter – Fragments of Sappho
Translator: Anne Carson
Language: Classical Greek
Publisher: Vintage Books/Random House, New York (2002)
ISBN: 0 375 72451 6
Is Sappho, who composed her poems c. 630-570 B.C., the earliest woman to have her work was translated into English? She was much admired in antiquity, the woman whom Plato called “the tenth muse”, but notwithstanding the immensity of her reputation very little of her work has survived intact. There are reasons for this and scholars who are more qualified to speak on the subject than I am. Enough to say that what do exist are fragments of the original poems preserved on bits of decaying papyrus. These surviving pieces are beautiful even in (and sometimes because of) their incomplete state…. and tantalize us with what they do and do not reveal.
Anne Carson seems to understand that part of the attraction of Sappho is the mystery which surrounds her. Carson’s 2002 translations, collected in the book titled If Not, Winter, are interesting in a variety of ways – not least being how she presents the verses. On the left hand page is the original Greek. On the right, the English translations. This is fairly typical formatting in poetry translations, but she has also made the radical decision to use brackets to signify the missing words and sections – to define the negative space within Sappho’s poems. Carson explains her thought process in an Introduction to the collection: “Brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it… I emphasize the distinction between brackets and no brackets because it will affect your reading experience, if you allow it. Brackets are exciting. Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, there is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp – brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.”
What results is a surprisingly modern form of poetry.
]quick as possible
But you, O Dika, bind your hair with lovely crowns,
tying stems of anise together in your soft hands.
For the blessed Graces prefer to look on one who wears flowers
and turn away from those without a crown.
Reading the truncated succinctness of the first three incomplete lines, followed by the fullness of the final four, is a voluptuous pleasure that must exist separately from the original verse Sappho would have sung. Perhaps what surprises most is the loveliness of the left hand page, an area most monolingual readers tend to ignore, believing it the territory of scholars who might want to compare the original to the translation. In this case the Greek characters, to which Carson has also applied her brackets, have a visual beauty. They appear romantic and exotic, evoking the Mytilene island of Lesbos where Sappho lived and composed.
Anne Carson is an accomplished poet in her own right, in conjunction to being a skilled translator. She is also a woman (to state the obvious) – which is relevant because the feminine voice is the essence of all Sappho’s poetry. So if in some places she has taken liberties in how the lines are formatted on the page, creating spacing and indentations where none existed in the Greek, it is because her knowledge of modern poetry – of the works of poets such as e.e. cummings and Emily Dickinson – informs her translation. This does not necessarily put Carson at odds with the antiquity of the source text since no one is even sure that Sappho was, herself, literate. Her poetry was sang, accompanied by a variety of musical instruments and most of what has come down to us are transcriptions made by others after her death.
Each poem and fragment in the collection is numbered – using the same numbers/numerical system as the one used by Greek scholars. This means that Fragment 81, for example, is always the same (notwithstanding differences in translations) across texts. These fragments range from almost complete poems (Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5 & 31); to series of seemingly random words; to single lines which float at the top of a page – “and I on a soft pillow will lay down my limbs”. Fragment 38 consists of only three words – “you burn me”. While it might seem useless reading these words, stranded without context – it is that very lack of context which makes them seem powerful. True their power will inevitably be diminished as new words and lines are discovered and “you burn me” is again imbedded among the other, more relevant, lyrics. But reading Sappho is a rather like a high-stakes game of Mad Libs, something Carson seems to understand.
Over time this reader of Sappho has found herself becoming a collector of words and phrases as new information, new fragments, are uncovered. Often in the most obscure places – ancient rubbish heaps or scraps of papyrus that was used in the wrappings of Egyptian mummies. In 2005 the Times Literary Supplement published a more complete version of Fragment No. 58 than what was available to Carson in 2002. The discovery of a new papyrus magically allowed us to fill in the blanks, completing almost the entire poem. Two more poems were found in 2014 (“New Poems By Sappho” TLS, 5 February 2014). The first poem was not entirely unknown to scholars, its existence had been mentioned by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus in his writings. What has become known as “The Brothers Poem” is missing only a few words. The second find was yet another short fragment consisting of approximate five, more or less, complete lines.
Each of these new discoveries is a revelation that fills in more of the negative space surrounding Sappho’s work, and causes those seemingly innocuous brackets in If Not, Winter to take on a new significance. “…Brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure” Anne Carson wrote in 2002. That implication has since become a promise.
2 thoughts on “If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, tr. Anne Carson (a #WITMonth post)”
The In Our Time podcast from the BBC did a fascinating episode on Sappho that you might enjoy. You can get it for free from iTunes. I enjoyed reading your post. I should get a copy of Sappho sometime soon, too.
Thank you for the recommendation, James. I’ll definitely check it out – I love podcasts.
I noticed you’d reviewed The Dancing Plague on your blog. Have you tried Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast? His 5 part series Wraith of the Kahns is pretty amazing!