Saturday, March 19, 2011

Poetry Podcast for Women's History Month ... Sappho: The original feminist poet

"In Sappho we hear for the first time in the western world the direct words of an individual woman." -- Willis Barnstone, author of "Sweetbitter Love:  Poems of Sappho"

Bust of Sappho, Musei Capitolini, Rome
The above quote sums up what feminist literature, poetry and research should do.  That is, bring in women's experiences and give them a voice.

That would make Sappho the original feminist poet.

Listen to selections from Sappho here:        

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There have been many translations of Sappho's remaining works. One that I like is "Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho, a new translation by Willis Barnstone (2006.)

"Being a woman she wrote from her dubious privileged position as a minor outsider in a busy society," says Barnstone.

There are only a handful of  "facts" we know about Sappho.  As Barnstone says, "Biographical traditon of Sappho begins after her death and is a mixture of possible fact, contradiction, malice and myth."  The same can be said of other prominent female figures who are subject HIStory. gives us the standard verbiage: 

"She was born around 615 B.C. to an aristocratic family on the Greek island of Lesbos. Evidence suggests that she had several brothers, married a wealthy man named Cercylas, and had a daughter named Cleis. She spent most of her adult life in the city of Mytilene on Lesbos where she ran an academy for unmarried young women. Sappho's school devoted itself to the cult of Aphrodite and Eros, and Sappho earned great prominence as a dedicated teacher and poet...."

The date of her death is unclear.  Various sources list dates ranging from 572 B.C. to 592 B.C.

We know even less about what she looked like.  Again, no statues, coins or vases bearing images were rendered until long after her death.

While she was most likely a prolific writer, only two complete poems and a collection of "fragments" exist for us today.  This is due to what Barnstone calls "a thousand years of bigotry." 

Although her work was popular, the Catholic Church deemed her work and obscene and ordered the entire collection burned in 380 C.E.  Destruction of prominent libraries and a decline of learning in the early Middle Ages along with what Barnstone calls, "the consequent anger of oxidizing time upon neglected manuscripts" contributed to further loss.

In her book "Sheroes: Bold, Brash (and absolutely unablashed) Superwomen," Varla Ventura calls the loss an "erasing (of) what could only be some of the finest poetry in all of HERstory."

When Sappho's name is mentioned, the first connection most people make is to the island of her birth, Lesbos, which they then associate with lesbianism.  Then comes the homophobia along with the snickers and whispers and judgments that come from fear of difference.

So, was Sappho a lesbian?  Because some of her most passionate work was directed to women, that's the assumption a homophobic society makes.

Who cares!  Does it really make any difference? Did she identify as such?  So what if she was?

Sexuality is not as neat, well-defined or categorized as western society would like it to be.

In the essay "Reorienting Desire," J.A. Massad, while discussing male same-sex relationships in the Arab world, proposes a theoretical sexual continuum whereby it is acceptable to embrace different kinds of sexuality depending ones point of development needs at a particular stage of life.  There are many kinds of intimate relations – such as friendship – shared between both sexes – so who says everyone has to be gay or straight?

Interestingly, Jone Johnson Lewis, writing for, makes this point:  

"Sappho's interest in women was what today would be called homosexual or lesbian. (The word "lesbian" comes from the island of Lesbos and the communities of women there.) This may be an accurate description of Sappho's feelings towards women, but it may also be accurate that it was more acceptable in the past -- pre-Freud -- for women to express strong passions towards one another, whether the attractions were sexual or not."

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