Eratosphere Forums - Metrical Poetry, Free Verse, Fiction, Art, Critique, Discussions Able Muse - a review of poetry, prose and art

Forum Left Top


Thread Tools Display Modes
Unread 03-12-2023, 08:09 PM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: San Diego, CA, USA
Posts: 8,220
Default Sapphics

I thought we could start a Sapphic anthology here, for Christine P. and others who might be interested in seeing the form's range of possibilities.

I first encountered Sapphic stanzas in my Sappho and Alcaeus class, in Greek. When I next encountered them, it was here at Eratosphere, and I didn't recognize the form at all, I'm ashamed to say. But I found the combo of the unusual meter and the bizarre dialect of this particular poem to be galvanic:
Here's the etching that inspired it:

Timothy Steele's "Sapphics Against Anger" is often cited as exemplary, and I do enjoy it, but it doesn't always stick to the recipe:
Perhaps his occasional substitutions will provide a liberating precedent for those who might otherwise find the form too restrictive.

I'll post other examples separately. Feel free to contribute your own favorites.

[Edited to add:]

This Musing on Mastery anthology thread is for collecting examples of Sapphics. It is not for discussing the merits or shortcomings of the form.

Yes, there is some debate as to whether Sapphic stanzas really "work" in English, since Sappho's—and the later Latin versions by Catullus, Horace, etc.—were based on the duration of the syllables, rather than being stress-based, as English metered poetry is. I am aware of this. My bachelor's degree was in classical languages, and I've studied Classical Greek and Latin Sapphics in the original languages. (Which, by the way, often break a word across the third and fourth lines. And, as in most other Greek and Latin meters—including Homer's dactylic hexameter—line-ending syllables are scanned as long, regardless of what their quantity actually is.)

I consider English-language, stress-based Sapphics to be their own species, rather than inherently unsuccessful imitations of the original quantitative meter.

Everyone is free to dislike any form for any reason. For example, I am prejudiced against ghazals, because in my experience that form is almost never pulled off in English in a way that ticks all my personal boxes for what I enjoy in a poem. But I don't feel the need to barge into ghazal appreciation parties to piss in the punchbowl by saying so. I wouldn't have the temerity to expect fans of anything to thank me for helping them to stop enjoying it, just because it doesn't have my celebrity endorsement.

Likewise, don't expect form-contemptuous comments to be well-received in this thread. Please feel free to criticize the shortcomings of individual poems posted to it, but spare us sweeping condemnations of the "Meh, I've never been wowed by this form" variety.

I'm reminded of this observation by member David Upton in 2006 (in a General Talk thread titled "Villanelles, Triolets, and Other Crap Forms":

For me, forms are containers. In my humble opinion, a generalized statement about whether villanelles are any good or not is like stating that one hates martini glasses or that one likes martini glasses. Personally, I love sipping icy-cold gin from a martini glass; others may not. The real problem I have is when the host decides they like martini glasses and tries to serve me beer in one. But, I don’t rail against the glass; it’s the host that gets my scorn. And there are many other containers, some of which are more versatile and can be used for a multitude of beverages, including my icy gin. That’s my take on it anyway.
We aren't supposed to resurrect long-dead threads by posting to them after a long period of silence, so perhaps if people want to discuss forms they love to hate, a new General Talk thread could be started for that purpose. Let's keep this one for collecting examples. Thanks.

Last edited by Julie Steiner; 09-30-2023 at 04:14 AM. Reason: Added a note on "I don't like this form" comments.
Reply With Quote
Unread 03-12-2023, 08:19 PM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: San Diego, CA, USA
Posts: 8,220

Maryann Corbett has this gem on p. 68 her Street View (Able Muse Press, 2017), which reminds me that the English word metaphor (from μεταφέρω (metapherō, "to carry over", "to transfer") isn't too far from modern Greek's μεταφορά (metaphōra), which means both "metaphor" and "transportation, carriage, truck,")....

A Morning Myth

Leave the landfill out of it. Leave recycling,
compost, sewage management, land-use planning,
sempiternal plastics. For now, permit me
merely this vision:

draped in easy grace from a groaning trash truck,
down the alley, out of the dawn, Adonis,
charioteer of municipal waste collection,
rides with the morning,

shirtless, buff, and sweaty. Now leaping down, he's
swinging trash bins over the rosy-fingered
smog-haze. Oh, the beautiful arms of heroes!
See, the great vessel,

grinding into motion and spitting gravel,
nears me, while my Attic imagination
costumes all the bodies in breeze-blown chitons.
But—is he looking?

Nope. He's passed, on the flank of the noble mount that
waddles down the potholed macadam, beeping
warnings, with its compactor-innards trailing
stench from the actual

rot that living leaves us. And I, work-suited,
real-life ready, stand in the fragrant wake and
steel myself to toss an apotheosis
out with the garbage.
Reply With Quote
Unread 03-12-2023, 08:20 PM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: San Diego, CA, USA
Posts: 8,220

Maryann also has this one, on p. 46 of Street View:


Modest gray two-bedroom. One story. Carport
cobbled to its side like a pasteboard carton.
Patchy lawn, with yellowing arborvitae.
Hulking beside it,

crowding both its flanks, are the great pretenders.
This one, finished, carriage lamps flashing brazen,
hurls its umbrage onto the little rambler.
That one, its dumpsters

bristling broken plywood and torn linoleum,
lumbers upward, loud in a drive of nail guns.
Tyvek sheathing claps in the breeze of April.
These are improvements!

sing the framers, painters, and electricians.
Clear the way for grandness, for granite counters,
flagstone walks and vaulted cathedral ceilings!
Why have I come here,

both my parents dead, and the ticky-tacky
dream they bought for love and eighteen-nine-fifty
cringing in the shadow of greed that shames it?
What was I after?

[The "ticky-tacky" in S5L1 seems to reference to Malvina Reynold's 1967 song, "Little Boxes".]
Reply With Quote
Unread 03-12-2023, 08:25 PM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: San Diego, CA, USA
Posts: 8,220

This one's on p. 30 of Maryann's Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter, also from Able Muse Press (2013). A publisher we are all supporting because it hosts Eratosphere for us. Right? Right? Anyway:

Paint Store

Stand there, stunned and gawking, before these altars,
walls of flapping prayer-flags with names like poems.
What might happen? Glamours and transformations.
Pasts disappearing:

teal, vermilion, ultramarine. You drink them,
suck them in like opiates. Choose them wildly.
Wield them. Then the walls in your head might crack their
cipher of blankness—

Choice, though. Walling in at a single vision.
Sinking in it. Painting it into corners.
Once, you did it: namings and nursery colors.
Emily. Yellow.

Now you think of walk-throughs. Of thinner spirits
shrinking from the force of these saturated
indigos and corals. A sift of ashfall.
Shifting to neutrals,

selling out to selfless release, you settle.
Beige and cream serenity. Light. Satori.
Hand the palette over and stare away to
ceiling-white absence.

The excellent "Weather Radio" on pp. 48-49 of Credo is also in Sapphics.
See also "Tattoo and Piercing Parlor," p. 14 of (Breath Control, David Robert Books, 2012).
"Asparagus," p. 34, "Collision," p. 65; "Iconography," p. 92.

Last edited by Julie Steiner; 03-13-2023 at 12:48 AM.
Reply With Quote
Unread 03-13-2023, 12:56 AM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: San Diego, CA, USA
Posts: 8,220

by A.E. Stallings

Minutes swarm by, holding their dirty hands out,
Begging change, loose coins of your spare attention,
No one has the currency for them always;
          Most go unnoticed.

Some are selling packets of paper tissues,
Some sell thyme they found growing wild on hillsides,
Some will offer shreds of accordion music,
          Sad and nostalgic.

Some have only cards with implausible stories,
Badly spelled in rickety, limping letters,
"Help me—deaf, etc.—one of seven
          Brothers and sisters."

Others still accost the conspicuous lovers,
Plying flowers looted from cemeteries,
Buds already wilting, though filched from Tuesday's
          Sumptuous funeral.

Who's to say which one of them finally snags you,
One you will remember from all that pass you,
One that makes you fish through your cluttered pockets,
          Costing you something:

Maybe it's the girl with the funeral roses,
Five more left, her last, and you buy the whole lot,
Watching her run skipping away, work over,
          Into the darkness;

Maybe it's the boy with the flute he fashioned
Out of plastic straws, and his strident singing,
Snatches from a melody in a language
          No one can teach you.

pp. 57-58, Hapax (Northwestern University Press, 2006)

Last edited by Julie Steiner; 03-13-2023 at 11:37 AM.
Reply With Quote
Unread 03-13-2023, 07:40 AM
Carl Copeland Carl Copeland is offline
Join Date: Apr 2022
Location: St. Petersburg, Russia
Posts: 1,404

Thanks, Julie! “The Morning Myth” is a tour de force! If I ever get to Greece, I’ll be looking for trash metaphors (απορριμματοφόρα). “Wail in Lost Muddle Earth Dialect” is haunting, and the bizarre dialect, whatever it is, somehow captures the macabre “fushiness” of the etching. As a fan of “naďve” questions and “obvious” statements, I’ll point to Swinburne’s majestic “Sapphics”:
Reply With Quote
Unread 03-13-2023, 01:02 PM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: San Diego, CA, USA
Posts: 8,220

Thanks for posting the Swinburne, Carl, and glad you enjoyed the others.

Here's one from p. 52 of Matthew Buckley Smith's Dirge for an Imaginary World (winner of the 2011 Able Muse Book Award):

When It Happens

When it happens, nobody seems to notice.
Someone coughs and hammers a nail through drywall.
Boys fling sticks at birds while the church bells tattle.
     Nightfall approaches.

When it happens, dog walkers trail their shadows,
Saving their sacks of waste through the tattered sunset.
Whitened breaths come loose into burnt October,
     Heady as incense.

Someone falters, pushing a drowsy infant
Up the sidewalk, touched by a breeze from childhood
Warm against the cheek as a shower in springtime,
     Full of misgiving...

Just perfumed exhaust from a neighbor's laundry,
Nothing special, nothing to tell the other
Babysitters after the playground's stumbled
     Into the darkness.

When it happens, all of the words are taken.
Those you might have called on, that could have helped you,
Rattle in the gutter on flyers and leaflets
     Selling you something.

Lamps supply each row house's upper windows
Heat enough and light to pretend it's morning.
Night's a looking glass in the fragile instant
     No one is looking.
Reply With Quote
Unread 03-14-2023, 07:11 PM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: San Diego, CA, USA
Posts: 8,220

Summer Sapphics
by Marilyn Taylor

Maybe things are better than we imagine
if a rubber inner-tube still can send us
drifting down a sinuous tree-draped river
               like the Wisconsin —

far removed from spores of touristococcus.
As we bob half-in and half-out of water,
with our legs like tentacles dangling limply
               under the surface

we are like invertibrate creatures, floating
on a cosmic droplet — a caravan of
giant-sized amoebas, without a clear-cut
               sense of direction.

It's as if we've started evolving backwards:
mammal, reptile, polliwog, protozoon —
toward that dark primordial soup we seem so
               eager to get to.

Funny, how warm water will whisper secrets
in its native language to every cell — yet
we, the aggragation, have just begun to
               fathom the gestures.

POETRY, June 1999, p. 142
Reply With Quote
Unread 03-14-2023, 08:36 PM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: San Diego, CA, USA
Posts: 8,220

Richard Lattimore's 1949 metrical translation of "The Anactoria Poem" by Sappho only works if you know where the stresses are supposed to fall, and promote some syllables and elide others, accordingly. "ON the BLACK EARTH IS an ar-RAY of HORSE-men" is not how any other English speaker would read this, nor "IS the LOVE-liest. LIGHT were the WORK to MAKE THIS / PLAIN to ALL.") Anyway:

Some there are who say that the fairest thing seen
on the black earth is an array of horsemen;
some, men marching; some would say ships; but I say
          she whom one loves best

is the loveliest. Light were the work to make this
plain to all, since she, who surpassed in beauty
all mortality, Helen, once forsaking
          her lordly husband,

fled away to Troy-land across the water.
Not the thought of child nor beloved parents
was remembered, after the Queen of Cyprus
          won her at first sight.

Since young brides have hearts that can be persuaded
easily, light things, palpitant to passion
as am I, remembering Anaktória
          who has gone from me

and whose lovely walk and the shining pallor
of her face I would rather see before my
eyes than Lydia's chariots in all their glory
          armored for battle.

I must confess that I've never really understood this poem. Who, other than jerks like Putin and Trump, wouldn't rather see their beloved than a military parade? And wouldn't even those jerks rather see an attractive woman than enemy forces arrayed against them? So even if this is riffing on a then-famous quotation by a conqueror, it seems like a no-brainer. "PLAIN to ALL" indeed.

Last edited by Julie Steiner; 03-14-2023 at 08:41 PM.
Reply With Quote
Unread 03-15-2023, 09:09 AM
Maryann Corbett's Avatar
Maryann Corbett Maryann Corbett is offline
Join Date: Feb 2006
Location: Saint Paul, MN
Posts: 9,652

Julie, thanks for those many shout-outs. Another Spherean who really likes sapphics is Rick Mullin. I've pulled his Coelacanth off the shelf and have already found two of them. Here's the one that's short enough to type:

Sappho's Letter to Sophie

After Picasso's Figures on the Beach, 1931

Darling, since our meeting in Acapulco
I'm a wreck. Your coconut-buttered shoulders,
cockled braids and Louis Vuitton bikini
cover my action

even now! Our Mexican beach encounter
come and gone a year and a half, I'm dying,
lying here, unable to focus, Sophie.
Throw me a lifeline!

No alarm, no casual titillation
pulls me up, engages my soul. I'm even
sleeping through my fiancé's charm offensive.
None of it matters.

Only you, the woman who brushed against me.
You, my fatal island predestination,
rubbed in salt, tequila, and brushing palms of
coconut butter.

I'm off now to see if I can find one I recall by Rhina Espaillat.
Reply With Quote


Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is Off
Forum Jump

Forum Right Top
Forum Left Bottom Forum Right Bottom
Right Left
Member Login
Forgot password?
Forum LeftForum Right

Forum Statistics:
Forum Members: 8,365
Total Threads: 21,856
Total Posts: 272,636
There are 1911 users
currently browsing forums.
Forum LeftForum Right

Forum Sponsor:
Donate & Support Able Muse / Eratosphere
Forum LeftForum Right
Right Right
Right Bottom Left Right Bottom Right

Hosted by ApplauZ Online