When my font of energy for writing and editing runs dry, I sometimes turn to ancient words. With the publication of Cascadia Editors Collective member Gillian Jerome’s book of poems, titled Red Nest, and the continued success of Madeline Miller’s novel Circe, I thought I’d reflect on the writing process and the clarifying influence of ancient poetry. Today I’m reading Sappho and I find myself slipping into another world.
A poet looks out across sun-drenched cliffs at the rolling green mountains and the glittering sea beyond them, the sea breeze tossing her dark hair across her face. Then she turns north to gaze across the waters toward the site of once mighty Troy, brought low by an alliance of Greeks six hundred years prior. Her mind is filled with the scene of the mighty warrior Hector leaving his wife Andromache to face the fearsome Achilles. First feelings, then words begin to form in the mind of the poet. She turns from the sea and begins to create.
Ancient literature holds special sway today for being among the oldest recorded writing. The fragments that have been passed down to us from our ancestors serve as inspiration and encouragement as we work on our own compositions. Our world may have changed, but the audacity of setting words down and the joy of creation still echoes in the human heart. Nowhere else is this more evident than in the works of Sappho, an Aeolic Greek poet born in 630 BCE.
Sappho is rumored to have completed nine books of lyrics. Only one of her poems has survived in full, the rest coming to us in form of fragments. Tiny pieces of papyrus that have cheated the passage of time give us a view into her world. Passages like this one demonstrate our ignorance while highlighting our similarities:
Dead you will lie and never memory of you
will there be nor desire into the aftertime—for you do not
share in the roses
of Pieria, but invisible too in Hades’ house
you will go your way among dim shapes. Having been breathed out.
Here Sappho delivers a verbal thrashing leaving her unnamed target wallowing in the most insidious fate she can devise—obscurity. Pieria is a reference to the mythical birthplace of the Muses in ancient Greece and the roses growing there came to symbolize their works. To be without the works of the Muses—namely art, culture, and even memory—was to pass into death as smoke from an extinguished candle is spread into the wind.
What fire led Sappho to create this passage? Was it an admirer turned away from the life? Was it a rich person discounting the connection of composition and art to the human soul? The fragments of work that reach us from ancient voices tease us to make connections and spur our imaginations to picture worlds quite different from our own.
Writers share a passion for creating that likewise echoes of the inner monologue found in writers of the ancient past. Sappho has much to say as to the encouragement of writers and the concept of guilt and shame:
I want to say something but shame
yet if you had a desire for good or beautiful things
and your tongue were not concocting some evil to say,
shame would not hold down your eyes
but rather you would speak about what is just
Here Sappho acutely lays out what good composition entails, namely a desire to portray what is just or true and the necessary overcoming of shame. This shame may come in many forms—that our work isn’t good enough or that what we have to say isn’t worthy—but it is only when we overcome this hurtle that we assume the mantle of the poet or the writer. Simply put, we must overcome shame to create. Sappho turns this attention instead on beauty in both the expression of words and the truth behind them.
Though Sappho died around 2,500 years ago, her life and her works, along with a chorus of ancient writers, still inspire others to create. From her sexuality that refuses to fit in amongst the heterosexual norms of today to the refugee crisis taking place amongst the beloved hills and waters of her island home, Sappho’s voice still echoes in hearts that beat with life. Sappho herself foresaw this, composing the line “someone will remember us, I say, even in another time.” What does she encourage you to say?