For not the first time here, I need to travel in a roundabout way in time and place to get to today’s piece. Last post, I discussed how little survives of the work of the ancient Greek poet Sappho: only a small handful of more-or-less complete poems, the rest fragments (some as small as a single word).
What caused us to then remember her at all, to collect and care about these fragments? I think it’s largely because the legends that grew up about her combined with the short verses that survive are intriguing. Yes, the ancient Greeks praised her formal poetic achievements highly, but what survives of her writing and biographic legends testify to a poet who lived and writes about love and desire. The compression of the lyric form mixes with the intensity of the erotic themes and the peak-a-boo of their historic fragmentation — the poems flirt with us.
And now for the time-jump. We move to the beginning of the 20th century, from an exotic 7th century BCE Aegean island dweller to a Canadian, a poet with the name of Bliss Carman.* In 1894, Carman and a college friend published a collection of poems extolling the romantic carefree life: Songs of Vagabondia. Not quite as ecstatic as Whitman or Jack Kerouac, it none-the-less found a public and launched two sequels. Carmen followed this series up in 1907 with what became his most highly praised poetry collection, the audacious Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics. How’s that? We’ve established there’s only a handful of somewhat complete poems.
Bliss Carman audaciously invented his own extension of Sappho. Sappho is here depicted as being the first poet to chew on the cap of her pen while thinking.
Carman’s cousin, and fellow worker to establish a Canadian poetry, Charles G. D. Roberts, explained what Carmen did altogether briefly in an introduction to the book:
Mr. Carman’s method, apparently, has been to imagine each lost lyric as discovered, and then to translate it; for the indefinable flavour of the translation is maintained throughout, though accompanied by the fluidity and freedom of purely original work.”
One wishes for more explanation. Roberts’ account reads to me like one of those occultists who receive texts through spirit guides or translate ancient inscriptions by telepathic laying on of hands. However, in reading the entire book I get a sense of a different tactic with the same strategic goal that I’ve admitted in some of my translations and presentations with music: an attempt to make the old text in an old language uniquely accessible to some contemporary readers.
Yes, yes there are dangers in inauthenticity and willful anachronism. Um Actually historical scholarship illuminates things too, but last time I said I understand and find value in those current readers of Sappho who wish to encounter her as if she was a modern gay woman. Carmen wanted his readers back then to get some sense of Sappho’s expression of unboundaried love that the fragments hint at if assembled just so.
His re-animated Sappho is more of a circa 1900 Pre-Raphaelite to Pre-Modernist** one. He eschews rhyme and doesn’t go all out for florid poetic diction. Most of the lines are his, not Sappho’s by any actual sense of translation, and perhaps they are best appreciated in the same way that dialog is in a historical novel. In research this week I understand there were some notes where Carman at least connected a portion of the poems with the corresponding cataloged Sappho fragments, but nothing like this was contained in the published book.
At it’s best, like today’s piece, you get a poem that wears its intent of patinaed timelessness lightly. Here’s a link to the poem’s text if you want to read along. I particularly like the image of the coupled lovers watching from the bedroom window unknowable ships whose ventures are now safe in port.***
For music today, I’ve turned not to the ancient lyre and flutes of Sappho’s time, but perversely to try for that timeless illusion using synthesizers along with my fretless electric bass. The player gadget may appear below to hear my performance of Bliss Carman’s “LXXXII Over the roofs the honey-coloured moon” poem. Some blog viewers will not show the player gadget, but then this highlighted hyperlink will play the audio piece if you click on it.
*I’ll admit it: the moment I read this name, I smiled. I couldn’t tell what gender. To modern ears “Bliss Carman” sounds like a florid pen name on a romance novel, or even a drag queen’s persona, but some reading and research staunched my snickering. In Real Life, he helped establish Canadian literary poetry and his career stretched from the establishment of the Canadian Confederation to the Modernism of the 1920s.
**Look to the youth of not a few Modernists and you’ll find William Morris and Pre-Raphaelite influences, and sometimes well-thumbed Algernon Swinburne poetry collections too. This Wikipedia article on Carman’s Sappho says it was admired by Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens. Though I have no cite, I could see H.D. and Amy Lowell drawing from Carmen’s version of Sappho too.
***Reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights” poem with lovers “Futile — the winds — To a Heart in port — Done with the Compass — Done with the Chart!” Dickinson’s poem would have been somewhat freshly published when Carmen was working, and I wonder if he knew it?