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Bitch on Sappho

By Harriet Staff

For their Feministory series, Bitch magazine has pulled together a dossier of sorts on the lyric poet Sappho, about whom very little is actually known despite the respect her work receives both now and during her lifetime (about 615 to 550 BC). What is known is that she taught at a school for unmarried women, Plato referred to her as the 10th muse, and her rhythm was unique and important enough to live on through the “Sapphic stanza” and “Sapphic meter.”

Her poems and songs were humanistic, focusing on emotional relationships between people at a time when most other poets sought to portray individuals in relationship to the gods. While this set her apart from her peers, it helped establish her innovative reputation at the time rather than hinder it. Of course, “Sappho of Lesbos” didn’t limit the scope of her work to only relationships between men and women: “The word “Sapphic” is often used as an adjective for women who love women, and the word “lesbian” was taken from the Island of Lesbos due to its close-knit groups of women during her time.” It took centuries before her subject matter would come under fire, leaving enough time for it to be appreciated and disseminated widely enough that it lived on, quoted in others’ work, despite numerous attempts to erase her life, work and influence.

While it’s impossible to know the details of her personal life, the fact that Sappho’s romantic-seeming poems used female as well as male pronouns drew the ire of powerful men in the eleventh century, who organized mass-burnings of her work. Some scholars suspect the involvement of Pope Gregory VII. Published as they are, most of her “poems” are actually fragments derived from writings by other people who quoted Sappho. Luckily, even this is enough to fill books.

Bitch cites some of her writings as suggesting she ultimately married, but a commenter points out that there’s some scholarly debate as to whether she may have punk’d the historical record: apparently her husband’s name translates to “Prick from the Isle of Man.”

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, May 17th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.