Sappho 31

My God, how incredible is it that we get to simply pick up a pen, or click open a file, and out of nothing but hubris and time create something that didn’t exist just a few hours, or days, or months before? How fantastic is this soul that hums along beneath the surface of our human machine!

But enough of that crap. Yes, I’m composing again. Or still. Whatever. I am making notes go. I am writing for a young (Ha!) composers competition, where the prize is cash money and a debut of the piece by a pretty kick-ass professional choir.

The theme is “Romantic Love”, and I thought, what better place to start than with the dawning of fiercely bitter lesbian political love-hate poetry, Sappho. If you don’t know about her, go check it out. Awesome stuff. If you really want to get into it, check out Anne Carson’s fantastic new translation, “If Not, Winter“.

So, I settled on one of the best known fragments from Sappho, Parchment 31, sometimes called the Poem of Jealousy. Sappho is watching another man woo her beloved, and she is jealous not of her attention to him (much), but of his ability to just sit calmly in her beloved’s presence, just sit! and not be utterly consumed with desire.

The last line of the poem is tantalizing – it is cutoff, but the fragment that remains seems oddly appropriate. It is, in various versions, either “But I endure” or “But even in poverty” … you can see below how I chose to render it, but that’s almost certainly not what was intended. As I said, tantalizing.

If you’d like to see just a sampling of how people have reconstructed this poem, you can check it out here. Below is my own translation, with little attempt to be literal to the original:

Sappho 31:
He is as a god to me
That man
who sits to face you and
simply listens to
your sweet speaking

and your sweet laughter
makes my heart pound
hovering in my chest
for when I look at you
my words are fleet and away
and away

my tongue breaks
and thin fire runs beneath my skin
and eyes lose sight
and I hear nothing but
pounding heart

and cold sweat grips
and shaking grips
and pale as the summer grass
I pass
from life
to death

bereft of you
I endure

22 thoughts on “Sappho 31

  1. aly hawkins

    Oooo . . . ancient erotica. Can’t wait to hear it! Wouldn’t it be delicious if you got all famous-composery with a meditation on the love that dare not speak its name?

    As for creating something out of nothing but hubris and time . . . I welcome moments of hubris, for they are so very few and far between. Most times, when I sit down to write, I’m there because I have somehow overcome paralyzing insecurity and certain knowledge that I have absolutely nothing to offer the world of letters. Hubris is a relief.

  2. aly hawkins

    Huh. I disagree. I think the creative impulse is in our DNA, no hubris required.

    Maybe we’re working off two different definitions of “hubris.” It’s hubristic (by my definition) to fantasize about accolades and applause and the magical end to all feelings of inadequacy. The impulse to create something for creativity’s sake is just imago dei at work.

  3. michael Post author

    Yeah, I’m using it pretty loosely. Not attached to the accolades at all, attached simply to the presumption that if we will it into being, it will be.

  4. aly hawkins

    The more I think about this, the more I don’t jive with the idea that creating = hubris. (I’m not sure why I’m so hung up on this. Sorry.) Hubris, for the ancient Greeks, meant spiting the gods — which almost always led to one’s tragic downfall. Still today, there’s an implication that hubristic actions will come back to bite you in the ass.

    I wrote a post on my blog a few months ago about the making (“wrighting”) of art. I wish we, as a culture, thought more about the making of art in a way similar to how we think about the making of anything else — whether it be a gingerbread house, a garden or a PowerPoint presentation for Sunday morning worship. Making something is just making something.

    Okay, I’ll leave it now. I can move on. Really.

  5. june

    I love it when Aly or Mike get hung up on something…it’s like sitting in the back of the class, blowing bubblegum bubbles, while the smart kids debate. I always like to learn something new when I’m chewing gum.

  6. michael Post author

    Any bets on if I can finish this in time? It has to drop in the mail by October 1st, and I’m only up to “and your sweet laughter”.

    I guess I’ll just make the rest a running 8th-note chant on a “G”.


  7. Eric Haas

    . I’m so out of it, I still use notes…
    (Looks really cool, BTW – I like the aleatoric effects).

  8. michael Post author

    OK, finished the first draft, got some great feedback from a faculty member who used to sing in the ensemble that is running the competition, now I’m ready to get back in and rewrite the whole thing.


    Here’s the updated score. I’m cutting out measures 5 – 13 and rewriting that whole section. It just doesn’t work like I wanted.

    Sappho 31 – draft 2

  9. michael Post author

    5 – 13 get to stay. I tried a few different rewrites, but nothing really stuck. Here’s the final (for now) draft. I rewrote the ending – after doing the demo, the fade and breathe out was just so cool that I didn’t want a speaking part to come in afterward and interrupt it.

    Sappho 31 – draft 3

  10. Gretchen

    sweet. post the demo when it’s done. it will be cool to read and here it at the same time. well done love. way to be creative and all that.

  11. michael Post author

    Well, the good people who were sponsoring the competition have seen fit to pass on my (obviously) brilliant composition in favor of some other (no doubt) trite piece of drivel.

    Oh well. I’m now shopping for an ensemble to perform it, and a publisher willing to distribute it.

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