Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Reid Fowler, Sappho Poem Close Reading

Many of Sappho’s poems struck me, and they are noticeably different than many other poems I have read, such as the fact that in some of her poems, she includes her own name, which I found unusual. This is exemplified in Abandoned, when she recreates a conversation between her and others who have abandoned her,

Well, I was told all sorts of things –
things such as,
“Oh, dear, dear Sappho, what awful things we must
Believe me,
I’m leaving you against my will!”

and appears again in her Ode to Aphrodite, when she calls upon the goddess of love (and persuasion) to help her catch the attention of another woman. In the poem, Aphrodite addresses her by name: 

You asked,
“Who is it this time, Sappho?  Whom do you want me
to bring to you?**  Who, Sappho is hurting you now?”

Most poets I have read choose not to use their names explicitly in their poems, and when speaking in first person generally stick to only first person pronouns. Perhaps Sappho chooses to include her own name as these are her personal experiences; Where most poems the reader might choose to place oneself in the poet’s point of view, we are not given this option with many of Sappho’s poems, and instead invited by Sappho to listen to her story. The story is not our own. 

One of my favorites of the group, and is the poem that I have chosen to do my true close reading of, is her poem The stars around the moon: 

And again when
the moon
casts her brilliance all over the earth
The stars
soften the blaze of their

Unlike the majority of her poems, which seem to lean towards romance and relationships, this poem instead shines her attention on the moon and stars, something universal to all of us on earth. An interesting choice, Sappho begins this poem with the word “And.” Somewhat odd, as this is usually a word used to connect thoughts, not begin them, yet nevertheless seems to be an acceptable start for some in the poetry realm. It is paired with the word “again,” so the beginning phrase “And again” suggests that this is something she has noticed before, and is choosing to acknowledge after she has witnessed this happening multiple times. In this case, night after night the stars “soften the blaze of their beauty” under the moon’s cast of “brilliance.” “When,” as in “And again when,” adds to this implication of time, as it is not only something she has experienced on more than one occasion, but is an event that is reoccurring, and expected to happen again. Here the poet chooses to break to the next line, and “the moon” is given its own line, before going onto the third line. In choosing to do this, Sappho gives the moon its own space, and causes the reader to pause on the moon’s significance. The poem is titled The stars around the moon, and is therefore technically about the stars, but the moon is given just as much, if not more, priority than the stars. This is evident by Sappho’s description of the night sky scene. Though Sappho acknowledges the stars’ brilliance alongside the moon, they are dimmed in comparison, both literally and figuratively, as under the moon’s brilliant cast the stars “soften their blaze.” The imagery of this description is also effective, as we can imagine the stars, already bright as they are, dimmed in comparison to the moon’s brilliance, which in turn elevates the moon’s grandness. 
Another interesting word decision is Sappho’s choice to give the moon a gender, as Sappho explains that the moon “casts her brilliance […]” implying with the pronoun “her” that the moon is female. This both humanizes and feminizes the moon, making the moon more relatable to humans, as well as paints the moon in a rather motherly fashion. The stars are also humanized in a way, as the last lines of the poem read, “the stars / soften the blaze of their / beauty.” The way this is phrased implies that the stars are in charge of the action of softening their blaze (at least to a degree), as “stars” is the subject here and “soften” is the verb, rather than the moon being the one directly doing the softening, even though the moon is alluded to as the cause. Once again, like the moon, the stars stand alone given their own line, pausing on the significance of the stars as well as this time drawing a parallel between the moon and stars. In addition, the rhythm is kept fairly consistent in the poem, and the three main focus lines, “the moon,” “the stars,” and “beauty” each produce two syllables, maintaining a balanced flow embedded in the poem. 
There is no punctuation in this poem, instead using only the breaks for each of the lines as a form of punctuation which invites the reader to momentarily pause to digest the previous line. The only capitalized words in the poem are the first word “And,” capitalized probably simply because it is the opening word, and the word “The” when the stars are introduced. The second capitalization marks the transition from focusing on the moon to talking about the stars, and in its own way takes the place of any punctuation that would otherwise be present. 
Overall the poem has a very peaceful yet powerful sense. It is short, yet is packed with implications, imagery, and narrative. Where most of Sappho’s poems are specific to either her personal experiences or specific events, this poem is more removed, stepping away from personal attachments, and focusing on the splendor of the moon and stars. A simple, lovely, and also humbling read. 

No comments: