Basic Poetics Continuing – (Sappho)

We’ve been transcribing and  serializing Allen’s 1980 Basic Poetics classes at Naropa and we’re almost at the end. In May 15, May 18, and May 22, he discusses Sappho and the Sapphic meter and gives various examples of poets working with this ancient form  (see our previous transcription of these classes, for example, here, herehere, and here)

Picking up on his penultimate class. conducted May 26 1980

Sappho  – translated by Richmond Lattimore  (from Greek Lyrics (Chicago, 1960).

Throned in splendor, deathless, O Aphrodite,
child of Zeus, charm-fashioner, I entreat you
not with griefs and bitternesses to break my
spirit, O goddess;

standing by me rather, if once before now
far away you heard, when I called upon you,
left your father’s dwelling place and descended,
yoking the golden

chariot to sparrows, who fairly drew you
down in speed aslant the black world, the bright air
trembling at the heart to the pulse of countless
fluttering wingbeats.

Swiftly then they came, and you, blessed lady,
smiling on me out of immortal beauty,
asked me what affliction was on me, why I
called thus upon you,

what beyond all else I would have befall my
tortured heart: “Whom then would you have Persuasion
force to serve desire in your heart? Who is it,
Sappho, that hurt you?

Though she now escape you, she soon will follow;
though she take not gifts from you, she will give them:
though she love not, yet she will surely love you
even unwilling.”

In such guise come even again and set me
free from doubt and sorrow; accomplish all those
things my heart desires to be done; appear and
stand at my shoulder.

(Sappho translated by Richmond Lattimore)

The tape begins (and continues for the first nine-and-a-quarter or so minutes) with Allen and two unidentified musicians attempting to find a accurate authentic tuning – the mixolydian mode (“We’re doing mixolydian middle C”, Allen declares)  – [Editorial note, “The whole discussion of the Greek mixolydian having something to do with the medieval mixolydian hence the dominant seventh chord is (however) specious” (as Allen’s long-time accompanist, Steven Taylor, has candidly pointed out). Allen is, nonetheless, persistent]:

AG: So the point that I was trying to make is that if you’re going to improvise on Sappho…

Student: you do a blues? …

AG: …you could just use blues chords.

Student: Yes

AG: Sappho was just basically singing blues. So therefore lets try singing one of the Sapphos as a blues,  simple, doing it as a blues, could you make a…  could you make that chord from the B since you wanted a B..? – “Throned in splendor, deathless, O Aphrodite,/child of Zeus./charm-fashioner, I entreat you/not with griefs and bitternesses to break my/spirit, O goddess;..”  – or, we could do it alternatively, just using a C_chord, or C chord with a.. – …Could you play this? – do you know it well enough to play – C-seventh? F-seventh? C-seventh?

Student: So you want a.. one C-D-F?

AG; one-four-one-five-one – one-four-one-five-one- like a regular blues, but with sevenths tho, always in sevenths?

Student(s): Okay

AG: Do you know how to do that? – one-four-one-five-one- a regular twelve-bar blues….“Throned in splendor, deathless, O Aphrodite,/child of Zeus….” –  do you know  how to do it? – so you play sevenths – regular blues chords with sevenths.

(So I went over this with Andy Pepper (sic),  so we could have done it instantly but (we now)  had to start all over) –  C  –  good and loud –  “Throned in splendor, deathless, O Aphrodite,/child of Zeus./charm-fashioner, I entreat you/not with griefs and bitternesses to break my/spirit, O goddess;..” – 

No, lets do the whole thing tho’ now – lets do the other one first. – oh this has got better rhythm now – you got to go really hard – get some sound out of it

[From approximately nine-and-a-quarter to approximately ten-and-a-quarter minutes in Allen proposes a version of Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite” –  (“Throned in splendor,..” …   “….stand at my shoulder”)]

AG: Something like that. In other words, if you translated it into sevenths, that would be..would that be mixolydian, of some sort?

Student: I’m trying to think about that half-step and whole-step relationship and. I don’t know if that holds true…

AG (to second student): You think it does?

Student (2): Yes I do

AG: Of course, she wouldn’t be changing chords because she’s got a five-string lyre, but she does have a.. she does have a plectrum of some sort, so she might just do it as a monochordal, like an Indian… {Allen accompanying himself on harmonium plays an alternative setting of the first two stanzas ] – “Throned in splendor, deathless, O Aphrodite,/child of Zeus, charm-fashioner, I entreat you/not with griefs and bitternesses to break my/spirit, O goddess;/ standing by me rather, if once before now/far away you heard, when I called upon you,/left your father’s dwelling place and descended,/yoking the golden” – Something like that maybe. It’s an interesting idea. Because the thing I was realizing was that the three-line Sapphic hendecasyllabic line with the little adonic tail is not very different from a regular blues. The.. the twelve-bar blues which are three lines and then you sometimes fill in in the middle – following what I’m saying? –  So you could actually use the Sapphic form for blues. Because blues traditionally is defined as three lines with AAA rhyme. This would be a blues without rhyme, interestingly . But it would also have…. Blues is generally considered to be ten syllables, or iambic, or  some pentameter line, roughly,  (of course, it doesn’t.. it’s not.. never exactly that, it’s always something shorter, or, something longer)

Student: I thought that (Ezra) Pound example. you gave (of all the examples) in the last class, where Pound was rhyming the last two syllables, or, not even rhyming.. he was doing long vowels, staying on the last beat or syllables of these lines. So you need almost, like, an internal rhyme…

AG: Right, right, so you wouldn’t need any other rhyme. If you get the rhythm strong enough, you wouldn’t need another rhyme

Student: If you what?

AG: If you got the rhythm strong,,

Student: Oh yeah

AG: that is to say ….

Student  Yes, you could do it without that, that would just be the ultimate way to do it

AG: Yeah, yeah, so like that “fluttering wing beats”  (actually is like it, but Pound has it even better, I think he ( has) a better ear for that.

So it was an interesting idea – the relation between the Sapphic and the blues – (and possibly that’s something to work out, since nobody knows what the music was).

[Audio for the above can be heard here – beginning at the beginning of the tape and concluding approximately fourteen-and three-quarter minutes in]

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