William Carlos Williams’ Sappho

We continue today with transcription from Allen’s May 29, 1980, Basic Poetics classes at Naropa.  We’ve almost come to the end of this series of transcriptions.  Following on from an examination of Christopher Smart and his “Jubilate Agno”, Allen examines William Carlos Williams‘ translation (in Paterson) of a fragment of Sappho.’

AG : …(there are several) funny things about Williams’ Sapphic – [Allen reads] –          “That man is peer of the gods who,/face to face, sits listening/to your sweet speech and lovely/laughter. It is this that rouses a tumult/in my breast/At mere sight of you/ my voice falters, my tongue/ is broken/ Straightway, a delicate fire runs in/my limbs; my eyes/are blinded, and my ears/thunder./Sweat pours out, a trembling hunts/ me down. I grow paler/ than dry grass and lack little/ of dying.”

So his adonics (sic) were “laughter”,  “is broken”, “thunder”, “of dying”  – “laughter”,  “is broken”, “thunder”,  “of dying”  –  two-three, two-three – two syllable, three-syllables, two syllables, three-syllables. But, the weird thing… I was looking at it very carefully. I’m sorry you don’t have copies because I analyzed it out…  I don’t know what I was going to do with it, but..  “That man is peer of the gods who-face-to face.” – wait a minute – “That man is peer of the gods who face-to face..” wait, – “That man is peer of the gods who-face-to face” – “sits listening to your sweet speech and lovely laughter” – “listening to your sweet speech and lovely laughter” – “sits listening to your sweet speech and lovely laughter” – “sits list-en-ing to your sweet speech and love-ly.. ” So, it’s divided in three lines, but actually it fits two eleven-syllable lines, followed by “laughter” – almost intuitively, he built into it the hendecasyllables, tho’ he doesn’t have them as a line but his stanza consists of two hendecasyllables  – “That man is peer of the gods who-face-to-face sits listening to your sweet speech and lovely” – it happens to fall out to be two, oddly enough (he’s got a good ear).

And each of these stanzas has something, some unconscious vernacular parallel to a hendecasyllabic line, each of Williams’ stanzas. So, if you ever get a chance to look at this, if you ever get it, you can check it out  The.. lets see, is there another one?..more of the… [Allen rifles through his book] – oh okay.. because I don’t have one in here, I don’t think I have one in this.. okay.. well,  good luck with this. I suggest you try writing them, but try writing them in strict meters. I stayed up last night, all night, just beginning about midnight, and continuing  till about two in the afternoon, working on a… on my Sapphics.. So I’ve got now something like ten stanzas (which I’ll read Saturday night). They got dirtier and dirtier! And then finally (I) wound up at dawn, registering the dawn, and, remembered she had garlands of.. celery? So I wound up at dawn with the Sapphic growing, nourished that night, with the rain, and the radishes in the garden. I started mentioning all the local flowers in the garden, as she did, (sort of as a way of getting out of the sex obsession!).

You might try the form. It’s really interesting . You also… Should we also..  Did we make any more of Christopher Smart’s..?

Student: I didn’t make any..make any sense of…

AG:  Okay, We did find some more Sapphics by Christopher Smart. There’s a Williams,  (a) Smart..  what else did we hear?

Student:  Your revising of your (own) poem..

AG: Yeah, I have a little.. I tried revising.. Yeah I might read that (one) here later.

[Audio for the above may be heard here, beginning at the beginning of the tape and concluding at approximately four-and-a-half minutes in] 

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