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] 

One comment

  1. When reading Allen’s 1996 Selected Poems, I became intrigued with the Greek title of his charming poem in Sapphic meter beginning “Red cheeked boyfriends”, which is quoted in the preface to another post: https://allenginsberg.org/2015/09/sapphic-stanzas-an-anthology/ . The dates and discussion indicate that it was a work-in-progress during Allen’s 1980 Kerouac School lectures and was published later the same year in the “Plutonian Ode” collection. Other than the lecture remarks transcribed above, I have found no notes or remarks on the poem or its title. Perhaps something exists in the uncatalogued manuscripts at Stanford?

    Allen’s title, which can be transliterated (perhaps faultily) as “tethnaken d’ oligo pideues phainom alaia”, is indeed a quote from Sappho #31 (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sappho_31 including the External Links at the bottom). In Allen’s lecture, he quotes Williams, which, similar to other mid-20th-century translations, is relatively literal but nevertheless rewrites and adds words. Allen strangely refers to the poem as the one about “the little girl”. Hopefully that usage merely reflects the language of Allen’s time in which all women are “girls”. Despite the uncertainties of historical conjecture, Sappho is likely addressing an older girl or young woman.

    The final word of Allen’s title is likely a miscopying of “alla”, which just means “but” and likely better belongs to the beginning of the very fragmentary following strophe. You can see the Sappho textual scholarship of the time in the 1924 Edmonds “Lyra Graeca” vol. I (Harvard Loeb Classics), online at https://archive.org/details/lyragraecabeingr01edmouoft/page/186 .

    Soon after Allen published his poem, textual scholars revised the “alla” to “em’ autai” (roughly “to myself”), which is what will be found in current renderings of the Greek such as the superseding Loeb edition, vol. I of Campbell’s “Greek Lyric” ( http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674991576 ). By the way, in Allen’s 2006 Collected Poems, the Greek title in the table of contents differs from that on the poem itself, each with additional errors.

    Unfortunately none of the above satisfies my original curiosity regarding what translation Allen had in mind (Williams? Mary Barnard? Ed Sanders?) and why did he pick that particular phrase for his title and not, for example, an earlier phrase that contains a favorite word of his: “tromos de paisan agrei” (“trembling totally seizes me”).

    My own bare-bones translation of the Sappho phrase that Allen probably had, “tethnaken d’ oligo pideues phainomai”, is “I seem to nearly die”. According to Edmonds, words of dying can be idiomatic for swooning. I don’t know the idioms, but it occurs to me that the overall situation in the poem might also be describing that other metaphor of near-death, orgasm, which is plausible there, at least for a woman. Such an interpretation would tie Sappho’s discreet diction closer to the explicit sex in Allen’s poem.

    Perhaps there are classicists or associates of Allen who would like to comment further.

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