REED HOME Gryphon icon
Feature Story
reed magazine logoAutumn 2009

Channeling Sappho By Bill Donahue Calligraphy by Carol Erickson DuBosch

For Sappho, probably, a personal decline would have been splendid literary grist. So many of her poems express heartsickness. For instance:

It is clear now:
Neither honey nor
the honey bee is
to be mine again.

Barnard didn’t feel that 20th century writers were entitled to bellyache so. Indeed, after going to see James Agee read from Let us Now Praise Famous Men, a self-involved, sorrow-tinged nonfictional book about Southern sharecroppers, she snipped, “It was like listening to a man saying his prayers.”

Mary Barnard didn’t disdain Agee simply because she believed in privacy. She was also an heir to a certain artistic tradition. The modernists espoused impersonality, and the aesthetic is perhaps best enunciated by T.S. Eliot, who, in his seminal 1919 essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” laid down a complex dictate: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

Barnard had personality and emotions, and when she was sick she wanted to escape from them. In her memoir, she writes of being “hooked up to a glucose bottle” at a Vancouver hospital—and of protesting vehemently when a doctor instructed, “Stay in bed another month.”

“I felt that I must do something to make this catastrophe pay,” she continues. She cracked open two Greek grammar books and began honing her rusty language skills, first acquired at Reed, where in the evenings her classics professor, Barry Cerf, read Homer aloud to his charges.

In bed, Barnard reread parts of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Then by chance a friend sent her a new Italian translation of Sappho done by Salvatore Quasimodo. It was “very beautiful,” Barnard writes, “spare but musical, and [it] had, besides, the sound of the speaking voice making a simple but emotionally loaded statement.” Reading in a language she knew only vaguely, she was “free to balance between the Greek phrase and the Italian phrase while I search for the truly equivalent phrase in living, not lexicon English.”

At first, Barnard just did translation in her head. But eventually she felt the prod of a note that Ezra Pound had sent her back in 1934, advising her to translate Sappho. (“You hate translation???” Pound thundered. “What of it? Expect to be carried up Mt. Helicon in an easy chair?”) She sat up and started to type, limiting her sessions, per doctors’ orders, to one or two hours. Each fragment went through about 40 drafts, and when she wasn’t writing, she did what she calls “pillow-work.” She lay in bed, rolling the fragments “around and around in my mind, trying different words and different arrangements of words, asking myself over and over: what did she mean?”

As Barnard describes it in Assault on Mount Helicon, the translation was sort of like doing a crossword puzzle: She searched for clues, then wrote things down. You figure, reading the memoir, that her translations are literal. But actually she pruned; she bridged fragments together. She made brazen assumptions, and then, for each fragment, she devised a title. Look at these two related fragments as they were rendered in an intentionally literal translation by poet Anne Carson in 2002:

1. Evening
you gather back
all that dazzling dawn has put
asunder:
you gather a lamb
gather a kid
gather a child to its mother
2. of all the stars most beautiful

Now, look at Barnard’s condensation:

The evening star

Is the most
beautiful
of all stars

Likewise, Carson records these words:

but I to you of a white goat
and I will pour wine over

Where Barnard writes:

And I said

I shall burn the
fat thigh-bones of
a white she-goat
on her altar


reed magazine logoAutumn 2009