A Discussion on Sappho and Commas by Ren Weber

Today the entirety of Creative Writing had a long and passionate conversation about the American school grading system (and the problems that entail). Then, with only forty minutes of class left, CWII left with Maia and the rest of us remained with Heather. She told us a story about rediscovering a book with Sappho poetry, and thus we began the reading.

First we read the foreword that included this Latin phrase: “Non omnis moriar, magnaque pars mei vitabit Libitinam.” With the power of the blessed Internet and temperamental school wifi we learned that this meant, “Not all die, and a great part of me will escape the grave.”

Something quite a bit of us realized early on about Sappho’s poetry is that each one is about 3-4 lines (at least, the poems we read). Another thing I found interesting about the process of annotating and discussing short poems, though, is that they held incredible amount of things to talk about in those short lines. Her poetry writing felt (in Heather’s words): “Sweet, sensual, luxurious.”

Then the topic came to the line in Sappho’s poem “Standing by my bed,” and it goes: “In gold sandals / Dawn that very / moment awoke me.” With short poems like this, there were so many different ways to understand it. Is the narrator waking up standing by the bed? Does the narrator sleepwalk? Is it Dawn standing by the bed? Is the poet personifying the Dawn?

Eventually we came to one understanding of the poem as Dawn wearing gold sandals, standing by a bed. Then we thought about how there could be a comma between “Dawn” and “that”. Upon remembering that these poems were written in (if I recall correctly) 3 BC, we asked ourselves: Were there even commas back then?

With another round of research we learned that commas didn’t exist at that time. Later we realized that commas could be found in other poems in the same collection, and those were simply the result of the poems’ translation.
Only two days in the Poetry Unit, days and lessons like these make me feel very excited for what is to come.

Ren Weber, class of 2019

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