Sappho: A New Translation by Mary Barnard (1958)

Sappho cover

Sappho: A New Translation by Mary Barnard
(University of California Press, Berkeley, 1958)

Kenneth Rexroth is one of my favorite poets. I think that the omission of his poetry from the standard teaching anthologies is unfortunate. Although not a “Beat,” Rexroth was hugely influential upon that generation. Rexroth’s masterpiece of 1944, “When We With Sappho,” keys off a four-line fragment that was all that was known at that time of that particular hymn to Aphrodite of Sappho (died circa 570 BCE). Rexroth’s poem is well worth reading; but parts of it are borderline NSFW. The story is told that in the question period following one of his readings, a lady asked Rexroth whether he had ever tried making love indoors… .

The recommended translation is magnificently translucent–you really get a sense of the person behind Sappho’s poems, middle-aged foibles and all. The 1986 reissue appears to be out of print, but goes for peanuts (offers start at 35 cents plus shipping) on Amazon (link above). Snippets of poetry after the jump. Just buy a few copies of this as impulse presents for friends, plus a copy for the bathroom and a copy for the guest bedroom. (Be sure to read the introduction and the translator’s afterword.)

Mary Barnard’s translations do not attempt to be “poetic” in a modern sense, by which I mean anything from the time of Chaucer on. Barnard conveys the plainspoken-ness of the poetry; dare I say it, an almost (US) Midwestern forthrightness and common sense. Well, common sense as long as our poet is not pining for love, that is. Where I think Barnard makes a huge contribution is her careful choice of line and stanza breaks; those are what dictate the rhythm of each poem. Well, enough from me. After reading a few samples, you should know whether this is a book you want to own.

Poetry scans:







# # #

One Reply to “Sappho: A New Translation by Mary Barnard (1958)”

Comments are closed.