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Responses to American Poetry

The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.

  

Tatiani Rapatzikou 
(Associate Professor, School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece; Advisor and initiative co-ordinator trapatz@enl.auth.gr)

 

Liana Sakelliou

 

H.D.’ s Palimpsest of Sappho

H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) plans her poetry to be a palimpsest upon Sappho’s art, as she reveals in “The Wise Sappho” (written circa 1916 –18).

The essay is not written in the manner of literary criticism, classical scholarship, nor theory. It develops through a sequence of impressions so intimate that we feel we are reading a diary, certainly artistic, and personal. In a dialogue across the millennia, H.D. discovers Sappho to be more than a mentor – indeed, a kindred spirit, a mystical seer, a goddess of “Holy Wisdom.” Sappho’s verse, “Some honoured me by giving me/ the secret of their works” could have been written by H.D. (Barnstone 149). In addition to the wisdom defending beauty and the kind needed to write artistically, H.D. believes Sappho is wise personally and emotionally—she “relates,” her gaze asks to be met. Her developed sensibility leads to a maturity of character about human values. Exploring this trait, H.D. creates her own palimpsest not only of Sappho’s art but also of her personality. Part of what H.D. means by this wisdom of emotion and personality can be seen in the way Sappho characterizes Atthis. This persona in her poems is not beautiful, and yet Sappho could see her unique virtue. The poet could select the precise details to form the most expressive, representative, and powerful characterization. In H.D.’s words, “Because the sun made a momentary circlet of strange rust-coloured hair, she saw in all her [Atthis’] fragrance, Aphrodite, violet-crowned, or better still a sister, a muse …” (65). The wise poet can imagine a better form of the mundane world, a more beautiful one.

 In “The Wise Sappho” H.D. writes mostly about beauty and the female persona in Sappho’s poetry, just as Sappho does. For the Greek poet, “Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot/and some men say an army of ships is the more beautiful thing/on the black earth. But I say it is/what you love.” (Carson, Fragment 16, line 4); she writes for her loved ones: “For my companions, / now of these things I shall sing beautifully” (Barnstone 117).

H.D. develops her own female aesthetic in the sensual imagery of her early imagistic poems, in the lines of “Hymen,” and in the 1940’s Trilogy, a work that revises the myth of the Garden of Eden and that proclaims the divine source of knowledge and life to be feminine. In later life she wrote about Helen [Helen in Egypt], as Sappho had done, to redeem the place of feminine beauty in the history of human culture.

Through a re-envisioning of the archetype of femininity, Sappho and H.D. create their new ideal of creativity to be passed down by us to the generations yet to come.

Beginning with The Trilogy and ending with Helen in Egypt, H.D. completes her vision of a new form of woman as creator—one that has the potential for sharing its power to evolve with all the life and culture around it.

In the poems, essays, video performances, and artwork that follow, our students respond to this new vision of creative energies, enriched by the feminine, and in the manner of a palimpsest their work continues the legacy of Sappho and H.D.

The work is new, hopeful, bursting into life:
            anagrams, cryptograms,
            little boxes, conditioned
            to hatch butterflies…
            …………………… (Trilogy 170)

 

WORKS CITED 

Barnstone, WillisSweetbitter Love. Poems of Sappho. Shambhala, 2006. Carson, AnneIf Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Vintage, 2003.
H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). Introduction to Trilogy by H.D., translated into Greek by Liana Sakelliou, Thanasis Dokos, Thomas Stravelis, Gutenberg, 1999.
H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) “The Wise Sappho” in Notes on Thought and Vision & The Wise Sappho, edited and Glossary by Anne Janowitz, Lights Books, 1982.

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