For Sappho: After Sappho Themes
by Carolyn Kizer

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Carolyn Kizer has been frequently described by critics as a poet heavily influenced by her own, personal, background; when her writing demands a paradigm, she assembles it from the details of her own life. Then, deftly, the structured personal narratives are exaggerated and expanded into situations that can be described only as commonly experienced and, even, universal. In “For Sappho: After Sappho,” Kizer depicts her own discomfort with her somewhat overbearing mother’s insistence on her daughter’s creative development in the face of her evolving individuality: Kizer becomes Sappho herself and her mother the ubiquitous Aphrodite whose demands for “a speaking instrument” forces her daughter’s dedication to the writer’s craft, which, eventually, became her only emotional outlet: “breath immortal/ the words nothing/ articulate poems/ not pertinent the breath/ everything.” These images, although striking in their personal relation to Kizer’s life, interact and merge into a larger perception of the power of a somewhat Freudian, devouring maternity over an emergent filial rebelliousness. Every daughter can see the essence of female rebellion from maternal, or societal, domination. Hence, Kizer’s personal becomes a female universal; sexual exile and humiliation, loneliness, and renunciation of all pleasures as the punishment for a creative writer’s life. Yin, the volume in which “For Sappho: After Sappho” was originally collected after its first publication in Kayak, is titled in Chinese, literally, as “the female principle.” Most of the poems, not surprisingly, then, deal with female thoughts, perceptions, instincts, and creativity in the face of sometimes-brutal repression. Sappho, like the adolescent girls depicted in the companion poem “Running Away from Home,” is caught up in a society whose stifling restrictions preclude deviation from the norm, and her very lack of “yin,” or passivity, is what dooms her. Kizer herself, often described by critics as not writing like other women, tenuously seeks a balance between what may be termed her female consciousness and her frank, “masculine” style—that is, its very lack of sentimentality or (as one may observe in Plath or Sexton) neuroticism. Sappho’s poems, which somehow survive her even if only as “the fragments,” demonstrate her creativity and will—prominent themes in the books as a whole. Its variety of female utterances (by mothers and daughters, muses and goddesses) consolidate into a single, mature, female voice that refuses to be either passive or bleak: “you dart through the future/ which is memory/ —words heard a thousand times.” Carolyn Kizer, throughout all of her works, but particularly through this poem, has found a voice for the female condition in life, as well as the human condition overall.