The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Carolyn Kizer’s “For Sappho: After Sappho” is a remarkable free-verse narrative that addresses the parallel relationships of a poet and her muse and the similarly creative bond between a mother and her daughter. The speaker, “Aphrodite,” mourns the death of the poet, “Sappho,” whose works celebrated the goddess both as an inspirational “mother” and as a loved muse. Like several of Kizer’s earlier poems, “For Sappho: After Sappho” uses the reader’s familiarity with the mythological goddess of love and the historically obscure poetess to address societal problems with female sexual creativity (both physical and literary).

As if starting her verse from the middle of her thoughts, the goddess details the beginning of her bond with Sappho in a paean to the poetess. She speaks intimately to her worshiper, addressing her directly from the first section where “[she] sang eloquently/ for my pleasure/ before I knew/ [if she were] girl or boy.” The lesbian poet “sang” her verse (which celebrated love and Aphrodite) no differently than would a male poet, but her loving poetic tributes to the goddess drew attention to her different gender: “not sister not lover.” The relationship, that of woman to woman, promised to be a difficult one fraught with the uncertainties of either the mother/daughter or the homosexual love-bond.

As a poet, Sappho drew her inspiration from the love-goddess initially as an infant daughter...

(The entire section is 570 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“For Sappho: After Sappho” depends strongly on the use of symbolism and parallel imagery. Kizer’s work, as noted by numerous critics, has progressed slowly from an early reliance on traditional (Chinese or Latinate) forms with often-harsh imagery to a freer, more thoughtful and “confessional” style. Throughout all of her poetry, however, Kizer’s ironic voice, both tersely emotional and heavily controlled, reveals a desire to perfect a range of forms both traditional and free. “For Sappho: After Sappho” is a poem which straddles the conventions of both Kizer’s eras. Similarly to early works, “For Sappho: After Sappho” uses shocking, sometimes sensational imagery and extended metaphors to describe and evaluate the consequences of personal, often internal conflicts that individuals create; the conflicted young poetess, laying “on the grass/ retching then spewed [her] love/ over the bed of crocus buds,” the detritus of her heavy night of drinking reflective of the troubled, emotive poetry which spews identically from her mind: “some drops/ some essence/ has been distilled.” Just as in earlier writings, Kizer refuses to hide the ugliness of life behind artistic phrasing, choosing the birth and raising of a troubled daughter as a metaphor for the evolution of a reluctant poetess in the hands of a sometimes overly encouraging mother. However, the poem’s casual style is more suggestive of her later works, where free verse and everyday idiom...

(The entire section is 519 words.)