The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

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).

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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 “blindly seeking the breast.” This blind seeking awoke an equally blind protectiveness in the goddess borne of the sympathy of shared female experiences: “what to do but hold you/ lost innocent.” Like her male colleagues, Sappho also sought to make her muse into an idealized, beloved figure, but, unlike her male compatriots, the goddess discourages such dependence for a woman who does not have the same kind of societal enjoyed by male poets whose mother-love can become the societally accepted heterosexuality. Half-heartedly, for Aphrodite feels intensely for her “daughter,” the goddess must act to the young poetess as a mother weaning a baby from the breast: “you the green shoot/ I the ripe earth/ not yours to possess/ alas not yours.”

The second section moves the poem from the poet’s infantile need for a motherly muse to a description of the poet’s adolescent-like struggles with her sexual identity. Like a teenager at a party, the poet’s different sexuality draws her away from her heterosexual associates—“the company laughed at your desperation”—back to the object of her unconventional love: “you screamed after me/ Aphrodite! not giving/ as with a sweep of my cloak/ I fled skyward.” Both mother and beloved, Aphrodite acknowledges Sappho’s determinedly individual love from amongst her sea of male admirers: “Aphrodite thick-armed and middle-aged/ loving the love of men/ yet mourns you.”

But Sappho’s self-perceived difference as a poet and woman breeds only despair. The infant poet whose verses “broke my heart with pity” grows more and more alienated throughout the poem and, finally, commits suicide in section three: “and the unwritten poems lept with you/ over the cliff-side.” Her praise of the love-goddess in verse, “thirstily” sought by Aphrodite, ceases, but the goddess’s maternal anguish continues throughout the fourth and final section of the poem—“yet I hold you in mid-air/ androgynous child of dream” while she herself dreams of the eternal poetic connection between artist and muse defying the death that is “separating us/ for this moment only.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519

“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 replace her early tendency toward traditional forms and formal verse. “For Sappho: After Sappho,” collected in Yin, a volume of feminist-leaning verse, is replete with more sensual imagery. Kizer’s depiction of both Sappho and Aphrodite understates the bitter nature of female sacrifice to patriarchal society: Sappho’s “desperation” is mocked by her peers and Aphrodite, even though “loving the love of men,” “mourns” her grievously: “this mouth drinks thirstily/ as it chokes on the dust of your death.”

In all of Kizer’s poetry, but particularly in “For Sappho: After Sappho,” a nimble use of language, frequently tending toward the epigrammatic, is forefront in defining Kizer’s style. The narrative form employed in this poem constructs with magnificent brevity not only a story line but also characters and setting. The feelings evinced in the work are both personal and social, portraying the attitudes and manners of a whole community. Sappho and Aphrodite both become figures, rather than individuals, emblems rather than people, so that what one learns by reading Kizer is a lesson larger than life—a grand feminist and womanist ideology—though composed of punch-bowls, crocuses, and grass-stains as the details one normally relates to in “smaller than life” anecdotal narratives. As in Kizer’s earlier use of mythological figures in her poetry, Sappho and Aphrodite are clever emblems of womanhood rather than women per se and, as usual in mythology, there is always a certain acrid recognition of the traditional limits to identity: Sappho pausing on the ledge of her downward fall into death, “hyacinth hair rising/ in the rush of wind”; Aphrodite’s “thought holds you/ straight-browed and piercing-eyed”—mythological life, whether a reflection of historical fact or simply human nature, usually turns out tragically.

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