It's so easy, after centuries of lyric poetry, after Shakespeare and the Romantics, to take the intimate mode of love poetry for granted. That's why I was happy to see Scott Horton -- the poet-inest lawyer/blogger around -- post this Sappho poem, which I hadn't thought about in a long time:
Some say cavalry and others claim infantry or a fleet of long oars is the supreme sight on the black earth.
I say it is the one you love.
Some say cavalry and others claim
infantry or a fleet of long oars
is the supreme sight on the black earth.
I say it is
the one you love. And easily proved.
Didn’t Helen, who far surpassed all
mortals in beauty, desert the best
of men, her king,
and sail off to Troy and forget
her daughter and her dear parents? Merely
Aphrodite’s gaze made her readily bend
and led her far
from her path. These tales remind me now
of Anaktoria who isn’t here,
would rather see her warm supple step
and the sparkle in her face than watch all
the chariots in Lydia and foot soldiers armored
in glittering bronze.
–Sappho (Σαπφω), Supreme Sight on the Black Earth (ca. 590 BCE)(W. Barnstone transl.)
In his Poetics, Aristotle notes that tragedians invariably wind up mining the same material, because only a few noble families in history have the kind of high drama and moving scenes that the tragedian requires. So they return to the stories of Greek epic poetry, from the imagined history and theology of a people. In this context, Sappho is as radical as she can be.
A poetry not about heroes, and the travails of noble families, or (like Pindar) the champions of the Olympics, but about the woman you love -- and who is now fugitive. Sappho doesn't just invent a mode of and content for her poetry -- with that surplus of deictic moves (These tales remind me now / of Anaktoria who isn’t here), she invents an entirely different sense of the past: both irreducibly immediate and irretrievably lost. And with only a handful of surviving fragments, she is arguably still the best lyric poet -- herself both immediate and lost. At least, she is the best we know of.