If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?
— Emily Dickinson
Ladies and gentlemen, now I know what Emily Dickinson means here. It had been a theoretical sensation up to this point, merely abstract, something that I thought I might feel someday — but now I have felt it, and I know exactly what she’s talking about.
I’ve been working at reading poetry in a (somewhat) more dedicated fashion for the past few months, and I finally found a poet who took my head off: Sappho. Her writing has the clarity and jolt of the best moonshine, eloquence aplenty, and a direct emotional connection. She just might be my new favorite poet. I immediately inter-library-loaned a volume of her work, and will devour it when it arrives. This is poetry the way people always talk about it. Even in the modern world, there’s still a place for “the best words in the best order” — for universal human experiences distilled into unforgettable verse that changes you. Sappho knew what that feeling was like, too, and even though she was very different than I am — female vs. male, (apparently) not entirely straight vs. definitely straight, ancient Greek vs. modern American — I can still appreciate her poetry and the effects it has. And they may have found more of her stuff! Sappho, this one’s for you…and us:
Like the very gods in my sight is he who
sits where he can look in your eyes, who listens
close to you, to hear the soft voice, its sweetness
murmur in love and
laughter, all for him. But it breaks my spirit;
underneath my breast all the heart is shaken.
Let me only glance where you are, the voice dies,
I can say nothing,
but my lips are stricken to silence, under-
neath my skin the tenuous flame suffuses;
nothing shows in front of my eyes, my ears are
muted in thunder.
And the sweat breaks running upon me, fever
shakes my body, paler I turn than grass is;
I can feel that I have been changed, I feel that
death has come near me.
(from “Greek Lyrics”, p.25, trans. Richmond Lattimore, 1955, U. of Chicago.)