If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho

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by Sappho

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Of the nine books of lyrics the ancient Greek poet Sappho is said to have composed, only one poem has survived complete. The rest are fragments. In this miraculous new translation, acclaimed poet and classicist Anne Carson presents all of Sappho’s fragments, in Greek and in English, as if on the ragged scraps of papyrus that preserve them, inviting a thrill of…  See more details below


Of the nine books of lyrics the ancient Greek poet Sappho is said to have composed, only one poem has survived complete. The rest are fragments. In this miraculous new translation, acclaimed poet and classicist Anne Carson presents all of Sappho’s fragments, in Greek and in English, as if on the ragged scraps of papyrus that preserve them, inviting a thrill of discovery and conjecture that can be described only as electric—or, to use Sappho’s words, as “thin fire . . . racing under skin.” By combining the ancient mysteries of Sappho with the contemporary wizardry of one of our most fearless and original poets, If Not, Winter provides a tantalizing window onto the genius of a woman whose lyric power spans millennia.

Author Biography:

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A classicist at McGill University, Carson has mined Greek literature, and Sappho in particular, to tremendous effect and acclaim in her poetry and essays. Her prose Eros the Bittersweet (1986) discussed Sappho's term "glukupikron" ("sweetbitter") among other Greek concepts, while the poems of Autobiography of Red (1998) reinvented surviving fragments of the Greek poet Stesichoros, to take just two examples. Here, Carson fully channels one of the most iconic yet least transparent Greek poets, whose work comes to us mostly in fragments. In a four-page preface, Carson addresses the fact that very little is known for certain about Sappho, apart from the fact that she lived in the "city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos from about 630 B.C." and "appears to have devoted her life to composing songs." She bases her translation, beautifully presented here with the Greek en face, on a 1971 transcription by the scholar Eva-Maria Voigt, published in Amsterdam, and includes all the fragments published by Voigt in which "at least one word is legible," using "the plainest language I could find, using where possible the same order of words and thoughts as Sappho did." Since Sappho's texts are fragments, it is inevitable that Carson offers some pages that are mostly brackets indicating missing material, suggestively interspersed with the words "youth" or "sinful," for example, or the phrases "as long as you want" or "my darling one." As with Joyce's Homeric "winedark sea," Carson includes compounds like "sweetflowing" or "farshooting" to render complex Greek words. Carson grudgingly allows a lesbian interpretation for some of the poems, noting that "[i]t seems that she knew and loved women as deeply as she did music. Can we leave the matter there?" (About an equal number of poems in this collection are about loving men.) With 26 cogent pages of notes to individual poems, an eight-page "Who's Who" of names mentioned in the poems, four pages of "Testimonia" about Sappho and Carson's get-out-of-the-way-of-the-poems approach to translation, the uninitiated should have no problem entering this rich territory and constructing their own versions of the enigmatic poet. (Aug. 29) Forecast: The combination of one of the most acclaimed poets of the last 10 years and one of the most haunting of the last 2,000 should be electric at the register. Carson has won a MacArthur Fellowship and has been profiled extensively in the press. Expect interest in this title to be extremely high across the board; at present, it is a selection of The Reader's Subscription, Insightout and Quality Paperback Book Club. Aside from perhaps the various Heartsongs editions, this should be the poetry bestseller of the year and a very strong seller for years to come. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The lyric poetry of antiquity is often as important to modern poets as it is to translators and classical scholars. Mulroy is a professor of classics (Univ. of Wisconsin, Milwaukee), and Carson (classics, McGill Univ.; The Beauty of the Husband) and the late William Matthews (After All: Last Poems) are well-regarded poets. Following Pound's dictum to "make it new," Mulroy and Matthews translate Catullus and Horace into modern American idiom, striving where possible to find cultural equivalents rather than literal translations. At the same time, they try to be true to the shifting tones and rhythms of their originals. The results are fluent, giving some sense of the contemporaneousness that Catullus and Horace would have evoked in their audiences. Carson's translation follows Sappho's diction and form much more closely and includes the Greek original on the facing page. Much of what survives of Sappho are fragments, often just a stray word, phrase, or even a few letters. Like many modern poets, Carson deploys these on the blank page, letting their suggestiveness fill the gaps and create whole lyrics in the imagination of the readers. All three translators aim for a general audience, though Mulroy and Carson also include notes and introductions of value to the more scholarly reader. All three books are recommended for both public and academic libraries. T.L. Cooksey, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah, GA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“A funny, daring, almost preposterous, certainly magnificent project.” — National Post

“The crème de la crème...a gorgeous object...[If Not, Winter] is a perfect match of text and translator, for Carson is not only one of the most original poets of our time, but a brilliant scholar of ancient Greek…The most ardent gift of the season.” — Sheila Farr, The Seattle Times

“Astonishing…Think of Carson’s brackets in If Not, Winter as a free space of lyrical adventure and the translation becomes immediately less a document of broken texts than an experiment in trust and imagination, as if each bracket were a flag that Carson was raising to signal us to run up and take over the baton. In her decision to give us less in her translation of Sappho, Carson has actually made the text ultimately more generous, and in this way has granted readers the pleasure of imagining their own versions of Sappho…This is the Anne Carson we fell in love with years ago: the scholar so enamored of her subject that merely gesturing toward it with a grin was enough to hook the rest of us…If Not, Winter is a selfless, faithful, and boldly delicate achievement.” — John D’Agata, Boston Review

“Because language changes, as do our individual interpretations and understanding of literary works, no translation is final. Classicist, poet and essayist Anne Carson has undertaken a rendering of one of the most popular and written-about ancient poets, Sappho. In If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, Carson adds a fresh and learned interpretive reading of a great poet’s lyrical work, which has come down to us in shards...Entering the world of [Sappho’s] poetry, by combining these remaining poetic fragments, her sentences and short expressions are nothing less than incendiary. We feel the poet’s loves, her desires and her jealousies. Across time, religion and other cultural and social realities, Sappho’s work intimately speaks to her reader.” — Richard Carter, Times Record (TX)

“Some of the most powerful sections of this volume are incomplete…The silence they create arouses a reader’s imagination…It is a testament to Sappho’s lyric capabilities that these fragments can break our hearts so easily. Carson prepares us for a poetry ravaged by time, yet there are sections here that speak on love in ways so knowingly modern that it seems impossible Sappho will not be traveling the country on a book tour this fall…Thrillingly alive…Thanks to this beautiful translation, these lines can ignite us three millennia later.” — John Freeman, Memphis Commercial Appeal

“However little remains of Sappho's work, the thought of her shone down the millennia, illuminating the work of other poets. For centuries hers was the most admired (and at times the only) female voice that could be heard singing of love…She wrote with passion about the transports of love and worship. She described moments of touching intimacy with a child, a lover or a goddess, using ordinary images — a violet, a star, the piercing voice of a bird — to carry extraordinary emotion. [In If Not, Winter,] Greek texts printed on facing pages allow readers familiar with ancient Aolic Greek pronunciation, lucky things, to catch an echo of the sound. The rest of us will have to rely on Carson for that echo, which isn't a bad substitute. Although Carson wears her classicist's headdress to make this translation, with her we're always in the hands of a poet, one who knows how to make words pause and spring…Scanty as they are, the fragments of Sappho's songs nevertheless give a taste of what the fuss was all about.” — Polly Shulman, Newsday

“Sappho composed poetry: erotic, sensual, desperate poetry, filled with the anger of desire, wonder at the beauty of the desired one, the sweet languor of gratification. And now her verse has been elevated to new heights in a gorgeous translation by Anne Carson. It is partly what is missing in the poems to which we bring our own desires and interpretations, that enhances its erotic spell.…By bringing her particular kind of austerity to the translation, Ms. Carson has deepened Sappho’s mystery and yet brought us closer to her… Ms. Carson is one of the most extraordinary poets writing in English. In book after book, she has bent and reshaped the poetic form.” — Dinitia Smith, The New York Times

“[Sappho’s] words — here, in Anne Carson’s faithful new translation — come as close as literature can to life, to a direct reflection of experience…The fragments of Sappho constitute a compelling demonstration of the tragic power of the word…Carson is in many ways the ideal translator, an accomplished classicist who frequently writes on Hellenic themes in her own verse…Her command of language is honed to a perfect edge and her approach to the text, respectful yet imaginative, results in verse that lets Sappho shine forth without a lot of fuss…Carson’s notes are enormously enjoyable. She takes the reader to the very heart of the process of translation…She makes an admission [about a two-word fragment] that few scholars, if any, would be brave enough to utter: ‘On the other hand, I may be reading this sentence all wrong.’ It’s a wonderful sentence, gleaming with a candor worthy of Sappho herself, which inspires confidence that in If Not, Winter, Carson is getting it right, all right.” — Jamie James, The Los Angeles Times

“The poet Anne Carson has been thinking about the poet Sappho for a very long time…[and] Sappho’s elusiveness has not daunted Carson from producing a dazzling new translation of her work…The book contains every extant word reliably attributed to the woman Plato called the tenth Muse…[Carson] has what might be called a genius for anachronism. [She] is a learned and serious scholar. She is also a bracingly modern polymath. To see her fingering the shattered text left behind by the greatest lyric poet of ancient Greece is to watch an enormous mind pondering a puzzle that was made for it…If Not, Winter is certainly idiosyncratic, though hardly reckless…Yet the new translation feels so fresh and new, it seems almost blasphemous…This Sappho is whispering in our ear in a language we can understand.” — Sarah Goodyear, Time Out New York

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.19(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.86(d)

Read an Excerpt

Fragment 22
if not, winter
]no pain
]]I bid you sing
of Gongyla, Abanthis, taking up
your lyre as (now again) longing
floats around you,
you beauty. For her dress when you saw it
stirred you. And I rejoice.
In fact she herself once blamed me
because I prayed
this word:
I want

Fragment 47

Eros shook my
mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees
Fragment 52
I would not think to touch the sky with two arms

Fragment 56
not one girl I think
who looks on the light of the sun
will ever
have wisdom
like this
Fragment 147
someone will remember us
I say
even in another time
Fragment 162
with what eyes?
From the Hardcover edition.

Copyright© 2002 by Sappho

Meet the Author

Anne Carson lives in Montreal, where she is the Director of Graduate Studies, Classics, at McGill University. She was twice a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is the recipient of a Lannan Award, a Pushcart Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship and the winner of the inaugural Griffin Trust Prize for Poetry.

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