Poster poems


Get your Greek thinking caps on: your challenge is an ancient verse form beloved of Sappho, Alcaeus – and Ezra Pound

Sappho Holding a Stylus, a fresco painting from Pompeii

Doyen of dactyls … detail from a Pompeii fresco of Sappho holding a stylus.
There aren’t many verse forms that are named after their originators; poetry doesn’t seem to work much like biology in that respect. There’s the Clerihew, the Horatian Ode and Sapphics. I’m tempted to say that’s that, but I’m sure there are more I’m forgetting and that I can depend on you to remind me of.

This month, the challenge is to write a poem in Sapphics – the form favoured, unsurprisingly enough, by Sappho. Rather than tying ourselves up with longwinded explanations involving trochees and dactyls, let’s look at a Sapphic stanza in schematic form using “-” for long (in English, stressed) syllables, “u” for short (unstressed) syllables and “x” for an anceps (a syllable that can be either stressed or unstressed):

– u – x – u u – u – x
– u – x – u u – u – x
– u – x – u u – u – x
– u u – x

Easy, isn’t it? Maybe the way to look at it is as a quatrain with three long lines followed by a short one.

Of course, Sappho isn’t the only poet to have written Sapphics; another Greek poet, Alcaeus of Mytilene produced some fine examples of the form. As you might expect, Catullus, a fan of Sappho’s, also wrote excellent Sapphics, including the poem beginning “Ille mi par esse deo videtur” (“He seems to me to be equal to a god”), also known as Catullus 51.

Sapphics entered English with the Renaissance: a particularly interesting example, The English Sapphick, appears in Thomas Campion’s Observations in the Art of English Poesie. Captain Thomas Morris of Carlisle is probably less familiar to poetry lovers than Campion, but his Sapphics: At the Mohawk-Castle, Canada. To Lieutenant Montgomery is both a fine poem and a fascinating insight into 18th-century native American life as seen by an officer in the British Army. If Morris’s Sapphics deal with a subject that is public in nature, Lines Written During a Period of Insanity by his contemporary William Cowper is concerned with much more personal matters.

Perhaps the most celebrated English exponent of the form was Algernon Charles Swinburne. Swinburne wrote many Sapphics, but my personal favourite is the one simply titled Sapphics.

It is, I suppose, understandable given his interest in all things Greek and his admiration for the poets of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, that a young Ezra Pound would try his hand at the form. His poem Apparuit has all the strengths and weaknesses that you might associate with his early work. Allen Ginsberg would have been the first to recognise his poetic debt to Pound, but the casual reader would be forgiven for thinking that this debt was confined to what he learned about free verse from the older poet. But Ginsberg, too, dabbled in the old Greek form in a very fine poem that begins “Red cheeked boyfriends tenderly kiss me sweet mouthed”.

And so, it’s time to get your ancient Greek thinking caps on and get cracking. Don’t worry too much about the finer points of the trochees and dactyls: focus on the antic spirit of the thing. Most of all, have fun with it.


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