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Book News: Two Poems By Greek Poet Sappho Discovered

An image of the ancient Greek poet Sappho.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
An image of the ancient Greek poet Sappho.

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

Parts of two previously unknown poems by the Greek lyric poet Sappho have been discovered on an ancient papyrus. An anonymous collector happened to show the papyrus to the Oxford University classicist Dirk Obbink, who realized its significance.

Most of Sappho's work has been lost, and only one of her poems has survived in its entirety. The first of the two new poems mentions "Charaxos" and "Larichos," the names given to Sappho's brothers in the ancient tradition, though never mentioned in any of the poet's surviving work. The second, more fragmentary poem, seems to be a love poem.

In a preliminary version of a paper to be published in the journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Obbink writes that the "metre, language and dialect" as well as the subject matter "point indubitably to a poem by Sappho."

In an email to NPR, Margaret Williamson, a classics expert at Dartmouth College and the author of Sappho's Immortal Daughters, agreed: "I don't see much room for doubt that these are fragments of Sappho poems. They certainly sound very like her: they're in the right meter and the right dialect, and they are prayer-hymns of a kind she often wrote, addressed to Hera and Aphrodite, goddesses worshipped on Lesbos whom she appeals to in other poems."

Williamson added that the first poem, which mentions Sappho's brothers, is especially remarkable. "It's very exciting to have a new Sappho poem that isn't about erotic love or beauty," she writes. "Here, for a change, is a poem that seems to refer to other relationships. ... We've had far fewer poems of this type up till now, and as a result it's been too easy to interpret her poems as the lone cry of a woman in love, rather than looking at the cultural context these quite sophisticated poems grew out of."

  • In the most dramatic Russian literary killing since a dispute over Kant turned deadly last year, a man allegedly stabbed an acquaintance for preferring prose to poetry. RIA Novosti has this report: "A former teacher was detained in Russia's Urals after being accused of stabbing an acquaintance to death in a dispute about literary genres, investigators said Wednesday. The 67-year-old victim insisted that 'the only real literature is prose,' the Sverdlovsk Region's branch of the Investigative Committee said. The victim's assertion outraged the 53-year-old suspect, who favored poetry, and the dispute ended with the ex-teacher stabbing his friend to death, investigators said."
  • The Rumpus interviews Jerry Stahl: "Writing is like childbirth: I can never remember writing a book after it's written, and I think I'll never do it again. I guess there is a certain propulsive quality to them, but it takes a lot to make them come off. I always write like I'm being chased, because I fucked up most of my life, and didn't publish a book until I was forty — so I always had a sense of time. And plus, I had a disease and they kept telling me I was dying, for like twenty years. I always had that ticking clock sensation in my head when it came to writing."
  • Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.

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