by David Grundy





            Too long…



So reads Ezra Pound’s poem “Papyrus” in its entirety. First published in his collection Lustra in 1916, it is based – though it does not acknowledge this – on a part of Sappho’s Fragment 95, and is the first piece of a suite of five poems departing from Sappho’s work, whether through (in)direct translation or imaginative variant.1 More generally, however, it is treated by itself, as an enigmatic yet totemic textual object offering similarly deceptive yet rich pickings to “In a Station of the Metro,” which had been reprinted in the same volume. “Papyrus” famously works with – indeed, exacerbates – the conditions of incompleteness and fragmentation in which Sappho’s poetry has come down to the present (for instance, as fragments literally recovered from scrap heaps, and sent to Oxford or Berlin from Egypt in biscuit tins, old kerosene containers and the like).2 It is a poem consisting solely of a title, three words, and three sets of ellipses: a fragment of a fragment turned into something “complete,” based on a series of words written in the corner of a torn piece of parchment – and not, in fact, papyrus, as Hugh Kenner notes – words which are themselves incomplete (54).

Pound’s poem works with only three of these incomplete words from Sappho’s Fragment 95, a fragment more generally expanded – around thirty words in total can be deciphered, or reasonably reconstructed – to more fully suggest a narrative.3 Though C.M. Dawson and W. Seelbach have shown that it can be considered a direct (if perhaps mistaken) translation, rather than simply an attempt to render the original’s atmosphere, it’s still possible to see the text, in its radical concision, as an imitation rather than a translation; perhaps even a parody.4 Given that the incomplete Greek words Pound translates can not in themselves be reliably reconstructed, this is understandable. Indeed, in a twist which reverses Pound’s strategy, Anne Carson’s dual-language edition chooses to reproduce the Greek fragments which lend “Papyrus” its three words, but her English translation leaves only the proper name “Gongyla”: the other words are rendered simply as the floating halves of a set of square brackets, closed but not opened, themselves incomplete (188-89). As one critic puts it of Pound’s poem – but equally true of Carson’s apparently more “literal” rendering – “more hole than text.”5

My own version of Sappho’s fragment goes to the opposite extreme, expanding and re-working the original material. The ghost of Pound’s enigmatic poem – suspended between narrative and image – peeks in at the edges. The poem is part of a wider project of Sappho translations, some of which have appeared in To the Reader (Cambridge: Shit Valley Press, 2015).

I have attempted not to contain “Sappho” within “my” own voice, nor to be “faithful,” or to historically reconstruct. This is a translation of a translation, departing from departures, crossings, voyages. Pound’s translations are famously those of a poet rather than a scholar; and while Pound has some ancient Greek (which he claimed he had been ill-taught, in comparison to Latin), I have none. Language is one gap; gender, another, and a question to the fore in the contested tradition of Sappho’s desires. For sure, Sappho has often been translated by male poets – like Swinburne, like Pound – ventriloquised by them, and, for a long time, even claimed as a poet of heterosexual longing, reflecting a projected image of female desire (see, for instance, Alexander Pope’s “Sappho to Phaon”).

At various points, the broken body of her poems has been forced to fit definitions of modernism, imagism, decadent aesthetics, archaic and contemporary all at once. I’m interested in Sappho’s work as tracing a sociality of women, of those left behind by war, posed against a patriarchal militarism which fetishises a vision of female beauty based on ownership. Sappho’s presentation of fulfilled desire or of lament for its loss – desire constrained, suppressed, and ruptured by patriarchal wars, over land, over wealth, over women – can ultimately be versioned as seeking the cessation of those structures. Out of the condition of fragmentation and reconstruction which Pound’s poem foregrounds, private longing becomes public utterance (as Rachel Blau DuPlessis puts it), and lyric’s formative tropes can be refreshed as horizon of longing and hope.




1. Ezra Pound, Lustra of Ezra Pound (London: Elkin Mathews, 1916), 57. For the poem’s function as part of a suite, see Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973), 62-4.

2. Margaret Reynolds, The Sappho Companion (London: Chatto and Windus, 2000), 373.

3. Of the many translations of this fragment, see, for instance, those of Willis Barnstone (as “To Hermis Who Guides the Dead,” in The Complete Poems of Sappho (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2009), 109) and Anne Carson (If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. (New York: Vintage, 2002), 188-9). Sappho’s other address to Gongyla, fragment 22, lends Anne Carson the title to her 2002 book of Sappho translations, If Not, Winter. (The translation in question appears on 40-1.) Willis Barnstone provides two versions under the same title (as “Return, Gongyla”), in To Touch the Sky: Poems of Mystical, Spiritual and Metaphysical Light (New York: New Directions, 1999), 31 and The Complete Poems of Sappho (Op. Cit.), 59; the former of these ghosts my own poem.

4. C.M. Dawson, “Pound’s Papyrus.” Explicator 9 (Jan 1, 1950). See also Wilhelm Seelbach, “Ezra Pound und Sappho fr. 95 L.-P.” Antike und Abendland, 16.1 (Jan 1, 1970): 83-4. For the interpretation of “Papyrus” as parody, see for instance Sarah Barnsley, Mary Barnard, American Imagist (New York: SUNY Press, 2013), 62-3.

5. Daniel Albright, Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 68.

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