Years ago, at a Half-Price Books, I had been browsing for a little while. It was evening, the store was about to close, and for some reason I reflected I should not just make a purchase out of politeness, but to make the time spent count for more.
I wasn’t writing regularly except in my personal journal, and I was ashamed of what I was writing there. I didn’t bother to document my experience—what I sensed, who I encountered, where I went—in any way. I didn’t believe crafting scenes about how I actually lived had any use. All I did was angrily rant and list things on which I should have been working. However, some part of me remembered an interview with Kay Ryan where she said she challenged herself to write a poem each day about a card she pulled in a tarot deck.
So I picked up a copy of Sappho’s poetry for $2, with the intent of challenging myself to write on each fragment. The first fragment—Tell everyone / Now, today, I shall / sing beautifully for / my friends’ pleasure—I used as an excuse to declare I wanted a clean slate. I wanted to sing beautifully for my friends, as opposed to doing whatever I had been doing up until then.
That fragment, though, has a funny twist. Why “tell everyone” that “I shall sing beautifully for my friends’ pleasure?” Sappho throws a party, and the party is the invitation itself. That invitation—her fragment—already excludes (only the friends will hear her beautiful singing), makes everyone who hears it an unwitting propagandist for her, and is the poem/song itself. It includes everyone at the same time it excludes many.
I can’t help but think now that my anxiety about craft received comment from no less than Sappho. Did I want to tell as many people as possible to shout my name across the earth, to proclaim how awesome I was? I didn’t think so at the time. I felt I wanted to be a better writer. But a writer that’s scared of sharing her own experience is not truly trying to write. Something else, like acceptance, or wanting to be known as accepted, may be at stake. And that something else entails its own set of complications.
What is below, I imagine, follows up on the first fragment. We shall enjoy it—yes, friends, here is your beautiful song, which you are pledged to like because you like me. But as for him who finds fault…
We shall enjoy it Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard) We shall enjoy it As for him who finds fault, may silliness and sorrow take him!
As for him who finds / fault, may silliness / and sorrow take him!—my company is desired, so I shall write an edict. Not only will “we” enjoy (I have become multitudes), but “silliness” and “sorrow” will seize any naysayer. In a few words, themselves almost lost, Sappho hits on the sheer ridiculousness of composition. She creates a poem that automatically criticizes anyone who would find it disagreeable. She’s acutely aware that if her words are sung, shared, and preserved, she has literally been blown out of proportion, and it is so strange anyone’s self-esteem or desire should depend on this.
She’s acutely aware herself of how much “silliness” and “sorrow” sting. It seems the least punishment you would wish on someone, yet one feels it continuously when trying to make something or be someone. It can be, in the wrong circumstances, the most exacting trial.
On that note, why do I want to turn an “I” into a “We?” Because a “we” has little possibility of self-doubt, as it’s much easier to tell yourself that others believe in you.
Years ago, I did not know or think any of this. But I was seized with “silliness” and “sorrow,” and only some vague, silly ideas about creativity have proved profitable.