Sappho, “And I said / I shall burn…”; Xenophon, Memorabilia III.11

The willingness to make a sacrifice—And I said / I shall burn—is an attempt to bribe the gods. I assume the fat thigh-bones of a white she-goat would be set aflame for persuading a goddess to charm a beloved on one’s behalf.

Poor goat. It becomes the victim of a tangle of problems belonging to human being. You want attention from someone on whom you’re crushing. You see them as beautiful and wish you could be worthy. Since you have projected onto them, made them part of your fantasy, it makes perfect sense you would turn to prayer and sacrifice. Whatever we call “love” is intimately tied up with “belief,” and a dysfunction peculiar to each can set into either. Below, Sappho envisions a burning as she burns white-hot herself. What if the goddess does not respond in kind; what if her desire changes, proving to be far less than the prayer—

And I said / I shall burn…
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

And I said

I shall burn the
fat thigh-bones of
a white she-goat
on her altar

If you really want something, and you pray about it, you risk the expectations put into that prayer completely transforming your personality. Sure, it’s relatable, as it happens to all of us. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t serious. The central concern is that an awful lot of resolve is thrown into what could be a whim. Pretty soon, the beloved is an abstraction, the need for justification of your prayers and feelings swallows other priorities, and one’s other physical, mental, and emotional needs might as well be smoke rising from an altar.

Knowing how fast asking “Am I loved?” becomes the very essence of one’s physical existence, I propose looking at another classical text. In Memorabilia III.11, Xenophon’s Socrates, moved by the report of a woman whose beauty surpasses speech, actually visits her. This is most unusual behavior from Socrates, as handsome rich young men do not seem to be the primary focus of what transpires.

Socrates wonders how this most beautiful woman, Theodote, takes care of herself—not only is she dressed finely, but her whole household does not want. She replies “if someone who has become my friend wants to treat me well… he is my livelihood.” You may be asking yourself, at this juncture, what on earth the trials of a courtesan have to do with our need for any attention from a crush. They get all the attention they need, no? They don’t go crazy feeling unwanted, do they?

Socrates presses. Does Theodote have any consistent way of making “friends?” Does she have contrivances, hunting nets? Theodote is too honest to answer that her beauty and fortune are actually some sort of skill. She begins asking how she can consistently hunt friends. In a discussion which endorses what one would call procurement or “pimping,” Socrates sets forth two lines of thought which may be thought contradictory. First, he speaks of giving pleasant benefactions often while listing Theodote’s “nets:”

“And what sort of nets,” she [Theodote] said, “do I have?”

“To be sure, one that is indeed very entangling: your body,” he [Socrates] said. “And in it a soul, through which you learn both how you might gratify with a look and delight with what you say; and that you must receive with gladness one who is attentive but shut out one who is spoiled; and that when a friend is sick, at least, to watch over him worriedly, and when he does something noble to be exceedingly pleased by it along with him; and to gratify with your whole soul the one who worries about you exceedingly. I know very well that you understand how to love, at any rate, in a manner not only soft but also well intentioned; and as to the fact that your friends are best for you, I know that you convince not only by speech but by deed.”

“By Zeus,” said Theodote, “I, for my part, contrive none of these things.”

(Memorabilia III.11.10 ff.)

In recommending that Theodote attend to the soul, whereby she can “gratify with a look [expression]” and give “delight” through her speech, show gladness to the attentive but shun the spoiled, care for a friend when sick, praise him when he does noble things, and “gratify” with her whole soul someone who truly cares for her, Socrates seems to contradict his next bit of advice, which features a strong element of “play hard to get.” Before we look at that next piece of advice, two things leap out from this passage. Socrates seems to be describing what philosophy is for him in practice. It can be called medicine for the soul, an endorsement of genuine nobility, and most pleasing for someone who worries about eliminating their own ignorance.

Further, while Socrates’ rhetoric already assumes Theodote does not know these contrivances—his “I know…you understand” is really a polite way of saying “you ought to understand”—this is a good description of how to get someone in your life who wants to be better and treat people well. Friends and partners should pay attention to your body language and facial expressions, listening carefully to your words and not just hearing what they want to hear. You want someone who recognizes that being attentive is important, not someone who takes you for granted. There should be honesty—being able to admit one’s own problems and having openness to real celebrations, not just milestones. This list of considerations is very far from “play hard to get” or melting a goat on an altar for the sake of someone’s heart. This does mean learning to respond to someone else’s genuine concern with love and trust, one’s “whole soul.”

Yet not much later, Socrates says that she would most gratify a partner by giving to “those who are in need” (III.11.13). He clarifies this by saying that those who are filled with pleasures will not receive them kindly, but those who need them certainly will. So on the one hand, we have a picture of a virtuous friend or partner who can be trusted and loved wholly, and on the other, we have a picture of people who are manipulable by pleasure. The problem the courtesan has in making a livelihood is indeed our problem. How can we not be a roller coaster of emotion, ascending to idealism and collapsing into cynicism?

Xenophon is careful in his word choice. There are different contrivances for different people, but only some people can appreciate one’s soul. It is not a coincidence that Socrates’ earlier rhetoric employs the word “noble,” whereas the later discussion repeatedly uses the word pleasure. You want someone whose pleasure is ultimately you. In detailing what actually goes into finding love, Socrates shows that the attempt to use godly power to get a lover is about power more than love. Again, it’s something we all do, something we all feel we have to do. Finding someone who cares for you is a very different yet similar-looking process. You “contrive” in the hope that someone will care enough to “contrive” to win you.


Xenophon, Memorabilia. Translated by Amy Bonnette. Ithaca: Cornell, 1994.

Paul Muldoon, “Apple Slump”

Associations slump upon each other like apples about to waste.

Even in reading, decisions must be made or a sense—perhaps a feeling—is lost.

My anxiety lies in counting the associations, attempting to hold each as if it were the pearl in the field (Matthew 13:46). You make one, then another, then still another as you wander through words. The danger is not achieving wisdom as much as forgetting one’s own thoughts from a moment ago. Perhaps this suffices to restate the bounty-threat of snow in October:

Apple Slump (from Poetry)
Paul Muldoon

The bounty-threat of snow
in October. Our apple-mound,
some boxer fallen foul
of a right swing

waiting for his second to throw—
the sound, turn up the sound—
that mean little towel
into the ring.

The bounty-threat of snow in October—snow doesn’t only threaten the apples, for it is a “bounty-threat.” It threatens some good, and thus the poem personifies snow. Snow is a raider, a thief, ready to do you an injustice.

A slight frost falls on our apple-mound. The mound is red, flecked with white, half-buried in earth—an ugly bruise of ill omen. It looks like the face of some boxer fallen foul of a right swing.

Already too many associations, too many apples. Snow a thief, taking out of season; an apple-mound like a bruise a boxer receives during a match; the apples, tokens of an understanding not yet achieved. Three themes emerge. You don’t have to connect them if you don’t want to. There’s injustice (snow steals), perishability (apples rotting), pain (the boxer is in a lot of this). Those three associations recall a pretty specific fruit, one from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

I can’t stress enough that the convergence of these themes is a mere convenience for us readers. No such clarity exists for, say, the boxer, who has been hit hard and whose mind is a cloud. He reverts to habit, waiting for his second to throw. Maybe he wants to throw that mean little towel into the ring and surrender. More than likely, some other entity—his corner, the referee, the bell—does it for him. Only faintly—the sound, turn up the sound—does he hear a bell ring as he waits to throw… something, probably a punch.

Muldoon seems to be wondering about how moral reasoning is possible. You’ve been wronged to the point of trauma, your instinct is to hit back. Something in you knows to “do no harm,” that violence only begets more violence. That something might help hold you back. But it is not a product of your thinking exclusively, because to speak simply, you weren’t thinking. One might say that Christian morality explicitly excludes actions committed on account of ignorance from being sin. This is a cute theoretical position to hold, as people go to war because of the trauma inflicted upon them; they act out because. Speaking of redress of grievances or trying to assess the emotions involved or find the exact right course of action—these are all concerns after the fact.

“But if you just hit back, you’re an animal!” —Yes, and that’s no slight on one’s humanity.— The Edenic counterfactual, where man can weigh the consequences of immortality versus the possibility of real knowledge, is incredibly problematic to say the least. It underlies so many sentiments and thoughts in this time regarding right and wrong; it speaks too clearly to a privileged few who do not want. At its core, it assumes a set of conditions that are as mythical as a lost immortal garden protected by a sword of flame. Try walking through how you reached the wisdom you feel comfortable passing to another person. I guarantee you’ll have something of the same process as me. I’ve had to throw away much of my pride about the things I did right because I did them without really knowing what I was doing.

Sappho, “Standing by my bed”

Sappho can and will speak frankly about sex. In the famous Fragment 31, she’s open about her jealousy of a man “equal to the gods,” one who commands the laughter and delight of a woman she desires. And below “Dawn,” standing by her bed in gold sandals, could be thought a lover about to leave:

Standing by my bed
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

Standing by my bed

In gold sandals
Dawn that very
moment awoke me

I’m chuckling to myself, thinking about a sentence of Maureen McLane’s. She was talking about the idealism of the young and said something to the effect of “teenagers actually enjoy sex.” Insecurity cascades unceasingly when one tries to believe oneself desirable, but regrets about not going to the gym or taking care of one’s skin are minor when compared to looking in the mirror and staring down one’s genetic inheritance. Wondering if one was actually made to be loved.

I’m not chuckling anymore.

For a moment, though, we can imagine being gently awoken by the light of dawn, quietly surprised. There are erotic overtones, sure, but they serve the idea that someone or something, maybe the whole of nature, sees you as beautiful. That you are not to be disturbed, that only the slightest feeling, in warm, bright degrees, should give you cause to stir.

From some random papyrus, we are given this thoughtless, gross misogyny about Sappho: “She was accused by some writers of being irregular in her way of life and a woman-lover. In appearance she seems to have been contemptible and ugly” (Papyri Oxyrhynchus 1800 frag. 1). Sappho’s own contemporary on Lesbos, Alkaios, addresses her thus: “O violet-haired, holy, honeysmiling Sappho” (Barnstone 209). For a moment, we know that it doesn’t matter at all how Sappho looked, but it certainly matters how she was treated.

A thought, perhaps not unrelated. If there is only natural light in the room, dawn being visitor enough, then this is a reflection on waking. Beginning to be in the world, active within. Natural light and being loved do tie together, and this is always a sudden revelation. I submit this has to do with understanding oneself as lovable, knowing oneself, but you will note that carries one away from more conventional needs.


Barnstone, Willis. Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho. Boston: Shambhala, 2006.

Sappho, “We shall enjoy it”

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.

Ada Limón, “Little Day”

More than ever, I have been writing. Writing, you will note, is not really a craft. It’s something—I’m not sure what exactly—which shapes how you see anything.

Recently, it’s been shaping what I see. I’m drawn to other literary critics who dwell in poetry (one more chapter to go in Maureen McLane’s My Poets); I spend time trying to twist clichés into original statements; I wonder what may endanger sumptuous prose, rendering it vacuous; I want to know how to earn the force and power of my best thoughts.

All of these high-sounding notions correspond with feelings of inadequacy. When I stumbled upon Ada Limón’s “Little Day,” where she places herself on a park bench, always writing, my mind took the fact that I’m typically indoors and alone and put on repeat YOU CAN’T POSSIBLY BE A SERIOUS WRITER for a good few days. I found myself at a coffee shop with a large patio area confronting this poem in my journal, trying to figure out why this is what it comes down to:

Little Day (from Lucky Wreck; h/t @ArianeBeeston)
Ada Limón

This is what it comes down to:
Me on a park bench, always writing,
This is what it comes down to.

“What have I accomplished today?” could be rewritten “little day,” a day in brief. This is not to reduce experience to a few words, but to find a few words for opening and reopening experiences. This is what it comes down to thus has to perform two functions which are in tension. First, it has to give us something small we can work with and remember. For a writer, this can be a tactic so precise it could pull one away from the emotional presence we need to actually live life. Advice I got from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird which I use, in my own way: index cards. Have a bunch of index cards and as things happen or come to mind, get a brief note down. Later, take that note or notes and expand.

I can easily imagine myself using this tactic as a form of building artificial distance from things. Jot down a brief note, pretend like I don’t have to respond to something immediately. In order to not slip into denial, I have to remember the second function of this is what it comes down to. It must form an entrance to a moment that is its own world. It demands emotional honesty, command of detail, and evolving reflection. Me on a park bench, always writing—to be in sunlight, aware, ready to engage nature and others, working alone but also exposed—this has to be an imagined condition. It literally isn’t possible in certain places and times.

This is what it comes down to serves as a most elegant conclusion to this meditation. It places us on the park bench, ready to write ourselves. It invites us there through simplification—get to this imagined spot and you’ve found yourself. Moving outward, as a matter of consequence, a luxurious necessity.