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This review is taken from PN Review 116, Volume 23 Number 6, July - August 1997.

WHO IS SAPPHO? Sappho Through English Poetry, edited by Peter Jay and Caroline Lewis (Anvil) £7.95
How Poets Work, edited by Tony Curtis (Seren)£6.95

Who is, or was, Sappho? What were her lyrics really like, how did they strike her listeners? These are questions we are hard pressed to find answers for today: as the editors point out, she is 'almost an open book with many blank pages. So little is known for certain that poets have felt that they may remake her in any image they choose.' What is collected here shows that this is only one side of the story. It implies a plundering of her reputation which leaves the original poet invisible while the cumulative images of her rest in the hands of her appropriators - who are mostly, and especially to begin with, male. But the Sappho behind these versions, imitations and representations, whether 'real' or 'image' (and the distinction is perhaps academic) is not quite passive or powerless. The blank pages are not simply an invitation for successors to help themselves to Sappho but also have a distancing effect, rendering her an alluringly unreachable figure. As in the famous ode to 'he that sits next to thee' the distance between lover and loved one -or original poet and imitator - inspires an array of versions, good and less good, with a collective tension. Untouchable except by proxy (through such early imitators as Longinus) and in fragments, Sappho's lyrics are for these imitators the poetic equivalent of the unrequitable love which was her muse:

He is more than a hero

He is ...

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