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Sapphic Stanzas & Marilyn Hacker
Posted by: lfd1 (192.168.128.---)
Date: December 20, 2006 02:34PM

I'm working on a response to the ways in which the formal poetic devices in Marilyn Hacker's "Elegy for a Soldier" effect a thematic reading, and while doing background research encountered the term "Sapphic stanza" to describe the metrical pattern of the second section. Unfortunately, I can only find the term defined in Wikipedia, and was hoping someone could point me in the right direction for a more detailed (and authoritative) explanation of the Sapphic stanza (particularly as related to the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables).

The poem "Elegy for a Soldier" is reprinted below for reference. The poem is long, granted, but it's also fantastic and totally worth reading.


Elegy for a Soldier
June Jordan, 1936-2002

by Marilyn Hacker


The city where I knew you was swift.
A lover cabbed to Brooklyn
(broke, but so what) after the night shift
in a Second Avenue
diner. The lover was a Quaker,
a poet, an anti-war
activist. Was blonde, was twenty-four.
Wet snow fell on the access
road to the Manhattan Bridge. I was
neither lover, slept uptown.
But the arteries, streetlights, headlines,
phonelines, feminine plural
links ran silver through the night city
as dawn and the yellow cab
passed on the frost-blurred bridge, headed for
that day's last or first coffee.

The city where I knew you was rich
in bookshops, potlucks, ad hoc
debates, demos, parades and picnics.
There were walks I liked to take.
I was on good terms with two rivers.
You turned, burned, flame-wheel of words
lighting the page, good neighbor on your
homely street in Park Slope, whose
Russian zaydes, Jamaican grocers,
dyke vegetarians, young
gifted everyone, claimed some changes
-at least a new food co-op.
In the laundromat, ordinary
women talked revolution.
We knew we wouldn't live forever
but it seemed as if we could.

The city where I knew you was yours
and mine by birthright: Harlem,
the Bronx. Separately we left it
and came separately back.
There's no afterlife for dialogue,
divergences we never
teased apart to weave back together.
Death slams down in the midst of
all your unfinished conversations.
Whom do I address when I
address you, larger than life as you
always were, not alive now?
Words are not you, poems are not you,
ashes on the Pacific
tide, you least of all. I talk to my-
self to keep the line open.

The city where I knew you is gone.
Pink icing roses spelled out
PASSION on a book-shaped chocolate cake.
The bookshop's a sushi bar
now, and Passion is long out of print.
Would you know the changed street that
cab swerved down toward you through cold white mist?
We have a Republican
mayor. Threats keep citizens in line:
anthrax; suicide attacks.
A scar festers where towers once were;
dissent festers unexpressed.
You are dead of a woman's disease.
Who gets to choose what battle
takes her down? Down to the ocean, friends
mourn you, with no time to mourn.


You, who stood alone in the tall bay window
of a Brooklyn brownstone, conjuring morning
with free-flying words, knew the power, terror
in words, in flying;

knew the high of solitude while the early
light prowled Seventh Avenue, lupine, hungry
like you, your spoils raisins and almonds, ballpoint
pen, yellow foolscap.

You, who stood alone in your courage, never
hesitant to underline the connections
(between rape, exclusion and occupation)
and separations

were alone and were not alone when morning
blotted the last spark of you out, around you
voices you no longer had voice to answer,
eyes you were blind to.

All your loves were singular: you scorned labels.
Claimed black; woman, and for the rest eluded
limits, quicksilver (Caribbean), staked out

Now your death, as if it were "yours": your house, your
dog, your friends, your son, your serial lovers.
Death's not "yours," what's yours are a thousand poems
alive on paper,

in the present tense of a thousand students'
active gaze at printed pages and blank ones
which you gave permission to blacken into
outrage and passion.

You, at once an optimist, a Cassandra,
Lilith in the wilderness of her lyric,
were a black American, born in Harlem,
citizen soldier

If you had to die-and I don't admit it-
who dared "What if, each time they kill a black man/
we kill a cop?" couldn't you take down with you
a few prime villains

in the capitol, who are also mortal?
June, you should be living, the states are bleeding.
Leaden words like "Homeland" translate abandoned
dissident discourse.

Twenty years ago, you denounced the war crimes
still in progress now, as Jenin, Ramallah
dominate, then disappear from the headlines.
Palestine: your war.

"To each nation, its Jews," wrote Primo Levi.
"Palestinians are Jews to Israelis."
Afterwards, he died in despair, or so we
infer, despairing.

To each nation its Jews, its blacks, its Arabs,
Palestinians, immigrants, its women.
From each nation, its poets: Mahmoud Darwish,
Kavanagh, Shahid

(who, beloved witness for silenced Kashmir,
cautioned, shift the accent, and he was "martyr"),
Audre Lorde, Neruda, Amichai, Senghor,
and you, June Jordan.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 12/21/2006 12:29PM by lfd1.

Re: Sapphic Stanzas & Marilyn Hacker
Posted by: lg (Moderator)
Date: December 20, 2006 03:09PM

There is a definition of the term here: [] />
and here: [rpo.library.utoronto.ca] />

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 12/20/2006 03:11PM by lg.

Re: Sapphic Stanzas & Marilyn Hacker
Posted by: JohnnySansCulo (192.168.128.---)
Date: December 20, 2006 04:00PM

I sHould write one of these thingies

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 12/20/2006 04:35PM by JohnnySansCulo.

Re: Sapphic Stanzas & Marilyn Hacker
Posted by: Hugh Clary (192.168.128.---)
Date: December 21, 2006 12:23PM

I have seen many poems where the author was said to be writing in sapphic stanzas, but the actual results appear to me quite different than what they claim has been intended. Take the Toronto Swinburne one for example,

"All the night sleep came not upon my eyelids,
Shed not dew, nor shook nor unclosed a feather,
Yet with lips shut close and with eyes of iron
Stood and beheld me.


Form note: The Sapphic stanza (where / represents a long syllable, in English stressed, and _ a short syllable, in English unstressed).
/ _ / _ / _ _ / _ / _
/ _ / _ / _ _ / _ / _
/ _ / _ / _ _ / _ / _
/ _ _ / _ "

I read that as (Strong, Weak)

s w s w s ww s w s w
s w s w s ww s w s w
s w s w s ww s w s w
s ww s w


ALL the NIGHT sleep CAME not upON my EYElids,
SHED not DEW, nor SHOOK nor unCLOSED a FEAther,
YET with LIPS shut CLOSE and with EYES of IRon
STOOD and beHELD me

That stanza seems to stick fairly well to the formula, although the rhythm sounds a bit forced. Next,

THEN to ME so LYing aWAKE a VISion
(Ok so far)
CAME withOUT sleep Over the SEAS and TOUCHED me,
(I get a stumble here - seems sleep should get a stress Came without SLEEP)
SOFTly TOUCHED mine EYElids and LIPS; and I too,
(Another stumble for me, since both I and TOO seem to want a stress.)
FULL of the VISion,

Hacker's drifts even further afield:

YOU, who STOOD aLONE in the TALL bay WINdow (ok here)
OF a BROOKlyn BROWNstone, CONjuring MORNing (stumble)
WITH free-FLYing WORDS, knew the POWer, TERRor (ouch)
IN words, in FLYing; (yuck)

And, Bob's Byway has an even more complicated stanza structure:

[www.poeticbyway.com] />
" ... a poem with lines of eleven syllables in five feet, of which the first, fourth and fifth feet are trochees, the second a spondee, and the third a dactyl. The Sapphic strophe consists of three Sapphic lines followed by an Adonic."

I suspect the reader will be better advised to merely anticipate three long lines of variable five-stress rhythm and a short two-stress 'punch' line at the fourth. All endings will be of two-syllables (feminine).

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 12/21/2006 12:26PM by Hugh Clary.

Re: Sapphic Stanzas & Marilyn Hacker
Posted by: JohnnySansCulo (192.168.128.---)
Date: December 21, 2006 01:57PM

Can I end each stanza with:

And that's the fact, Jack

Re: Sapphic Stanzas & Marilyn Hacker
Posted by: JustJack (192.168.128.---)
Date: December 29, 2006 07:01AM

That IS the fact.


Re: Sapphic Stanzas & Marilyn Hacker
Posted by: JohnnySansCulo (192.168.128.---)
Date: December 29, 2006 09:46AM

If anyone would know, it'd be you !

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