Lesbian Poetry Retrospective Part 1

With the
Librarian of Congress appointment of Kay Ryan as the nation’s 16th Poet
Laureate this summer, we decided to look back on some of the great lesbian
poets and poems throughout history.

As with any
attempt to categorize or label, however, there is plenty of controversy
surrounding the broad term “lesbian poetry.” What qualifies as “lesbian poetry”?
Is the term restrictive? Where do poems for and about lesbians, but written by
male poets (see Charles Baudelaire’s “Lesbos”),
fit into the definition?       

The 10 poets featured below represent a wide range of aesthetics and backgrounds. Each poet
has contributed to and expanded the definition of lesbian poetry in a distinct
and important way, showing that the genre is as multifaceted and difficult to
characterize as lesbians themselves.

Sappho

You cannot talk
about lesbian poetry without first bringing up Sappho, the “10th muse” and the
only woman canonized as one of the nine lyric poets in antiquity. Though little
is known about the life of the Ancient Greek poet from the island of Lesbos
(where the term “lesbian” derives), Sappho is easily the most iconic lesbian
poet in history.

What we do know
about Sappho is that she was a poet, teacher, mother and, despite some
disagreement, a lesbian. Her work was not particularly political, although she
was exiled from Greece,
presumably for her political leanings.

As the details of
Sappho’s life are limited, so are the remains of her work. Aside from two
complete poems, only fragments of Sappho’s original verses have survived. No
one knows for sure, but there are different legends surrounding the destruction
of her work, including book burnings by Christians offended with the poetry’s
lesbian content.

What remains
reveals a poet primarily concerned with passion, suffering, love, desire and
the intimacy between women.
Sappho
addressed many of her poems to three women—Anaktoria, Atthis and Gongyla, who
is featured in the poem below from Willis Barnstone’s Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho.

“Return, Gongyla”

A deed
your lovely face 

if not, winter
and no pain 

I bid you,
Abanthis,
take up the lyre
and sing of
Gongyla as again desire
floats around you 

the beautiful.
When you saw her dress
it excited you. I’m
happy.
The Kypros-born
once
blamed me 

for praying
this word:
I want

 

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