Lesbian Poetry Retrospective Part 1

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Lesbian Poetry  – 10 Poets We Love

As with any

attempt to categorize or label, 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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