Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Lyre, lyric ...

Trekking around the web yesterday I came across a note by Ernest Hilbert on Sappho and lyric at boldtype, which apparently is (or was) a house organ for Random House. Random House now publishes a few poets, but nothing too exciting - these days it's the home of Franz Wright and Billy Collins - so I didn't expect to encounter anything of particular interest there.

I'd been thinking about the connection of lyric to music, though, most recently for the last post on Thomas Rain Crowe and the Boatrockers, and found this part of his note engaging:

Unlike most poets today, Sappho was a musician and singer (this is to assert that few poets are serious musicians and almost no popular songwriters produce what one would feel comfortable describing as poetry, even according the radically diminished standards of our day). She is credited with the invention of a type of lyre, its pick, and the mixolydian mode (according to Aristoxenos via Plutarch; it should be noted, as it is not in the introduction to this book [Ann Carson's If Not, Winter, her translations of Sappho's fragments], that the modes we use today are not the same as those of the ancient Greeks; no record exists of their actual music, which was likely not intended to be transcribed, not unlike today's popular music; the modes used now, though bearing the same names as the ancient Greek, were devised around 1,000 CE in the anonymous Dialogus de musica and Guido of Arezzo's Micrologus; other modes, known to poets for their wonderful names, include the Dorian, Hypodorian, Phrygian, Hypophrygian, and Aeolian). Sappho represents the recorded origins of lyric poetry. This type of poetry was sung.

Notwithstanding the few crotchety parentheses and asides, there's actual information there; I'm sure I didn't know that Sappho had actually invented a lyre. There's more at boldtype, including a link to the new, non-Random House site. I've bookmarked it, signed up for the free newsletter, may even check back every now and then. Give it a look.


Image found at the University of Texas portrait gallery, originally published in World Noted Women celebrated in history, poetry, and romance for beauty, character, and heroism, published by Appleton in 1881.

Labels: , , ,


Anonymous Ernest Hilbert said...

Mr. Davis,

I see that you have come across some of my old scribblings on the Bold Type site. You are correct in your suspicion that the site is no longer active (Bold Type, in its current incarnation, is; not the Poets and Poetry section). I served as the poetry editor for Random House's online magazine from 1999 to around 2003, when the website was sold to another media company called FlavorPill. They seem to have all sorts of newsletters, the most popular among them detailing dance club events and the like. Bold Type is their clearing house for corporate books. The Poets and Poetry portion, which they retained as part of the deal, has not been updated in many years. I did manage to write a handful of essays and conduct a few interviews, so you may find something to enjoy in that archive if you look around. I am not responsible for some of the more embarrassing selections, which were either added before my time or by the head editor.

I am now the editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, which you can visit at Our current issue is free, and we have the previous 8 years (twelve issues annually) archived. The archive is available for a modest subscription cost. I also have a regular blog and web tv show at

Good to know someone is still out there reading those Random House posts.

All best wishes,

Ernest Hilbert

2:00 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home