NEW YORK — The most widely known anecdote about the poet Sappho concerns her death: She is said to have thrown herself off a cliff because of unrequited love for the hunky boatman Phaon. Erica Jong, whose new novel is “Sappho’s Leap” (W. W. Norton & Co.), contends that this story is nothing more than the fabrication of jealous male writers who wanted to undermine their rival’s credibility. There were, after all, many satires that caricatured Sappho after her death.
Jong maintains that there is no theme or metaphor in lyric poetry — or for that matter, song — that was not created first by Sappho. She is justly celebrated for such lines as “I have a daughter like a golden flower” and “a subtle fire runs under my skin.”“Every poet of consequence from Catullus to Sylvia Plath has rediscovered and reinterpreted Sappho,” Jong says, “and all these years, she has never got the credit for it.” In short, Jong contends that Sappho is the mother of all poets.
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