Sappho and the Lesbian Poetic Tradition: Judy Grahn’s Perspective

“[Sappho] was central to her culture, and even in fragments has been as central a poet in Western culture as it has developed over twenty-five centuries,” begins Judy Grahn in her 1985 piece “Writing from a House of Women” (Grahn 257). In this essay, Grahn, a feminist activist and important figurehead in the poetry of the Second Wave, discusses Sappho’s life, work, and what it conveys to today’s readers about the eternal nature of female love.

An imagined depiction of Sappho by English Neo-Classical painter John William Godward, 1904.

“In everything that remains of what [Sappho] did,” Grahn states, “she maintained a female-based point of view, a female collective center from which to speak of life and death, of beauty and love in general” (Grahn 257). This idea is where Grahn obtains the title for her essay, describing Sappho’s work as emerging from a literal “House of Women” and speaking for the whole of the female community surrounding her. Sappho would later be referred to as a whore for having so many female lovers and companions in her lifetime (Grahn 260). Yet in her time, she and her poetry were renowned and respected. She was referred to as the “tenth muse,” a title that placed her among the nine muses, the highest divine symbols of artistic creativity in ancient Greece. Much of her work was meant to be sung in accompaniment to music, often played on a lyre or other stringed instrument (Mendelsohn). Therefore, she created her art with performance in mind—an interesting point, as most Second Wave poets interacted with her poetry only on the page.

What is perhaps most compelling about Sappho is the influence her works continue to have on the queer people of today and of the Second Wave of Feminism, considering the fact that the majority of her poetry has been lost to time. Only around 650 lines of her poetry survive today from the original 10,000—a large portion of which Grahn suggests were “burnt and partially submerged” due to their “overtly Lesbian love lyrics” (Grahn 257). Yet, as I hope to illustrate in this curation of works, Sappho’s identity as a lesbian icon took on a life of its own, extending far beyond the poetry she left behind.

Works Cited:

Grahn, Judy. The Judy Grahn Reader. Edited by Lisa Maria Hogeland, Aunt Lute Books, 2009, pp. 257-260.

Mendelsohn, Daniel. “How Gay Was Sappho?” The New Yorker, 9 Mar. 2015,

Rita Mae Brown – “Sappho’s Reply”

In this poem, Rita Mae Brown embodies her imagined perception of Sappho, addressing lesbians of her time. Speaking to them “through thousands of years,” she offers words of encouragement and survival. She, as Sappho, has witnessed and understood their suffering, and yet consoles them that “an army of lovers shall not fail.”

“Sappho’s Reply” was first published in Brown’s 1971 poetry collection The Hand That Cradles the Rock. By using this title to refute the maternal cliche (“the hand that rocks the cradle”) and turn it into an image of power and resilience, Brown sets the tone for her entire collection.

Brown was an integral figure to the Feminist Poetry Movement of the ‘70s, serving as a contributor and editor for several prominent periodicals and journals including Sinister Wisdom, Lesbian Connection, Amazon Quarterly, and The Furies. She was a leader of the Redstockings, a consciousness-raising radical feminist group, yet eventually left the group due to the lack of support of lesbian issues. Similarly, she left her position with the National Organization for Women after its attempts to distance itself from and ignore lesbian feminist groups.

Speaking on her time with these organizations, Brown stated that she “felt like the only lesbian” in America at times in the 1970s. “Yeah, I don’t recommend it,” she reflected in a 2015 Washington Post article (Burns). Yet Brown had a fulfilling career fighting for lesbian rights through poetry and politics. After leaving the Redstockings, she was a prominent figure in the Lavender Menace, a group of lesbian radical feminists that formed in 1970 in response to the exclusion of lesbians from many feminist issues. She also served as a founding member of The Furies Collective, a lesbian commune that treated heterosexuality as a barrier to revolution (Burns).

Brown’s struggles as a lesbian woman within the feminist movement give a deeper meaning to her interpretation of Sappho. “You who have wept in direct sunlight / Who have hungered in invisible chains” could speak to Brown’s own fight and the isolation she felt due to her sexuality.  The poem’s final line, “An army of lovers shall not fail,” was adopted by gay and lesbian activists throughout the 70s and beyond—and even featured on the cover of the periodical The Lesbian Tide (Faderman 232). The “army of lovers” imagery could very well have its roots in Plato’s writing, specifically his Symposium, where the character Phaedrus employs that exact phrase to refer to the Sacred Band of Thebes, a group made up of pairs of male lovers that fought as part of the Theban army. Describing the queer people of the 1970s as “an army” is immensely powerful, especially after following the descriptions of their pain and suffering that make up the body of the poem. It emphasizes their strength and the unity that exists between them, and using Plato’s phrase harkens back to the powerful army made up of queer people in ancient history.

Works Cited:

Burns, Carole. “Rita Mae Brown, Awarded as Pioneer of Lesbian Literature, Scoffs at the Term.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 30 May 2015,

Faderman, Lillian. The Gay Revolution: The Story of The Struggle. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2016, p. 232.

Moore, Honor, and Rita Mae Brown. “Sappho’s Reply.” Poems from the Women’s Movement. Library of America, New York, 2009, p. 41.

Echo of Sappho

The feminist periodical Echo of Sappho directly reflects Sappho’s identity as a lesbian symbol throughout the 1970s. Their inaugural issue features a dedication “to the memory of Sappho” and defines the magazine as “for lesbians, feminists, and men who wish to free themselves from sexism” (Sappho and Hoffman 1). The issue opens with a page (pictured left) detailing information on Sappho’s life: her work, her interpretations of Greek mythology, and the island of Lesbos itself.

The rest of the issue features a wide range of content, including a short story, a variety of opinion pieces on current events, and a sidebar entitled “How to Tell Your Parents You’re a Lesbian.” It also contains a large number of “opinions” scrawled in messy handwriting across the middle of pages. “Opinion: Sagging breasts are in again,” one reads (Sappho and Hoffman 3). “Opinion: one must consider the times in which things took place. Women probably would have been left to die if they were suddenly left with no husband,” another proclaims (Sappho and Hoffman 14). Yet another reads, “Oedipus, who commits two outrages, is only blinded and exiled, while Jocasta (a woman) must die for only committing one” (Sappho and Hoffman 13). The very act of writing these opinions unapologetically in an editor’s handwriting with no accompanying text is powerful. So often, women are asked to explain or justify themselves, and these honest opinions with a startling lack of explanation speak volumes.

Throughout all issues of Echo of Sappho, quotes from Sappho’s poetry are interspersed among the pages. Most of them reflect on female beauty and love, as well as the female body, such as these lines: “Nothing can take its place in my mind / this beauty of girls” (Sappho and Hoffman 3), and “The small dark body’s lesbian loveliness that held the fire eternal” (Sappho and Hoffman 12).

Echo of Sappho continued throughout the next few years as a prominent lesbian feminist journal, yet released its last issue in fall of 1973. Till the end, the editors continued to publish a wide range of art, writing, and opinions by queer women, interspersed with mentions of and quotes from Sappho herself.

Works Cited:

Sappho, and Nancy Hoffmann. “Echo of Sappho.” Echo of Sappho, vol. 1, no. 1, Sisters for Liberation, June 1972, pp. 1–16,

The Lesbian Tide

The Lesbian Tide, a feminist periodical that remained in circulation from 1971 until 1980, began as a bulletin written by the Los Angeles chapter of the prominent lesbian rights organization Daughters of Bilitis and was initially entitled the LA DOB Newsletter (Clendinen and Nagourney 164). After expanding beyond Los Angeles and becoming the first ever national lesbian periodical (as well as the first American magazine with a title including the word “lesbian”), the staff organized the West Coast Lesbian Conference in 1973 (Clendinen and Nagourney 164).

D. Cartier’s poetry, featured in the inaugural issue of The Lesbian Tide

The periodical’s inaugural issue featured a wide range of content, including opinion pieces, “Gay Community News,” Daughters of Bilitis monthly activities, and artwork. Notably, two poems by “D. Cartier” accompany a black-and-white romantic drawing of two women captioned with a Sappho fragment:

“We shall enjoy it . . . as for him who finds fault, may stillness and sorrow take him.”

The two poems by D. Cartier, entitled “For You Only” and “Non-Dichotomy,” both contain themes of loss. “For You Only” laments a lost love, its opening lines reading, “Nothing in my life has been easier than loving you / Nothing will be harder than forgetting” (Cartier 12).  “Non-Dichotomy” is less mournful, expressing gratitude for a past relationship despite sorrow that it has ended: “I’ll remember you, who opened up a world for me / And showed me . . .  LOVING  . . . / Doesn’t need any labels” (Cartier 12). The effect of placing these two poems together on a page with the illustration of two women in a passionate embrace creates a strong sense of the intensity of the romantic love that can exist between women. Sappho’s fragment ties all elements of this page together—that despite the heartbreak, trials, and tribulations that will exist amongst any lovers, love between women can be as beautiful and powerful as ever.

A snapshot of the “Dear Sappho” column – from Vol. 1 Issue 8 of The Lesbian Tide

As The Lesbian Tide continued to circulate throughout the 1970s, the editors developed an advice column entitled “Dear Sappho.” Readers could write with queries, worries, or musings addressed to “Isle of Lesbos, 1124 ½ North Ogden, Los Angeles” and receive a response from “Sappho,” an editor of the magazine. Topics ranged from relationship issues to sexual queries to worries about coming out. “Dear Sappho” continued as a way for editors of the periodical to connect with their audience until 1980, when The Lesbian Tide ceased publication due to financial struggles.

The April 1973 issue of The Lesbian Tide, featuring a quote from Rita Mae Brown’s “Sappho’s Reply” on the cover page.

Works Cited:

Clendinen, Dudley, and Adam Nagourney. Out For Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America. Simon & Schuster, 2016, p. 164.

Cartier. “For You Only.” The Lesbian Tide, vol. 1, no. 1, Tide Publications, Aug. 1971, p. 12,

Cartier. “Non-Dichotomy.” The Lesbian Tide, vol. 1, no. 1, Tide Publications, Aug. 1971, p. 12,

Deeni, et al. “The Lesbian Tide.” The Lesbian Tide, vol. 1, no. 1, Tide Publications, Aug. 1971,

Julie Lee, et al. “The Lesbian Tide.” The Lesbian Tide, vol. 1, no. 8, Tide Publications, Mar. 1972, p. 9,

Adrienne Rich – “Hubble Photographs, After Sappho”

A recording of American singer Amanda Palmer (also known as Amanda Fucking Palmer) reading “Hubble Photographs” as part of the 2020 Universe in Verse, an annual “celebration of science and nature through poetry.”

“Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry, and others of ships, is the most beautiful thing on the black earth, but I say it is whatsoever a person loves. . . . I would rather see her lovely walk and the bright sparkle of her face than the Lydians’ chariots and armed infantry.”

-Sappho, “The Anactoria Poem”

Adrienne Rich cites Sappho’s “Anactoria Poem,” a love poem referencing Helen of Troy, as the inspiration for this piece describing photographs taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. Arguably, this is the most multi-faceted of the works I have selected to feature in this collection, with Rich actually expressing the opposite sentiment of Sappho’s poem. “It should be the most desired sight of all / the person with whom you hope to live and die,” Rich’s poem begins (Rich 366). But then she goes on: “Yet I say / there is something more desirable: the ex-stasis of galaxies / so out from us there’s no vocabulary / but mathematics and optics” (Rich 366).

“Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” goes on to detail the beauty found in the images garnered from the Hubble Space Telescope, the “lacerations of light and dust” and the “violet green livid and venous” (Rich 366). Rich showers these images in beautiful, lengthy descriptions that make up most of the poem, and when she does mention the unnamed “lover” (who is the subject of Sappho’s poem), it is briefly and without detail. In this piece, Rich exalts the unexplored galaxies and places them above romantic love, in a complete reversal of the Sappho fragment she imitates.

Even though Rich’s poem is in direct contrast with Sappho’s “Anactoria Poem,” this poem is a testament to the multifaceted nature of Sappho’s legacy. Not all pieces in response to her works reflect the same ideas that she initially intended. A myriad of works like “Hubble Photographs” find their inspiration in her writings, yet go in completely new or opposite directions. Sappho’s influence on the poets of the 1970s and today is rich and complex, and her work lays the foundation for an abundance of artistic work that freely expresses female love and sexuality from a multitude of different perspectives.

Works Cited:

Palmer, Amanda. “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho.” Vimeo, 2019,

Rich, Adrienne, et al. “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho.” Selected Poems, 1950-2012, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, New York, 2018, pp. 366–367.