Poem of the Day: ‘Terra Firma’ 

San Diego poet Julie Steiner demonstrates the sapphic stanza’s comic potential, as her precise observation of the meter gives the poem the bounce and timing that drive its speaker’s voice.

New-York Historical Society via Wikimedia Commons
Thomas Cole, 'Destruction,' from 'The Course of Empire,' 1836. New-York Historical Society via Wikimedia Commons

While it has been argued that attempts to render classical meters in English are probably doomed, the little sapphic stanza begs to differ. That is, it knows perfectly well that as an ancient Greek form, named for the poet Sappho and originally composed of long and short syllables, in English meter it typically becomes a pattern of accents. Its first three lines are hendecasyllabic, composed in English of two trochees, a dactyl, and two more trochees. A dactyl and a trochee comprise its short fourth line. 

Of all the English attempts at classical meters, which the Sun’s Poem of the Day celebrates this week, the sapphic remains the most successfully enduring. Or perhaps it’s simply the most addictive to write. The Victorian Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote in sapphics. Rudyard Kipling turned his hand to sapphics. Allen Ginsburg experimented with sapphics. Timothy Steele’s “Sapphics Against Anger” provide an archetype for the stanza in contemporary verse.

Today, the San Diego poet Julie Steiner (b. 1968) demonstrates, with “Terra Firma,” the sapphic stanza’s comic potential. Steiner’s precise observation of the meter gives the poem the bounce and timing that drive its speaker’s voice. Particularly effective is the line break between the third and fourth lines of each stanza, paying out the syntax, making the recipient of this maternal lecture wait for the punchline, or the letdown.

Terra Firma 
by Julie Steiner 
Yes, you’re right. I’m sure Armageddon’s coming: 
wars, tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, locusts, 
killer flus, et cetera. Yes, I’m awed by 
all the destruction. 

I concede your point that the world might end, and 
all your puny labors will be as nothing. 
Still, you can’t go out with your friends until you’ve 
folded the laundry. 


With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems will be typically drawn from the lesser-known portion of the history of English verse. In the coming months we will be reaching out to contemporary poets for examples of current, primarily formalist work, to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.  

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