May Sarton: An Appreciation
May Sarton is a writer that one grows into. One can read her when young, but if one re-reads her later in one's own maturity, her words take on extra depth and meaning. When I was in my twenties, I discovered her journals and poems, particularly Journal of a Solitude, most likely still her best known book. While I liked it, I moved on. When I re-read Sarton in my early forties, suddenly every word was alive and deeply compelling. I had grown up enough to have caught up with her. I went out and read almost all of her work, then, and found as many hardcover first editions as I could find. I read or re-read the journals, and the poems; I read the novels, and found myself reading one or two them more than once within a short span of time. I discovered a spirit, sometimes cranky and forthright, not always living up to the stereotype of the kindly elder writer but always with genuine kindness as a river flowing underground.
Sarton often finds her audience among younger women writers, who then develop a lifelong relationship with her work. Sarton was a woman-centered woman: very much a feminist although not militant, as her social graces were deeply influenced by her European background and connections. Sarton never explicitly said she was a lesbian, as she actively resisted being categorized in ways other than literary—she wanted to be thought of as a "universal writer"—although her deepest friendships were with women; one might say that she was a person who loved both men and women, but for whom individual women were her Muses.
In her sublime and spiky novel, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, one of those I mentioned that I have read several times, the central character is a woman writer whose creativity is given to her by her enlivening encounters with individual women. The central part of the novel is structured around a long interview the writer gives in her home to two visiting guests, broken up by reminiscence and memoir; there are also long prologues and epilogues, in which the writer gives wisdom to a young man she knows, a friend who is troubled. The young man is clearly having homoerotic feelings and experiences; and the elderly writer at one point says, in effect: "people like us are always going to have problems." But she means, sensitive artists like us, as much as she means people who are emotionally attracted to their same sex. Lenora Blouin writes in May Sarton: A Poet's Life:
Frequently referred to as her "coming out novel," [Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing] was embraced not only by "feminist" scholars but by Lesbians as well and marked a turning point in Sarton scholarship; her work began to be studied in colleges and universities, especially in Women's Studies programs. Articles appeared in feminist journals and books, and much would be written about this novel in the years to come. For Sarton this posed a dilemma; she celebrated the serious recognition her work was beginning to receive yet shunned the label "lesbian writer" which she felt narrowly limited the perception and focus of her work. She was and wanted to be seen as a universal writer and had, in fact, already written many novels about family and married life.
Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing is nonetheless Sarton's most openly autobiographical novel, and one of only two that openly deal with the topic of women-centered women; the other novel is The Education of Harriet Hatfield. My other favorite among her novels is Kinds of Love.
Sarton thought of herself first and foremost as a poet. Entry after entry in her journals show how much happier she was when the poems were coming, and how much she worried when they were not. In the long run, I sometimes feel that Sarton will be best remembered for her many journals, which are a deep and rich history of one writer's struggle through writing to examine herself, her needs, her wellsprings and sources. Every writer ought to read May Sarton's journals (especially, again, writers over forty): there is so much humanity in them, which leads this writer, at least, to feel less alone, and to find some solace in knowing that at least one other writer has met similar struggles and overcome them.
Going through the many books I'm still sorting in the basement reading room—I have still lived in this house for less than a year—I came across my volumes of May Sarton, and paused to browse. The journal I picked up again, a few weeks ago, and have been re-reading since, is The House By the Sea (1977), the journal that came after Sarton had moved from country-village New Hampshire to her home in Maine overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The last year in her old home had been traumatic, as had been the move. (I relate to both of these, since my last two years in my parents' old home were as live-in caregiver then, with my sister, having to sort through everything, and also find my own new home and move into it.) In early January of 1976, Sarton writes:
I feel now very much at peace, even happy, as I start a new year with poetry. It is the first time in three years that I have dared look down into the depths or play records while I am working. Until now music had been too painful . . . if I opened that door I began to weep and couldn't stop. I had been traumatized by the final year at Nelson. [her New Hampshire home]
. . . But at least some of the anguish was transformed into As We Are Now, so it was not all waste. What deep experience, however terrible, is? And I think I came out stronger and more sure of my own powers than I have ever been.
The sea has erased the pain. I have never been so happy as I am here, and I welcome the new year with great expectations. Since they are expectations that I myself can fulfill and have to do with inner life and with the beauty of the world around me, I dare to say this. Peace does not mean an end to tension, the good tensions, or of struggle. It means, I think, less waste. It means being centered.
That last paragraph is key. It's key not only to my own struggles, but is a universal key. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke echoed it in both poems and as a refrain throughout Letters to a Young Poet. For example, from the third letter:
Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn't force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!
Sarton wrote, Peace does not mean an end to tension. Chaos doesn't go away; living itself is a kind of ordered chaos, and even the biochemical processes of life can be articulated as tensions resisting the mineral stillness of death. This knowing, this mature wisdom, phrased in Sarton's unique voice, is why her journals are so rich. They are filled with insights like this, which emerge from more scattered and chaotic times like a balm of true peace. I once wrote, years ago, a line in a poem that perhaps Sarton would have agreed with: True peace is hard-won, still, and private. It's a teaching that I still need to keep re-learning.
Sarton's journals are also full of thoughts about the writer's life: not only about the process and the product, there are also critical insights into literature, genres, and the collaboration with the reader. Later in The House By the Sea, in an entry from February 1976 she writes:
I wonder why it is that "inspirational" writing such as appears in The Reader's Digest and in religious magazines so often, far from consoling or "uplifting," makes me feel angry and upset. Most of the platitudes uttered are true, after all. But the fact is that this kind of superficial piety covers the real thing with a sugary icing meant to make it more palatable. It makes me feel sick. And the sickness is because I feel cheated. It debases God (by making him a kind of universal pal), and sentimentalizes Jesus, and—what is most dangerous and unchristian—it makes its communicants feel superior, part of an elite club where the saved can gather, shutting everyone else out. Into all this [Paul] Tillich enters like a cleansing, ruthless wind. . . .
I wish I had written that: it's exactly how I feel.
In the March 1976 section of this journal, Sarton ruminates:
I have always been attacked for writing political poems, first by Conrad Aiken years ago, then of course by Louise Bogan (some of this argument is in our letters). Bad rhetorical poetry is just as bad as any bad poetry and I think the question is how deeply moved one has been, whether the political poem can come from the subconscious or reach the subconscious to be fertilized.
And here we get at why a lot of "political poetry" is bad, and also why some poetry that happens to contain political thinking can be good. The artfulness of the poetry, not of the rhetoric, is the determinative element. Sarton's attitude is, I think, the proper one; and it reflects her desire to be a universal writer, not only a lesbian-feminist, or merely political one. That the poem must arise from, and activate or be activated by the deeper (subconscious, unconscious, archetypal) parts of the self is essential. Sarton demonstates why poems, rhetorical or otherwise, that are written only from the head ultimately fail.
Sarton is a writer who needs to be read by mature men as well as young women. In some ways she is a very "masculine" writer—forceful, honest, unafraid. Sarton pointed out more than once that while these attributes are seen as desirable in men, in women they are seen as unseemly or negative. In a word, uppity. Sarton was from an early age a feminist thinker, if only later seen as a "feminist writer." I agree with her opinions, written during the 1970s and 80s, about these cultural filters through which men and women were and are differently judged. What Sarton became as an opinionated writer, though, was one of the very agents of change, in her times, that she looked for in the writings of other women who were more overtly feminist. Sarton acted is if the differences between men and women writers mattered not at all, and by doing so, set the example that they did not, and thereby made them matter less.
Male writers need to read Sarton because she can be from them a mirror for their inner selves, their innermost feminine selves, their anima, which can become as strong in them, as writers, as any post-Hemingway emblem of macho male writerly superiority. (Norman Mailer failed as a writer, to pick only one example, because he rejected all things "weak" in himself, meaning feminine, and so never became a whole person.) In the image of this strong woman, men can see themselves reflected, as do other strong women. Sarton's writings emerge from and activate deep psychological resources—not only from her strengths, but her wounds—that every writer needs to encounter, sooner or later, to become fully human. Gay and lesbian writers need to (continue to) read Sarton for the affirmation that their own struggles can be overcome by assuming, as Sarton did, that the battle was already won and no longer mattered. She knew she presumed, and she also knew that her presumptions were not yet universal; but the very act of presuming helped make it come true. That's a courageous and effective strategy, to live as though the struggle were already won, and to hold one's head up and take the high road, as Sarton generally did.
May Sarton will, I believe, be remembered for her journals if for nothing else. I do think she was a poet, occasionally a very good one; and some of her novels can be held up as among the best in the naturalistic (or literary fiction) style of the 20th Century. They continue to be popular among readers even if most critics have forgotten them for the moment. Sarton will in print a lot longer than some of her contemporaries who literary critics now give more attention to—which means she has succeeded in her oft-stated desire to connect with the reader, with the person who the reader is, in their shared humanity. But even if all she had left us were her journals, that would be a rich and treasured legacy indeed.