May Sarton Oct 12, 2008 16:03:14 GMT 2
Post by moira on Oct 12, 2008 16:03:14 GMT 2
Joyce Nower introduces:
In 1969, I co-founded the Center for Women's Studies and Services and its first component, the Women's Studies Program (now a department), at San Diego State University. From 1976-1984, I wrote columns on literature and art for the Center's publications. The article below entitled "An Appreciation of May Sarton's Poetry" appeared in my column called Art and the Movement in the Center's nationally distributed feminist newspaper The Longest Revolution. (Dec./Jan. 1981/ Vol. 5, #2).
A brief correspondence between Sarton and me follows the article.
An Appreciation of May Sarton's Poetry
Reading May Sarton's poetry for the first time in some years is like reading The New York Times after a diet of small town newspapers. One immediately experiences more diversity, more balance, more experience tilled into furrows of humanness, and, yes - without any loss of levelheadedness - more passion about the world and its comings and goings. The reason for the unique spirit of the poetry lies, of course, in the character of the poet: in her wide ranging sympathies, as revealed in a diverse subject matter, and in her deftness at welding thought and feeling on the forge of craft.
A browse through the table of contents of the Selected Poems (W.W. Norton, 1978) reveals a catholic response to things, people and events. The titles, arranged thematically, refer to medieval tapestries, paintings, animals, Kent State, nursery stories, father, ghettos, Christmas, American and foreign places, concentration camps, Kali, women, and so on. On another level, we see an interest in relationships, thoughts and feelings, and personal identity.
Begin your study of this excellent and exciting poet by reading the following poems in Section I: "The Lady and the Unicorn," "Dutch Interior," "Song," "The Clavichord," "Girl with a Cello," and "A Celebration for George Sarton." "The Lady and the Unicorn," named after a Cluny tapestry in which that ill-assorted pair lives, recounts the love of the Unicorn for the Lady. Behind the poem vibrate the legendary lusts between woman and beast, but in the poem, lust is transformed by the courtly conventions of a Christianized era into wistfulness and gentle longing. "Imagination is our bridal bed," says the Unicorn, and "I ... know your beauty was not cast for me," yet "Know we are woven all in mystery." This delicate poem is cast in a modified villanelle form.
"Dutch interior," based on a painting by Pieter de Hooch, examines the "raw grief" behind the calm exterior of a woman sewing, who, the poet imagines, watches the men in the family being destroyed by their seafaring occupations: "Bent to her sewing, she looks drenched in calm./Raw grief is disciplined to the fine thread./But in her heart this woman is the storm..."
The next three poems are songs (perhaps some woman musician will compose melodies for them some day.) Their lyric quality is formally displayed, and the beginning poet can learn much from them about verbal music. The poem to the poet's father is shaped by rhymed couplets. It is a peaceful and accepting poem: "And when he died, he died so swift/His death was like a final gift./ He went out when the tide was full,/Still undiminished, bountiful."
Section II identifies love relationships as a major theme which reoccurs throughout the book, establishing its primacy on all levels. "Love, touch us everywhere/ With primeval candor," says the Poet in "Invocation." Three poems that constitute an interrelated unit of thought are "Prothalamion," "Death and Lovers," and "Evening Music." In "Prothalamion," the Poet describes, through an analogy with wheat, the ripening of love in the pure hearts of lovers "while all around them earth moves towards an end." Although the initial harvest is sexual and spiritual union - the "still center" - a later harvest will be death: "The kiss, straight from the terrible heart/ That will not beat forever, must, does hurt./ Death becomes real , and love is forced to grow" ("Death and Lovers"). The reality that love must learn, however, is the "intense detachment" at the "quick of self" ("Evening Music").
But love can die before lovers do. In "Autumn Sonnets" and "A Divorce of Lovers" (poems from the book A Divorce of Lovers), love dies through verbal vitriol by "the mature, who mutilate by choice." And in "Der Abschied," love dies through physical separation, and the "passionate journey" ends in "sweet reason."
In addition to her relationship to things, events, and other people, the poet is also interested in the identity of the Self. We witness this in poems such as "Christmas Letter to a Psychiatrist" and " All Souls" (in Section III); "The Muse as Medusa," "Gestalt at Sixty," and "Now I Become Myself" ( in Section IV); and "The Action of Therapy" (in Section VII). Therapeutic concern, whose goal it is to bring to the surface the bulbs hidden in the cellar of the psyche, mediates over this process of self-identification. Yet the psychiatrist can provide neither the "harvest/Nor the longed-for love." For it is indeed the loss of love, through deaths and separations, that triggers the painful self-examination that the poet undergoes at her half-century mark. And thanks only to her own spiritual depth is she able to balance the loss: Sarton can observe that the strands of love grow richer with each loss because through her move the departed she has cared for. These "lost human voices speak through us and blend/Our complex love, our mourning without end" ("All Souls"). Thus does the Poet wind her difficult way towards regeneration.
Regeneration takes place in nature and in solitude, an often oppressive solitude: "Who wakes in a house alone/ Wakes to moments of panic," the Poet observes in "Gestalt at Sixty." Reliance on the Self is learned by working out "...anguish in a garden./ Without the flowers,/ The shadow of trees on snow, their punctuation,/I might not have survived." Yet the solitude is not absolute, for the house harbors memories, letters arrive, dead poets and musicians stalk the premises, as do the occasional visitors. Self-examination is intense. The poet explores her "frozen rage" ("The Muse as Medusa") and, finally, whatever masks she still hides behind drop from her ("Now I Become Myself"). Happiness is the result.
Happiness is "growth in peace." It is "... woven out of the peace of hours/And strikes its roots deep in the house alone" ("The Work of Happiness"). Happiness is being one's own Self: "It's taken/Time, many years and places; /I have been dissolved and shaken,/Worn other people's faces," ("Now I Become Myself").
What else is learned from the fight for the Self? The Poet learns that "Only when she built inward in a fearful isolation/ Did anyone succeed or learn to fuse emotion/With thought," although, of course, it would be preferable to be at that moment in history when a woman writer can live her life according to the needs of her temperament and craft without having to either renounce life or give herself over to emotional extremes ("My Sisters, O My Sisters"). The Poet learns the "Simple acceptance/Of things as they are." She learns not to let the departures of loved ones undermine her Self anymore. She learns not only to love someone as an equal, but also that it is all right, for her at least, if love includes elements of a parent-child relationship. She identifies her longings for transcendence. Finally, she learns that there is a "continuum... of redemptive love", that is, that as we learn to love more effectively, we are cleansed of our own destructive power because a balance is struck within us: "What did the angel do/To make all levels straight/Within that sheaf/Of troubled sense and fear/Set every beam on its own path/At last untangled" ( "The Action of Therapy")?
"Balance" emerges as an underlying theme in the Kali poem in Section VI. Section VI, entitled "Invocations and Mythologies," is of particular interest to those of us who are amateur mythologists. In that section, Sarton takes us on a tour of mythological beings: the Medusa, Kali, Poseidon, Athene, Narcissus, Aphrodite, Proteus, the phoenix, the furies, giants, frogs, and angels. Interestingly enough, the Poet includes in this section the invocation to the Self (the source of all mythology) and to women writers of the past (the repository of the history of the female Self and female mythology). (See "Now I Become Myself" and "Sisters, O My Sisters.")
In "The Invocation to Kali," mentioned above, Kali is the mythic Hindu representation of the material world, that world of causality from which we can never escape. The quotation which prefaces the poem comes from the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell. He says about Kali that "her stomach is a void and so can never be filled... her womb is giving birth forever to all things... ." Kali is obviously not a river nymph or a woodland spirit. Rather, she is a fearsome deity who is at the heart of an Eastern concept of the Great Goddess: she is the personified principle of of the entire cycle of creation - that is, creation as well as destruction - a ruthless and inexorable principle that is hard to sentimentalize. (Perhaps that is why we Western feminists, conditioned by the optimistic eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophies of democracy and progress, have preferred to focus our attention on the Olympian and pre-Olympian Athene, the heroic huntress, and Ceres, the harvest mother searching for her daughter.)
Sarton joins the destructive and constructive forces within us with those of the state in an unsentimental alliance of the personal and the political. On the personal level, the destructive aspect of Kali's nature is acted out as each individual's personal destroyer. On the level of the state, it is the destructive aspect which erects concentration camps and furnaces which burn people, and which create psychological and economic ghettos which destroy ethnic and cultural minorities. But we must, nevertheless, pay homage to Kali if we want to get Her (that is, ourselves) under control. Our homage is a request to her to come closer to us; for bringing her closer means bringing her more sharply into our consciousness: "We must stay, open-eyed, in the terrible place." Furthermore, until we have "blessed... Kali by the act of recognition, "there will be no child, no flower, and no wine." Once given due recognition, Kali's destructive aspect can be redirected. The redirection takes place in Part Five of the poem, which is the invocation, or direct appeal, to the deity.
In the invocation, the Poet specifically requests that we be able to see that destruction and love (i.e. creation) are both part of the"balance-wheel"; that is, the cycle of creation. It is only if we constantly remind ourselves that our ultimate goal is balance, both personal and political, that we can cleanse ourselves of the "perpetual shame" that comes from destructive acts, thoughts, and feelings. Only in this way can we become conscious "gardeners of the spirit." Thus , the classic Hindu understanding of the implacable force of of cosmic creation, with its twin aspects of love-hate, or creation-destruction, is given here a contemporary application. Within the inevitable cycle, the individual is set free through consciousness and volition.
Sarton has certainly been a devoted gardener in her own garden, and her plants are thriving. Her poems grow vigorously in a soil which mingles past and present. And although thematically, her themes are our concerns, this observation should in no way detract from the fact she in no way caters to any current sensibility. It does mean that she has been able to articulate some key concerns of our times: the unfolding of the Self within the female context, the juxtaposition of ancient and contemporary imagery, psychological interpretations of deity, speculation on the lives of women from the past, the importance of nature, the nature and power of love, the inter-relationship of social and personal crisis, and so on. Her level of craft is inspiring. She knows the history of her craft - its conventions of rhyme, meter, and traditional form, as well as the traditions of free verse - and she is able to use any technique which is suitable.
A good example of Sarton's word magic occurs in the next to the last stanza of "Prothalamion":
While all around them earth moves towards an end,
The gold turning to bronze, the barley tasseled,
Where the great sheaves will be stored up and bend
Their heads together in that rich wedding be
All are about to enter.
The poem parallels the growth of love between two people (significantly, gender is not identifiable in most of the love poems) to the ripening of wheat in a field. The poem joins specific human content to rhythms beyond that specific human content; namely, to nature's rhythms, thus making the lovers part of nature. All nature, including the lovers, moves towards fruition and harvest, and, by implication, towards death. The poem uses the technique of analogy to give the specific human content more universal power. The intellect of the conscious reader - which knows about natural cycles - is delighted by the delicate juxtaposition of sensuous imagery. The reader is thus moved both intellectually and viscerally. This intertwining of intellect and sense creates the experience: out muscles twitch, our inner eye glitters, our pulse beats more rapidly.
And we are moved to ask: Where is York, Maine? How do we get there? Is there some way the Poet and her garden can be transplanted to San Diego - at least for a time? Or is there some Eden in the middle of the universe, where over coffee and angel food cake, the Poet and her readers could exchange words? But for now, at least, we must be content with the Poet's thirty-one volumes of autobiography, fiction, and poetry; with her forty-year output of words on paper; with her "fearful isolation" which helped her learn to fuse emotion and thought; and we must be content with her "warm light that brings forth fruit and flower/And that great sanity, that sun, the feminine power."
Joyce's note: May 10, 1984: "I'd like to present to you..."
Sarton's note: May 23, 1984: " Thank you so much for sending me your poems."
Joyce's second note: August 1984: "Thank you for the kind words..."
Sarton's second note: Sept 19, 1984: "There has been so little critical notice..."