Sunday, December 25, 2016

A poem, and a life, for Christmas

Happy Christmas!
The Writer’s Almanac notes the occasion with this poem by May Sarton. It’s called ‘Christmas Light” and it appeared in her collected poems in 1993:
When everyone had gone
I sat in the library
With the small silent tree,
She and I alone.
How softly she shone!

And for the first time then
For the first time this year,
I felt reborn again,
I knew love’s presence near.

Love distant, love detached
And strangely without weight,
Was with me in the night
When everyone had gone
And the garland of pure light
Stayed on, stayed on.

Here’s Henry Bemis’s May 2016 birthday profile of the author:

Eleanore Marie Sarton (1912-1995)
Poet, novelist, essayist
The thing about poetry—one of the things about poetry—is that in general one does not follow growth and change through a poem. The poem is an essence. It captures perhaps a moment of violent change but it captures a moment, whereas the novel concerns itself with growth and change. As for the journals, you actually see the writer living out a life, which you don't in any of the other forms, not even the memoirs. In memoirs you are looking back. The memoir is an essence, like poetry. The challenge of the journal is that it is written on the pulse, and I don't allow myself to go back and change things afterwards, except for style. I don't expand later on. It's whatever I am able to write on the day about whatever is happening to me on that day. In the case of a memoir like Plant Dreaming Deep, I'm getting at the essence of five years of living alone in a house in a tiny village in New Hampshire, trying to pin down for myself what those five years had meant, what they had done to me, how I had changed. And that's very different from the journals. I must say, I'm not as crazy about the journals as some of my readers are. I get quite irritated when people say the journals are the best thing. God knows, I've struggled with certain things in the journals, especially about being a woman and about being a lesbian. The militant lesbians want me to be a militant and I'm just not.

But as for the vision of life in the whole of my work, I would like to feel that my work is universal and human on the deepest level. I think of myself as a maker of bridges—between the heterosexual and the homosexual world, between the old and the young. As We Are Now, the novel about a nursing home, has been read, curiously enough, by far more young people than old people. It terrifies old people to read about other old people in nursing homes. But the young have been moved by it. Many young people write me to say that they now visit elderly relatives in these places. This is the kind of bridge I want to make. Also, the bridge between men and women in their marriages, which I've dealt with in quite a few of the novels, especially in the last one, Anger.

So what one hopes, or what I hope, is that the whole work will represent the landscape of a nature which is not primarily intellectual but rather a sensibility quite rich and diverse and large in its capacities to understand and communicate.
That’s how May Sarton described the body of her work to The Paris Review in a 1983 interview. She published over fifty books in almost sixty years, spanning poetry, fiction, nonfiction, children’s books and memoirs.
Her mother was an English painter; her father, a Belgian chemist who became a pioneer in the field of the history of science. At the outbreak of The Great War, the Sartons moved to Britain to live with Mrs. Sarton’s mother; in 1916 they moved to America. Sarton’s father took a teaching post at Harvard, spending the rest of his life there, and producing a three-volume, 4200-page Introduction to the History of Science.
After graduating high school- where she got crossways with a teacher who insisted Ibsen was immoral, Sarton passed on going to Vassar and joined an innovative theater company led by the actress Eva La Gallienne. Poetry magazine published her first verses in 1929; in 1937 she put out her first collection of poetry.
Sarton was greatly influenced by Virginia Woolf, as she recalled decades later:
Yes. Certainly Virginia Woolf. She was the novelist who meant the most to me when I was learning. But she is a dangerous mentor from the technical point of view because she can't be imitated. It's too much her own genius. My first novel is written in a very Woolfian way. There's a description of a woman walking down some steps and it's summer and it's like a pastiche of Woolf. I never did that again.
On a trip to Britain, she made an offering at her mentor’s home:
I had left my first book of poems at her door, with some flowers, and the darling maid opened the door just then and said, “Oh, won't you come up?” I said, “Oh, no, I wouldn't think of it.” I just left the book. Elizabeth Bowen knew that I wanted to meet Virginia Woolf desperately, so she invited the two of us and a couple of other people to dinner. That was when I first met her. She walked in, in a “robe de style,” a lovely, rather eighteenth-century-looking, long dress with a wide collar, and she came into the room like a dazzled deer and walked right across—this was a beautiful house on Regent's Park—to the long windows and stood there looking out. My memory is that she was not even introduced at that point, that she just walked across, very shyly, and stood there looking absolutely beautiful. She was much more beautiful than any of the photographs show. And then she discovered that I was the person who had left the poems.

She was very canny . . . she answered my gift of that book with a lovely note, which is now in the Berg Collection, just saying: “Thank you so much, and the flowers came just as someone had given me a vase, and were perfect, and I shall look forward to reading the poems.” In other words, never put yourself in a position of having to judge. So she never said a word about the poems. But she was delighted to find out that I was the person who had left them.

Then, later, we talked—Elizabeth and Virginia Woolf and I. The gentlemen were having their brandy and cigars in the other room. We talked about hairdressers. It was all like something in The Waves! We all talked like characters in a Virginia Woolf novel. She had a great sense of humor. Very malicious. She liked to tease people, in a charming way, but she was a great tease.
Sarton did some teaching and wrote book reviews to keep herself up during the gestation of her second novel, which appeared in 1946. After that, she found her footing, and alternated between a novel and a poetry collection over a couple of years for the rest of her life. Her work floated feminist themes, and featured women protagonists- “women are my muse,” she declared.
In 1945 she met a woman called Judy Matlack at Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the two were a couple for the next decade. When the relationship ended, Sarton moved to New Hampshire, and then to Maine, where she settled into a mostly single existence in a converted coastal summer cottage at the end of a long drive. Her New York Times obituary noted that in that cottage she found the life that suited her:
Speaking about the "rewards of a solitary life," she said, "Loneliness is most acutely felt with other people, for with others, even with a lover sometimes, we suffer from our differences -- differences of taste, temperament, mood." Quietly she waited for the moment to come "when the world falls away, and the self emerges again from the deep unconscious, bringing back all I have recently experienced to be explored and slowly understood, when I can converse again with my own hidden powers, and so grow, and so be renewed, till death do us part."
Living alone, in an out of the way place, enabled Sarton to get on solely on her book sales. She took a spiky pride at never having sought an academic perch to subsidize her writing.
Sarton said she always imagined her reader as someone about her age, with whom she could have a conversation. In the 1960s and ‘70s, as she became a feminist icon on the college lecture circuit and published Journal of A Solitude- the first of a number of late journals and memoirs on aging- she found a wildly enthusiastic younger audience. A 1982 reviewer of one of her novels summed up her appeal:
"It is clear that May Sarton's best work, whatever its form, will endure well beyond the influence of particular reviews or current tastes. For in it she is an example: a seeker after truth with a kind of awesome energy for renewal, an ardent explorer of life's important questions. Her great strength is that when she achieves insight, one believes -- because one has witnessed the struggle that preceded the knowledge."
She came out as a lesbian in 1965 and maintained she never regretted it, though it cost her two jobs and doubtless contributed to the dearth of professional honors to which her work might have otherwise entitled her. Largely ignored by the major critics, she built her reputation and fame by word of mouth, and from that flinty, stoic path earned election to the American Academy of Arts & Letters and eighteen honorary degrees. She told The Paris Review,
I know of no other writer who has had such a strange career as I've had. When I started writing, the first novels were received with ovations. In 1958, I was a finalist for the National Book Award in two categories, fiction and poetry. But after my fifth novel, Faithful Are the Wounds, the one that was nominated, this never happened again and I began to have bad reviews. I was no longer in fashion. I can't think of another writer who has had as hard a time with reviewers over a period of twenty years as I have but whose work has been so consistently read. It's word of mouth. It's people . . . every day I get letters saying things like: “I loved such and such a book and I'm buying five copies to give to people.” That's how books get around. And then the public libraries. Without the public libraries, serious writers, unfashionable serious writers like me, really wouldn't have a chance. Again, I hear from people, “I was wandering around the library and saw the title Plant Dreaming Deep. It caught my attention . . . now I'm reading everything you've written.” It's wonderful to have this happen at the age of seventy.
Her work also touched nerves many culture warriors would rather see suppressed even today:
One of the themes in all I have written is the fear of feeling. It comes into the last novel where Anna asks, “Must it go on from generation to generation, this fear of feeling?” I want feelings to be expressed, to be open, to be natural, not to be looked on as strange. It's not weird, I mean, if you feel deeply. And, really, most Americans think it is. Sex is all right, but feeling is not. You can have five people in your bed and no one will worry much, but if you say, “I've fallen in love at seventy,” people's hair is going to stand on end. They'll think, “The poor thing, there's something awfully wrong with her.”
Her late fame was a tonic, and led to more poetry and a new phase as a memoirist. After a stroke left her unable to write in 1986, the urge to compose burned on, and she took to dictating her books and poetry into a tape recorder for transcription.
Some critics faulted Sarton’s late work as self-absorbed; certainly her last books were an omnium-gatherum of the limits and deficits of age and illness. Most readers seem to draw something affirming from her candid chronicles of what awaits us all.
“Don't deprive me of my age,” she wrote. “I have earned it.”

May Sarton died in 1995, at the age of 83.

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