Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Home to a Place beyond Exile: The Collected Poems of May Sarton

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Home to a Place beyond Exile: The Collected Poems of May Sarton

Article excerpt


The retrospective exhibition of a poetic career may be either highly selective or generously inclusive; the choice the author makes between these two approaches has much to do with the sort of poet he is. The highly selective poet, whose definitive collection contains less than half of his published work, is likely to think of poetry as the production of separate finished pieces. The author of the more inclusive collection, on the other hand, is more forgiving of failures and false moves, on the grounds that poetry, as a way of perceiving and knowing, is a process in which one important thing is the trail of attempts, successful and otherwise. Diane Wakoski has sensibly pointed out that the difference between these kinds of poet is not that one is fastidious and the other sloppy; it is only that divergent but equally important aspects of the poetic life are attractive to them. And it should be obvious that no poet is exclusively one or the other of these hypothetical kinds. The product-oriented poet seeks a distinctive and unifying voice, and the process-oriented poet certainly welcomes isolated excellences.

May Sarton has designed her Collected Poems with a lifelong process in view. Her aim has been to reveal the development of a career and of a person, because the whole of her career is greater than the sum of its stages, despite the brilliance of many individual achievements. She writes of the feminine condition, of art, love, landscape, travel, and the search for a lasting home, and of the inexplicable violence that can wreck even the mildest people. Her tone is often gently didactic. The largeness of her themes makes them worth returning to again and again; her didactic tone helps give her poetry its distinctiveness, for very few poets of this age seem willing to be purposeful about poetry's power to instruct. That didactic poetry can succeed in our day should come as no surprise, but somehow it does, probably because the word didactic has come to make people think not of Milton, but of Edward Newman, author of "The Insect Hunters." We have become accustomed to the idea that didactic poetry is not the real thing; in the process we must have forgotten that Eliot, Frost, and Yeats wrote many poems as consciously instructive as anything in this volume.

Sarton's concern to reveal human as well as literary development helps explain the presence in Collected Poems of a few items which seem less successful than others. There are triumphs here, of form over chaos, delight over suffering, skill over intransigence, which must be seen in the context of the struggles they spring from, not became the struggles aggrandize the triumphs, but because these Collected Poems make a work of almost narrative continuity. What lies between the high achievements comes to seem indispensable to the narrative.


This collection draws from each of Sarton's eleven previous books; only the first two, Encounter in April (1936) and Inner Landscape (1939), have been drastically pruned. In terms of thematic and technical development, the eleven books tend to fall into pairs; in each pair, the earlier book introduces themes and techniques which are extended and perfected in the later. The unpaired book in this scheme is not the eleventh, but the seventh, Cloud, Stone, Sun, Vine (1961), a new and selected collection which is the capstone to the earlier part of Sarton's career. The subsequent four books contain significant new departures, and again fall into pairs.

Many of Sarton's most persistent themes appear in her early work; for example, the second poem in this volume is a long free-verse exploration of the feminine condition; "She Shall Be Called Woman" first appeared over thirty years ago, but it is at least as pertinent now as it was then. Based on the Biblical myth of creation, the poem portrays a gradual awakening to the apparent constancy of pain, then the mature coming to grips with the cycles which subordinate pain to a broader scheme. …

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