May Sarton has said that poetry is a gift given to her at times in her life, that it is not something that can be willed in the way that she can will herself to write fiction or nonfiction prose. Poems, she says, are between God and herself. In “Because What I Most Want Is Permanence,” Sarton understands “permanence” not as a static condition or object but as fluid, changing, and organic. She writes of “Poetry, prayer, or call it what you choose/ That frees the complicated act of will/ and makes the whole world both intense and still.” What Sarton refers to is the liberating process of composing the poem/prayer, the attentiveness to self and to what is outside the self, through which one can reach the deepest sense of self and can transcend the superficial. What is most important is not the finished product (poem as artifact) but rather the process, the awareness, the quality that can sometimes come through prayer—or poetry. This belief in working toward self-awareness and toward a clearer understanding of one’s part in the world is a central theme and enduring preoccupation throughout Sarton’s poetry.
Like most poets, Sarton believes that for a poem to move the reader, it must provide both an intellectual and an emotional level. Unlike many poets of the last half of the twentieth century, Sarton believes that a structured form with meter and rhyme is an effective way to reach the unconscious emotions. Form—adherence to a pattern, rather than free verse—characterizes the majority of Sarton’s poetry. She says that with meter the full force is on the beat, as in music, which reaches the reader or listener below the rational level. Meter thus provides a way to get to the reader’s subconscious and move her or him emotionally.
To reach the reader intellectually, Sarton typically...
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Hunting, Constance, ed. May Sarton: Woman and Poet. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine at Orono, 1982. This first book-length critical discussion of Sarton’s works remains an important collection of essays. Includes Hunting’s “The Risk Is Very Great: The Poetry of May Sarton.”
Kallet, Marilyn, ed. A House of Gathering: Poets on May Sarton. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993. This indispensable collection of essays presents contemporary poets writing about Sarton’s poetry. The essays cover a broad range of topics, both specific and general. They show the influences on her work and the influence of her own work, and they help place Sarton within the tradition of American literature. The collection also includes a chronology of important events in Sarton’s life and a bibliography.
Sarton, May. Writings on Writing. Orono, Maine: Puckerbrush Press, 1980. Sarton writes candidly about her attitudes toward her literary production, including poetry, the genre that she finds most inspiring.
Schwartzlander, Susan, and Marilyn R. Mumford, eds. That Great Sanity: Critical Essays on May Sarton. Ann Arbor: University Press of Michigan, 1992. Offers twelve essays on Sarton, including one specifically on her poetry, “May Sarton’s Lyric Strategy.”