Gestalt at Sixty Summary
“Gestalt at Sixty,” a poem in May Sarton’s A Durable Fire (1972), repeats many of the themes found in her earlier poems, journals, and novels. The poet reviews her ten years of living in Nelson, New Hampshire, celebrates her sixtieth birthday, and explores the fabric of her life and the significance of her experiences. The gestalt of the title refers to the wholeness or totality of life experiences. In Gestalt psychology, the overall meaning of one’s experience is greater than the sum of its parts (individual experiences, events, interactions). Thus, when Sarton analyzes her life on her sixtieth birthday, she tries to make sense of the underlying patterns that are the basis of her experiences. She examines the various forces that have contributed to the formation of her identity, her values, and her philosophy of life.
What does it mean to be sixty? Sarton divides her response to that question into three parts. In part 1, she affirms the importance of the natural world in her life. She refers to the lakes, mountains, flowers, and trees, all of which nurture her soul and stimulate her creativity. She addresses an important theme of the relationship between solitude and creativity. She maintains, “Solitude exposes the nerve.” Solitude provides the greatest test for the artist, who has to face the limitations, fears, and shortcomings within herself in order to create. The pressures of solitude provoke passionate responses to life. Sarton admits to fits of weeping, loneliness, and panic, all of which constrain her and diminish her sense of well-being. In the face of these trials, she draws upon an inner resolve of courage and fortitude in order to find a sense of wholeness in herself. She survives by creating a world for herself the same way her garden grows; in order for creativity to bloom, she must clear away inner constraints and renew herself.
In part 2, she admits that sometimes she is overwhelmed by the fruits of her fame. She feels oppressed when the contacts with others become collisions, when she is plagued by the pressure of unwanted interactions. In this context solitude is a restorative, because she can be nourished by the joys of music and poetry and aloneness. For Sarton, there must be a balance between the forces of solitude and society. When she finds that balance, she is able to participate fully in human relationships and open herself to growth and change.
In part 3, Sarton integrates her response toward her aging with a synthesis of a variety of religious and philosophical perspectives, including Daoism, a Chinese philosophy; Buddhism; and Christianity. She characterizes herself with images reminiscent of the Daoist sage, the wise person who embraces change as the basis of all life. Her acceptance of her impending old age and her mortality reflects Buddhist thought in her references to “detachment” and “learning to let go.” She ends the poem with a Christian prayer. There she accepts a God who is at once merciful and demanding. She acknowledges that on these various spiritual levels, creativity flows from the dynamic tension between life and death, youth and old age, light and dark, just as her creativity has flowed from the tension between solitude and society.
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Swartzlander, Susan, and Marilyn R. Mumford, eds. That Great Sanity: Critical Essays on May Sarton. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.