May Sarton Sarton, (Eleanor) May (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sarton, (Eleanor) May 1912–

Sarton is a Belgian-born American poet and novelist. Her novels are distinguished by a fine sense of narrative technique and a simple, unadorned prose style. Critics acknowledge her skill in creating sensitive, revealing portraits of women. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Doris Grumbach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

May Sarton is very good, has always been very good, in suggesting personal bonds which hover on the edge of what we used to call "irregularity." Subtly placed and sketched in, they are often unknown to the persons themselves but for us they serve to deepen the understanding Sarton permits us of her characters' motivation….

Although I persist in my feeling that "As We Are Now" (1973) is still May Sarton's best fiction, I find "Crucial Conversations" moving, in a way that few of her novels are. It is not without flaws, it is not prime Sarton, but then we are still waiting for what we have always expected she would some day do, and has not yet quite done. Her work gives us the sense of the perpetually promising; we look back over a just-read work with regret born of our recognition of her partial success. Here the structure is simple, almost too simple, direct without implication.

But as is usual with this poet-novelist who has never had quite the recognition her lifetime of work has deserved and has never achieved quite the full extent her talent seemed to portend, she offers us incidental insights. Howard Johnson's restaurants, she writes, "represent to those far away from home absolute security, the security that comes from knowing exactly what to expect in exactly what surroundings." And [in "Crucial Conversations"] when Poppy demands of Reed a generous settlement, Sarton wonders: "Was it really that almost no one was fully prepared to pay for his real life?"

May Sarton has always been fully prepared. Hers has been a long, fruitful, often valuable struggle with her muse, achieved amid the solitary terrors and pleasures of a single life. She has dealt with every aspect of the female existence, with every kind of love. In this latest novel she has taken another, new (for her) step forward, and suggested a radical solution to the human-bondage-in-marriage status. For her it is a daring leap.

Doris Grumbach, "Crucial Conversations," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 27, 1975, p. 4.

James Martin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

May Sarton's poems [in Collected Poems: 1930–1973] enter and illuminate every natural corner of our lives. In twelve books of poems and fourteen novels, Ms. Sarton has, for more than forty years, made patient, enduring testament. The poems are not easy, nor were they meant to be, for the consciousness behind them seldom rests easy. She wanted "good violence to find organic form", and it almost always does….

May Sarton's poems are so strong in their faith and in their positive response to the human condition that they will likely outlast much of the fashionable, cynical poetry of our era. One hopes that her passionate voice will continue restless and resolute for many years to come. (p. 115)

James Martin, "Questions of Style," in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXVI, No. 2, May, 1975, pp. 103-15.∗

Edward Weeks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss Sarton is usually best in her portraits of women, and Poppy [the protagonist in Crucial Conversations], with her feelings of outrage and despair, is altogether believable. The interfering bachelor, Pip, has a feminine streak in him. The best scenes are when he is drawing out the twins, who applaud the divorce, or defending Poppy from the conventional criticism of her mother and mother-in-law. The desire of a woman who has been suffocated in her marriage to be true to herself in the last third of her life is very much of a reality and no longer considered a scandal in our society. The wonder is that Poppy waited so long. (p. 94)

Edward Weeks, "Life & Letters: 'Crucial Conversations'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by the Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 235, No. 6, June, 1975, pp. 93-4.

Marjorie Perloff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Despite] the value she assigns to imagery in theory, Sarton's poems remain curiously disembodied…. [She] resorts to circumlocution, strained metaphor, abstract nouns, and constricting stanza forms. She sets up a wall between herself and her materials. (p. 273)

I think it is insufficient to dismiss her poetry, as have many reviewers, with the label "old-fashioned." "Old-fashioned" implies that Sarton is writing poetry perfectly adequate in itself but harking back to an earlier mode…. But Sarton doesn't quite bring off even those "old-fashioned" effects. Her lyrics are not reminiscent of Yeats or Hardy, two of her acknowledged influences; rather, there seems to be an unconscious split between what she wants to say—in this case, her insistence that one must be willing to take risks—and her technical apparatus…. Sarton longs, then, to "think in images" but resorts, all too often, to stock phrases and dogmatic assertion. There is insufficient distance between the poet as maker and the "I" as actor.

Occasionally, however, Sarton strikes a very different note. Two early poems, "'She Shall Be Called Woman'" and "My Sisters, O My Sisters" look ahead to the Feminist poetry of our own day. The theme of "'She Shall Be Called Woman'" is that Eve was happiest before she had anything to do with Adam. After the initial sex act ("the wound of desire"), she goes into the sea to cleanse herself, to recapture her own central being. She does not attain fulfillment until she realizes that she is sufficient unto herself: "I am the beginning,/the never-ending,/the perfect tree." Written in the early...

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Jane S. Bakerman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With the publication of As We Are Now (1973), May Sarton added another perspective to her continuing examination of two central and important themes. She treats in her novels two basic motifs from a variety of points of view, one of which is the driving need of each individual to "create" himself, to come to a deep and positive kind of self-understanding which will both liberate and discipline him so that he can live in the deepest and highest reaches. In the process of achieving that understanding, the individual must, also, come to understand others and his relations with them. The conflict that such a search generates is always identified in Sarton's works as the difficult and sometimes destructive thrust of each human to unite with others in friendship and love while he is dealing with an equally stronger urge to remain aloof and inward….

In attempting to examine these motifs, Sarton has produced a series of novels in which various relations and points of view are explored, always striving to maintain in the works a cool and quiet tone which is designed to lend perspective and balance to what are crucially powerful patterns. That tone, a quality of perspective, is the focal point of both negative and positive critical comments. (p. 83)

While no reader is surprised to find contradictory evaluations among reviews and reviewers, one is surprised to find that little attention has been paid to the...

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Judith Leet

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Entering into May Sarton's mind, through her [The House by the Sea: A Journal], is an agreeable and instructive experience. The small but telling events of her daily existence teach the reader, by example, how to reflect more keenly on one's own experiences.

Sarton's selected moments include a daily walk with her dog and cat through the woods, her feelings about aging, the visits of a close friend now almost senile, her efforts in her garden (she wishes visitors would observe it more attentively).

In her isolated home on the Maine coast, Sarton finds the utter solitude she needs for writing, and yet she does not escape periods of acute loneliness. She wrestles with the question: which is her greater need, Time for work or time for people?…

[Her] observations prove her theory of edging her way to the larger truths by dealing with smaller insights born of solitude. (p. 42)

Judith Leet, "On the Arts: 'The House by the Sea: A Journal'," in Ms. (© 1978 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. XII, No. 1, July, 1978, pp. 26-44.

A Reckoning … is an unpretentious story deftly told. Though it turns on current themes [homosexuality], it is neither trendy nor strident. The book succeeds, unsurprisingly, as a refined and conventional piece of women's fiction.

"Life & Letters: 'A Reckoning'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1978 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 242, No. 6, December, 1978, p. 95.

James Finn Cotter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Selected Poems of May Sarton], the poems shift between established forms and free verse, the best being the least technically tight. When subject and technique converge, one discovers a work that is classic and contemporary, a "passion of the word."… Sarton has mastered the quality of timeless poetry, to observe and reflect at the same instant. She can look at herself objectively in "Gestalt at Sixty," examine her motives for seeking solitude, and accept age and death. Rilke's shadow falls on many poems, religious one like "Annunciation" and explicitly in "At Muzat." Sarton has an eye for the ridiculous in "Franz, a Goose" ("I am the goose of geese") and a sense of the tragic in poems on her father's death, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War. She favors feminine myths: Kali, Medusa, Athena, and Aphrodite, and she handles people better than nature in her poetry. (p. 121)

James Finn Cotter, "Familiar Poetry," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1979 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 109-22.∗

Laurie Prothro

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss Sarton handles [the theme of A Reckoning] gracefully, absorbing the reader in [the turmoil of Laura, the protagonist] without depressing him. She touches on the indignities of dying, the cruelty of hospitals, the spirit trapped inside the body's broken shell, the fact that only the living can be healed by love—the dying must separate themselves from love. In A Reckoning, Laura is forced into these realizations; Miss Sarton already has come to terms with death's immediacy, as she reveals in her recently published Selected Poems. "Departure is the constant at this stage;/And all we know is that we cannot stop." But she does not dwell on death. Her poetry flows with the emotion of daily routines—smooth and calm, reassuring in its lack of extremes. Tableaux of life come alive in her poems; she records events and scenes with a painter's eye. She draws her metaphors from nature, whose cycle of creation and recreation she celebrates. If humanity could learn to let go "as trees let go/Their leaves, so casually," May Sarton convinces us, love would endure.

Laurie Prothro, "Books in Brief: 'A Reckoning' and 'Selected Poems of May Sarton'," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1979; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XXXI, No. 15, April 13, 1979, p. 498.