May Sarton 1912-1995
(Full name Eleanore Marie Sarton) Belgian-born American poet, novelist, memoirist, autobiographer, children's author, screenwriter, and playwright.
A prolific poet, Sarton often dwells in her works upon such concerns as the joy and pain of love, the necessity of solitude for creativity and identity, and the conflict between body and soul. Influenced by her early exposure to both European and American cultures and her interest in such European poets as Rainer Maria Rilke and William Butler Yeats, Sarton evidences a literary sensibility that is regarded as diverse and astute. Sarton's verse is often introspective and displays her penchant for natural imagery and refined language. Although some critics fault her rigid adherence to traditional forms and her tendency to lapse into melancholy and didacticism, others praise the passion, insight, and graceful language she exhibits in her poetry.
Sarton was born May 3, 1912, in Wondelgem, Belgium. When her family was driven out of Belgium during World War I, they settled in the Boston-Cambridge area of the United States in 1916. After graduating from high school, Sarton became an apprentice to Eva Le Gallienne at the Civic Repertory Theatre in New York, where she remained until 1934. During the mid- to late-1930s, she founded both the Apprentice Theatre at the New School for Social Research and the Associated Actors Theatre in Hartford. It was during this period that she produced her first two volumes of poetry, Encounter in April (1937) and Inner Landscape (1939). During World War II, Sarton worked as a scriptwriter for documentary films for the Office of War Information. Over the next twenty-five years, she held positions at a number of universities and lectured at a variety of conferences. Sarton died of breast cancer in 1995.
Sarton's first published verse appeared in Poetry magazine in 1929. Her initial collection, Encounter in April (1937), displays her skill with varied poetic forms, including short lyrics, meditative pieces, free verse, and Shakespearean sonnets. In “A Letter to James Stephens,” from her next volume, Inner Landscape (1939), Sarton suggested that an artist's dedication to the creative process may require isolation and independence from others. This concept has served as both a literary theme and a personal directive throughout her career. In Inner Landscape, as in her first book, Sarton made use of a wide range of poetic forms and examined love, art, and personality while employing landscape as an increasingly dominant image. During the next decade, Sarton lectured extensively at colleges and universities throughout the United States. The poems in The Lion and the Rose (1948) detail her visits to different regions of the country and explore such topics as social unrest, Native American culture, and feminist issues. The Land of Silence and Other Poems (1953) reflects the tranquility and spirituality Sarton experienced in her travels through the American West during the early 1950s. Cloud, Stone, Sun, Vine: Poems, Selected and New (1961) contains thematically linked verse from previous volumes as well as new pieces, including “A Divorce of Lovers,” a complex sequence of twenty sonnets in which Sarton combined ordinary and decorative language to detail the end of a love affair. A Private Mythology (1966) was inspired by Sarton's visits to Japan, India, and Greece during the early 1960s. The poems in this volume evidence her experiments with such forms as free verse and the Japanese haiku as she searches for spiritual peace and reveals a sense of humor rarely present in her previous work. The poems in A Grain of Mustard Seed (1971) comment upon global violence and injustice in commensurately harsh language and imagery. This volume also contains religious poems, many of which suggest the need for faith in solving world problems. In A Durable Fire (1972), Sarton reaffirmed her belief in the importance of grace and spirituality through a variety of verse forms. Most of Sarton's poems in Halfway to Silence (1980) and Letters from Maine: New Poems (1984) contain observations on domestic matters and the landscapes of New Hampshire and Maine. In Coming into Eighty (1994), Sarton meditated on aging in general and approaching the end of her own life specifically.
Initially overlooked by literary critics, Sarton's work was not widely reviewed until the later part of her career. Her poetry is generally held in high regard, although many commentators find her form rigid and her language overly privileged and stiff. Nonetheless, most critics maintain that her poetry has a broad range and audience, encompassing the personal impacts of political events, the nature of marriages and friendships, the experiences of aging and illness, and the deaths of friends.