Lenora Blouin’s “There Are No Farewells”

Lenora P. Blouin gave the first presentation at the May Sarton Centennial Symposium, May 3 – 6, 2012. In her talk that she called “There Are No Farewells”, Blouin quoted some of Sarton’s writings about birthdays, and revealed how her own discovery of Sarton’s writings lead her to compile a bibliography of all of Sarton’s writings. Blouin ended her piece by discussing Sarton’s legacy.

I feel a certain kinship Lenora Blouin. It was Sarton’s second memoir, Plant Dreaming Deep that marked our discovery of May’s work and eventually led to each of us to embark on a major project and produce a book celebrating Sarton’s writing. Actually, Lenora has published two volumes of her bibliography and has begun work on a third. My one book is From May Sarton’s Well.

            I enjoyed Lenora’s talk so much I asked her if I could include it on this website. I am very grateful that she agreed and here it is.

P.S. If you read this blog and “There Are No Farewells” before May 30, at 4:00, you may notice a revision on page 7. Lenora Blouin made this in order to clarify the delay in publication of House By The Sea. If anyone wishes to read the original talk, you may contact the author, lpblouin@earthlink.net.

 

There Are No Farewells

©Lenora P. Blouin, 2012

 

Good morning everyone. My name is Lenora P. Blouin and I want to say “Happy Birthday May Sarton!” It is amazing that we have all come together this week-end to celebrate the birth of this woman whose writings have touched so many lives these past one hundred years.  Her legacy lives on as demonstrated by our presence here today.

 

Before I begin my talk this morning I want to thank Victoria Simon and the Sarton centennial committee for all their hard work organizing this event and for making my visit possible.

In this next hour I will share some selected highlights from Sarton’s writings about birthdays. These selections represent some of the more significant birthdays in her life.  Following that I will talk about how I discovered Sarton’s writing and how that discovery motivated me to compile a bibliography.  Finally, I will discuss Sarton’s legacy, how she saw it for herself and how it is perceived now.

 

Let me start by reading a portion of a letter to May Sarton dated May 4, 1943 in which her mother reminisced about the day of Sarton’s birth:

 

Dear Heart:

I thought of you last night – remembering the hour you were born & the lovely day I had spent in the garden sowing seeds and hiding my pains. … I was beautifully alone in the kitchen garden & could curl up on the mossy path in the warm sun till the pain passed . . . .   … And I so wondered if you were a boy or a girl and what you would be like: would you be very intelligent like Daddy & perhaps have little use for me when you grew up? …. Yet I had a warm, secret conviction that you would be very close to me whatever & whoever you proved to be — & I was right wasn’t I? & I haven’t held you too tight, dear Pigeon, have I? because I do count freedom as among the most precious thing in the whole world – and so have always wanted it for you.[1]

 

Many years later Sarton wrote in her journal Encore “I think of my mother and of how glad she must have been when I finally came out . . . alive and all right, and she took me in her arms.”[2]

 

A precocious child, Sarton knew from an early age she wanted to be a poet as the lines from her poem “Creation” profess, written when sixteen years old:

 

Words are my passion

And out of them and me

I would create beauty. [3]

 

By the age of eighteen five of her sonnets were published in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.[4] Being published in this magazine was an astounding achievement for one so young, a fact that editor Harriet Monroe was aware of when she introduced Sarton to her readers as “Miss May Sarton, of New York, who is still under age.”

 

Sarton’s passion for poetry did not diminish when she became an adult. At mid life she celebrated her fiftieth year in the birthplace of the lyric.  Half a century ago today Sarton stood on top of the Acropolis, having traveled half way around the world visiting the more exotic countries of Japan and India before turning to the familiar West.

In her poem “Birthday on the Acropolis” [5] she writes:

 

I stood at the great gate

On my fiftieth birthday,

Had rounded the globe

Toward this Acropolis,

Had come round the world

Toward this one day.

 

Sarton climbed the Acropolis as a celebration of the natural and mysterious – a “primary place:”

 

No, it is not a place for youth,

This bastion where man’s reason grew strong.

These pillars speak of mature power.

 

. . .

 

 

On my fiftieth birthday I met the archaic smile; it was the right year

to confront the smile beyond suffering

 

Yet the poem ends with this admission:

 

 

 

On my fiftieth birthday

I suffered from the archaic smile.

 

What is the archaic smile? In his novel The Magus John Fowles describes the smile as “full of the purest metaphysical good humor . . . timelessly intelligent and timelessly amused. . . .” … “above all, it was the smile of dramatic irony, of those who have privileged information.” [6]

Writing that she suffered from the archaic smile, Sarton admitted that at fifty, in spite of working toward a detachment and the balancing of self, Sarton knew this continued to elude her; she had not reached that place of complete detachment.

By the time she turned fifty in 1962, she had already been living in the house in Nelson, New Hampshire for four years and by then had published eight volumes of poetry, eight novels and one memoir. She was considered a respected writer, yet found herself alone and without one central person. Her companion was solitude as she describes in Journal of a Solitude, a work that eventually touched the lives of many thousands of her readers.

 

It is my solitude and what I have said about it that

has made the link, and made so many women and

men I do not know, regard me as a friend in whom

they can confide.” [7]

 

After fifteen years in Nelson Sarton decided it was time to move on. When the opportunity arose to move to a house by the sea in York, Maine, she embraced it, writing in the poem “Gestalt at Sixty”: [8]

 

I am not ready to die,

but I am learning to trust death

as I have trusted life.

I am moving

toward a new freedom

born of detachment,

and a sweeter grace-

learning to let go . . .

I shall look far out over golden grasses

and blue waters . . . .

 

There are no farewells.

 

It was April 27, 1973 when Sarton moved to Wild Knoll, the house by the sea where she would live out the final years of her life. Although she left Nelson, the emotional ties to the village, her neighbors, as well as the surrounding lakes and mountains stayed with her, writing  “There are no farewells.” She is now buried in the cemetery on the hill above Nelson.

There is no doubt that important books had been written during the Nelson years including the memoir Plant Dreaming Deep(1968), a work that Carolyn Heilbrun believed was “. . . original and will long inspire.” [9]  Sarton also wrote the daring novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing(1965), as well as her seminal work Journal of a Solitude (1973)

In one of the last collections of poetry published while still living in Nelson, she included a poem entitled “Birthday Present,” written to celebrate the return of poetry again:

 

I hold it in my hands,

I breathe it in,

I drink it,

While fifty-nine years

Of ardor and tenderness,

Of struggle and creation-

The whole complex bundle-

Falls away in a streak of light

Like a shooting star,

Unencumbered,

Alive, ageless,

Meets the pristine moment:

Poetry again. [10]

 

After moving to York, her world opened up and Living at Wild Knoll made her reflect on the landscape of her new surroundings:

 

“I have slipped into these wide spaces, this atmosphere of salt and amplitude, this amazing piece of natural Heaven and haven, like a ship slipping into her berth.” [11]

 

It took time to adjust to her new home and surroundings and although she did not stop writing completely, journal writing was put on hold as she wanted the time to contemplate her new life in Maine.  In an April 2, 1974 letter to me she began:

 

“As you see I did move to the ocean, and it is glorious here, but so tranquilizing I wonder what I shall get done!”

 

It wasn’t until 1977 that her next journal House By the Sea was published. In the preface to this journal she wrote the following:

 

For months the sea was such a tranquilizer that I

sometimes wondered whether I had made a fatal

mistake and would never be able to write again.

The Journal of a Solitude had been a way of dealing

with anguish; was it that happiness is harder to

communicate . . .? [12]

 

 

She continued to produce poetry and on her birthday in 1974 she affirmed that “sixty four is the best age I have ever been.”

 

My sixty fourth year

Opens to a widening dawn

. . .

These days I am harvesting so much

There is hardly time to sow.[13]

 

In the years that followed, the subject of aging became an increasing theme in the journals and poetry. In At Seventy Sarton wrote,

 

“. . . all the joy, pain, good and bad from my life have been woven into a rich tapestry . . . I suppose real old age begins when one looks backward rather than forward, but I look forward with joy to the years ahead.” [14]

 

We know though that it was in her seventies that serious illness began to take its toll and by the time she turned eighty she confirmed that she had entered the “foreign country of old age.” In spite of these illnesses, her passion for writing poetry never waned; she was now producing what she called “minimal” poems because her life has been reduced to essences.  Some of these poems,  appearing first in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in 1992, would eventually be published in the 1994 collection Coming Into Eighty.

It remains amazing to me to realize that some of her first poems appeared in the December, 1930 issue of Poetry magazine and sixty-two years later, some of her last poems appeared in the December, 1992 issue, framing a lifelong dedication to a passion for words. If this is not a dramatic example of looking “forward into the past” I don’t know what is.

 

 

In her poem “The Ender, The beginner” Sarton affirms:

 

The ender, the beginner,

The child and the old soul,

The mystic and the sinner

At eighty remain whole [15]

 

So by now some of you may be wondering how I discovered May Sarton and how that discovery eventually led to the bibliographies. In a 1988 interview with John McNally Sarton talks about how her work is usually discovered:

 

My fame is usually word of mouth. They

go to the library and see a book called Journal

              of a Solitude and think, that’s an interesting

title, pull it out and say ‘I’m going to get every-

thing she’s ever written.’[16]

 

That in essence is what happened for me. In 1968 I was attending college and working part time in a public library. One evening while shelving books in the literature section  my eye caught the title Plant Dreaming Deep. Intrigued and curious as to what the title meant I decided to read the book, not realizing at that time that this would literally change the trajectory of my life and be the beginning of my life long association with Sarton’s work. That book led me to wonder what other books had she written and was amazed to discover that she had eighteen other titles in print.

In 1972 I completed my graduate studies with a Master’s in English Literature but continued on for another two years, graduating in 1974 with a Masters in Library Science. My search for a full time librarian position lasted for two years before being hired by the San Jose Public Library in 1976. During those difficult two years of looking for employment I continued to read and research Sarton and an idea began to form in my mind that in order to keep my librarian skills fresh I would compile a bibliography on the works by and about May Sarton, believing that a bibliography would be a unique way for me to interpret Sarton’s vision of life. She wrote:

 

It is my hope that all the novels, the books of

poems, and the autobiographical works may

come to be seen as a whole, the communication

of a vision of life that is unsentimental, humorous,

passionate, and in the end, timeless. [17]

 

With her “vision” in mind I wrote Sarton a letter asking for permission to compile a bibliography on her work and to my amazement she enthusiastically endorsed my plan. For the next four years I worked on this project, ending with the publication of the 1st edition in 1978.

All throughout those four years Sarton remained supportive of my work, assisting in any way she could, sending publications, manuscripts, poems and even two large boxes containing newspaper reviews of her works.

Then, one afternoon after the bibliography had been published, I was surprised to receive a telegram with this brief message:

 

I must reach you at once to say how pleased even

overwhelmed I am to see your long work on my

behalf in print in this stunning book. I love the

introduction. It is all superb.

 

Signed “love, May!”

 

May and I continued to correspond over the next decade but as the demands of her correspondence grew, it became increasingly difficult for her to keep up.  I decided to ease off writing although she would send her annual Christmas poem, broadside or occasional note.

As the years went by I  began to realize that my bibliography was rapidly becoming outdated, not only because she continued to publish approximately a book a year, but because more and more was being written about her.   In 1995 I wrote Sarton, informing her that I was thinking about doing a revision of the bibliography, to be started after my retirement in 1996. Upon learning of my plans she was enthusiastic and through her friend Susan Sherman gave me her blessings to pursue this project.  By then her health had greatly diminished and she died the next year, never seeing the 2nd edition which was published in 2000.

 

So here we are now in 2012 celebrating Sarton’s 100th birthday. Although she is not physically with us today,

her spirit is present. In the festschrift entitled Forward Into the Past, edited by Susan Sherman for Sarton’s eightieth birthday, William Drake writes about her gift:

 

May Sarton always seems to be speaking to each of us personally, as if we were a friend. And through the years thousands of readers have returned that warmth, have felt the same friendship for her.  We may not realize that what seems so personal is actually the presence of something far greater than any of us as individuals – a kind of grace, a visitation of the spirit. There are never more than a few in any generation who can share the world of the spirit with us, to make us know that we are greater in thought and feeling than we believed we were. But May Sarton is such a one, and we are grateful. [18]

 

I believe we can feel her grace, that “visitation of spirit” surrounding us today.  Listen to what Sarton wrote in her 1928 poem “The Moment:”

 

If there is a moment

When life

Is crystallized to destiny,

And the soul becomes

Suddenly immortal,

When a gesture beats

The first foot of an unending rhythm

And being bursts into unquenchable flame—-

If there is such a moment,

Let this be it. [19]

 

 

“To live in eternity means to live in the moment,” Sarton wrote, “the moment unalloyed – to allow feeling to the limit of what can be felt, to hold nothing back, and at the same time to ask nothing and hope for nothing . . . . [20]

 

I believe this is the moment when Sarton can proclaim – and we can all know –  “there are no farewells.”

 

Lenora P. Blouin

May, 2012

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Eleanor Mabel Sarton, Letters To May (Orono, Maine: Puckerbrush Press, 1986) 1986.

[2] May Sarton, Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993) 268.

[3]__________, Catching Beauty: The Earliest Poems, ed. Susan Sherman (Orono, Maine: Puckerbrush Press, 2002) 147.

[4] Under the title “Words on the Wind,” the poems are “First Love,” “Let no Wind Come,” “They Also,” and “Fruit of Loneliness.” In Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 37 (1930): 144-146.

[5] ________ A Private Mythology  (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966) 47.

[6] John Fowles The Magus (New York: The Modern Library, 1998) 152. The Archaic Period in Ancient Greece was approximately between 600 to 480 BCE. 

[7] ________ Recovering: A Journal (New York: W. W. Norton, 1980) 81.

[8] ________ Durable Fire (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972) 11.

[9] Carolyn Heilbrun “Sarton’s Memoirs,” May Sarton: Woman and Poet, ed. Constance Hunting (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1982) 43-52.

[10] May Sarton A Durable Fire (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972) 65.

[11] _________ “Preface,” The House By the Sea (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977) 11.

[12] _________  [7].

[13] _________ “May Day,” Friends of the University of New Hampshire Notes (Keene: New Hampshire, Fall, 1978) n.p. At Seventy: A Journal (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984) 10.

[14] At Seventy: A Journal (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984) 10.

 

[15] _________ “The Ender, The Beginner,” Coming Into Eighty (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994)66.

[16] John McNally 1988 “Castaways Choice: A Conversation With May Sarton in Conversations With May Sarton ed. Earl G. Ingersoll (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991) 77.

[17] I first encountered this quote by Sarton in Contemporary Novelists 2nd ed. ed. James Vinson (New York: St. Marin’s Press, 1976) 1211.

[18] William Drake in Forward Into the Past: For May Sarton on Her Eightieth Birthday ed. Susan Sherman (Concord, New Hampshire: William B. Ewert, Publisher, 1992) n.p.

[19] May Sarton Catching Beauty: The Earliest Poems ed. Susan Sherman (Orono, Maine: Puckerbrush Press, 2002) 162.

[20] _________ At Seventy: A Journal (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984) 190.