Mark Fulk on “Sarton as Poet and Secular Contemplative”

Mark Fulk, Lenora Blouin, Edith Schade

Dr. Mark K. Fulk, assistant professor of English at Buffalo State University of New York, presented a very interesting lecture at the May Sarton Centennial in May. He is the author of Understanding May Sarton, published by the University of South Carolina in 2001. I am pleased to include his talk “Sarton As a Poet and Secular Contemplative” in today’s Reflections.  For further information about him visit: http://www.buffalostate.edu/english/fulkmk.xml?username=fulkmk

I was fortunate to have a chance to chat with Mark at the Poetry Celebration and Dinner the final evening of the Centennial. As we prepared to go into the informal meal, Linda Hedger snapped this picture of  Mark Fulk, Lenora Blouin (see my May 18, 2012 blog) and me.

Here is his lecture:

May Sarton as Poet and Secular Contemplative.[1]

© Mark K Fulk

Once more poetry is for me the soul-making tool.  Perhaps I am learning at last to let go, and that is what this resurgence of poetry is all about.[2]

 

The delights of the poet […] turned out to be light, solitude, the natural world, love, time, creation itself.  Suddenly after the months of depression I am fully alive in all these areas, and awake.  (48).

–May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude (1973).

Introduction: Toward a Modern, Contemplative Practice.

                  In her Journal of a Solitude, Sarton addresses the making of the poet and the woman she has become.  In her list of the joys of being a poet, Sarton enumerates ones we would expect like solitude, but also others like the enjoyment of the natural world, time, and indeed love.  When Sarton in this journal begins to articulate what it means to be a contemplative and a poet, she turns to the routines she establishes, the work of Carl Gustav Jung and, to a lesser extent, Simone Weil, and to her own gardening practice understood in light of both the rhythms of nature herself and what Sarton fears is the over-idealization of gardening and the solitary life in Plant Dreaming Deep.

In the following presentation I will explore the period in Sarton’s life where she most fully theorized the difficulty that the modern contemplative faces.  In the early 1970s, after the success of Plant Dreaming Deep, Sarton became somewhat disillusioned by the myth of herself she had created in that work.  This projected image had become a false self; as Sarton writes in Journal of a Solitude, she worries that Plant Dreaming Deep created a myth that had to be dispelled before the truth of solitary life can come to the fore.  “If I should wear the mask of that mythical person Plant Dreaming Deep has created in readers’ minds,” Sarton reflects, “I would be perpetuating a myth, not growing, not casting off that skin in order to make a new one” (143).  She posits that, in some readers’ minds, she has become the proverbial “‘man on the hill’ settled into this solitude for life” (143).  Plant Dreaming Deep is a book that, according to Sarton, makes people believe that “they have found in me an intimate friend” (12) which is really nothing more or less than “the myth of a false Paradise” (176).  Sarton comes to see her goal in Journal of a Solitude as that of “quietly destroying myths, even those of my own making, in order to come closer and closer to reality and to accepting reality” (176).

It is this hard-eyed, myth-busting look at the contemplative life in the modern world that becomes one of Sarton’s most profound gifts to us.  As a poet and fellow non-monastic contemplative, I am buoyed by Sarton’s thoughts on the contemplative life, but even more so, by her actual documentation of the lived experience.  Sarton’s work has become a lynch-pin in my own, both as an academic and as a religious person.  I grew up in Appalachia, going between my mother’s Pentecostal church and my father’s German Methodist Church; I became Anglican eleven years ago after attending several other denominations, and currently belong to a small Anglo-Catholic fellowship in Western New York.  Anglicanism gives me the quiet and reverence through the liturgy and its silences that I need to fulfill my journey of faith and serve the common good.   My own poetry tends to be Appalachian and intellectual, inspired by writers such as Sarton, W. S. Merwin, Donald Hall, and Elizabeth Bishop.  Sarton’s works, especially her journals, have provided for me a model of living out my faith in the world, and existing as a contemplative against a modern life of noise and confusion.

I turn in this presentation to the works where Sarton first analyzed the life of the contemplative, turning away from the false self she thought readers had created from her Plant Dreaming Deep to the real and continually evolving selfhood found in the journals and poetry.  For this paper, I turn to Journal of a Solitude (1973), alongside the two poetic volumes with which it is most associated, A Grain of Mustard Seed (1971) and A Durable Fire (1972), for a philosophy of and primer for the modern, non-monastic contemplative poet’s life.  Structurally, I will move in this talk between this journal and the poems as a way of exploring the key lessons that Sarton provides for the contemplative poet of today.

Part 1: Seeking Silence at Her Desk

                  One of Sarton’s gifts to fellow contemplatives and poets is her celebration of routine as a sacred form of living within the demands of time.  She reflects in Journal of a Solitude that one of the problems for the poet is “to keep a balance, [and] not fall to pieces” (143), to live as she says, at the “center of the beam” of light; as she writes, “under light of eternity things, the daily trivia, the daily frustrations, fall away” (Journal of a Solitude 54).  Routine provides this kind of moderation and centering.  In Plant Dreaming Deep, Sarton described routine as “the way into freedom from time” (56-57).  Perhaps somewhat more ominously, Mrs. Stevens in Sarton’s novel describes these routines as “rules,” and when asked by the interviewer Jenny to elaborate, she lists getting “up at seven, some work at my desk every day, come hell or high water, no self-indulgence” (128).  It is noteworthy that, only pages later, in a flashback after Hilary’s stay in a mental institution, we view her desk as a place not of control but of chaos, where she “went to work every day like an automaton” and which “was littered with words, but they did not connect” (145).  In Journal, these darker undercurrents to routine are more directly addressed.  On November 10th, Sarton reflects on a particularly “bad day” she had the day before, writing that she “felt at sixes and sevens as though I had not really landed, wrote too many letters, yet never settled down[.] […] The whole month is bits and pieces of time with every weekend absorbed in one way or another.  Poetry has gone.  No lines jump into my mind; the taut thread has gone slack” (52).  In the same passage, she notes that one of her primary images for this time in her life is “that of a clearing-house.  When too many messages pour in all at once the computer breaks down” (53).  Sarton reflects that what is missing is the “frame” that routine provides, noting that this “order […] needs to be patterned from within” (52-53).  She writes thoughtfully that “People who have regular jobs can have no idea of just this problem of ordering a day that has no pattern imposed from without” (53).  I too have known this feeling; when I had my first sabbatical semester after nearly twenty years of teaching, I did not know what to do with myself.  When I was warned by a caring friend not to stay on campus in my office because I would get “sucked into” other things than writing, I lost all sense of routine and structure; I watched way too much television and gained twenty pounds; although I had writing projects to do, I could not focus with all that time on my hands.

Routine becomes the security that the contemplative writer needs to function.

Sarton reflects that the “need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there” (12).  The “huge empty silence” of the contemplative is that place of the deepest fear and, paradoxically, the most meaningful creativity.  Silence may appear, Sontag suggests, as “the absence or renunciation of thought” (19), yet it also is indicative of “a speech beyond silence” (18) and a place of preparation “for a thought beyond thought” that is “the emblem of a new, ‘difficult’ thinking” (17).  Vast silence is also perhaps too closely akin to apparent chaos, darkness, and the void of meaning and ceasing of distinct being.  Susan Sontag in her essay on “The Aesthetics of Silence” calls attention to “how often […] silence appears alongside a barely controlled abhorrence of the void”;[3]Sarton specifies in the passage read earlier that solitary silence has the potential to become overwhelming and self-defeating.  In some ways, however, this void (according to poet Adrienne Rich) is at the heart of what it means to be a creative woman.  In her collection of notes entitled “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” Rich reflects that the void “is not something created by patriarchy, or racism, or capitalism.  It will not fade away with any of them.  It is part of every woman.”[4] Rich observes that the void is the place of beginning and “emptiness,” but also “part of the cycle understood by the old pagan religions, that materialism denies.  Out of death, rebirth; out of nothing, something” (191).  It is sometimes depicted in women as “lovelessness, barrenness, [and] sterility”; but it is in fact “the creatrix, the matrix,” which if recognized can be “the beginning of our truth” (191).

The purported chaos that sometimes claims Sarton’s desk reveals that the void is always present in the threat of meaninglessness and accomplishing nothing that she feels is permanent.  In facing the void in solitary life, Sarton reveals this confrontation as both the most fearful and the most holy; using a description from poet George Herbert (who I will return to later), Sarton writes:

I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.  I write too many letters and too few poems.  It may be outwardly silent here but in the back of my mind is a clamor of human voices, too many needs, hopes, fears.  I hardly ever sit still without being haunted by the ‘undone’ and the ‘unsent.’  I often feel exhausted, but it is not my work that tires (work is rest); it is the effort of pushing away the lives and needs of others before I can come to work with any freshness and zest. (12-13)

Work is the respite and result of facing the void within the discipline of “inexorable routines.”  One’s true work provides rest for the mind and balance for the soul, even if the achievement of that work is often filled with pain and trauma.

Sarton charts the experience of the contemplative poet at her work and at her desk in two poems, “The Silence” (from A Grain of Mustard Seed) and “Prisoner at a Desk” (from A Durable Fire).[5]  “The Silence” details both the fear and exhilaration of embracing the silence of solitude in an attempt to make something tangible and creative out of it, like facing the blank whiteness of an empty page.  As mentioned earlier in the journal, the fear of the silence is codified in the poem as “A huge lack rather than a huge something” and a “dead vacuum.”  The fear is palpable as the poet listens for some inkling of change, “a voice” in the midst of this time of feeling “destitute, abandoned, [and] full of dread.”  The landscape here reifies the poet’s isolation and mortification, for it is the end of winter, a time Sarton describes as a “Season of growing light and dirty snow/When we are too vulnerable for words,” and later in the poem as a period of “separation and the winter freeze.”  Everything is inside now, like the brooks which are “numbed inside their caves of ice.”

Yet it is the silence that comes to the fore for Sarton as both adversary and nurturer.  Sarton here begins to see the silence as more than something to be feared, but rather as a “membrane” that she “must get through” to arrive at the truth and desire she seeks for herself and her poetry.  To pass through this membrane, Sarton must discard all that can be discarded to seek a truer selfhood; this kenosis or emptying becomes essential to invite in the mystic’s clear vision.  She must reject here not only the sense of “loneliness” but also “Refuse dependence and not ask for love.”  It is in this raw state that Sarton travels out to the raw, late-winter landscape, possibly to flee the solitude of the desk and the silence that appears to be a huge obstacle and lack.  Within nature, she finds newly-born lambs; yet it is the mother-sheep whose voice calls to her:  Sarton writes of “The sheep’s gruff voice, anxious, as she licked one [of the newborns],/Repeated a hoarse word, a word torn from her.”  This “hoarse word” inspires desire in the poet and, as she returns to her desk to write, she reflects that the silence itself has changed in nature from something that was “first the silence only,” moving from a “huge lack” alone to a “huge lack [that] bears something through the dark” (352).

The “hoarse word” of the mother sheep that inspires the poet is very much a metaphor for the contemplative poet’s own hoarse language as she sits at her desk, reaching for a world and reality beyond the merely physical.  Sarton traces here the birth of that imperfect—hoarse—language that marks the beginning of art, the art that comes from deep silence.  Susan Sontag labels “silence” as “a metaphor for a cleansed, non-interfering vision” that creates works of art that have an “essential integrity” that cannot be marred by “human scrutiny” (16).  Sarton’s own depiction here of silence as a membrane bears on this integral world of silence that Sontag addresses.  To achieve a “cleansed” vision worthy of what the muse might bring, Sarton has to pierce the membrane, metaphorically birthing herself and her holistic vision as the mother-sheep has birthed her lambs.  Seeing the poem itself as an imperfect gesture at something much bigger than itself—a hoarse voice—belies the fact that the activity the poet has traced leads the reader as well to clarity and a new understanding of silence that, on the surface, appears threatening, but when experienced through a clarified, sacrificing vision, becomes the whole of being itself.

In her poem “Prisoner at a Desk,” Sarton strives to approximate what her interior life is like even though her outward appearance—a woman sitting at a perhaps cluttered desk—looks placid.  She writes that the battle at the desk is “not so much trying to keep alive/As trying to keep from blowing apart/From inner explosions every day.” The quietude of the desk is the place from which Sarton explores in detail the daily, “psychic changes” she experiences, imagining herself “as if I were a land/Or mountain weather” that changes sometimes fast and fiercely, with sudden “bursts of spring” and “sudden torrents/Of rain like tears breaking through iron.”  Although the inexorable routines described by Sarton may suggest that she is imprisoned by her lifestyle—an impression slyly raised in the title of this poem but then reimagined—the desk provides an opportunity to explore the rich inner world of the contemplative where “an ocean/Or forest” with “strange wild beasts” and “whales in all their beauty” exist together, a place Sarton perceives as one “Where all opens and breathes and can grow.”

One of the things Sarton notices about the nurturing silence at the desk is that it is more primal than polite, casting off the things that do not matter in favor of deeper resonances and—one of Sarton’s favorite words—intensities.  The “censor” or “governess” has no “command”; only “the soul” with its “inviolable splendor” exists in the space of the desk and the silence.  Once settled at the desk, Sarton digs deeply, into “the huge cloud/Of archetypal images that feed me”; the silence itself, punctuated by the sound of the natural world around her, becomes archetypal or patterns all of its own.  As she concludes: “Look, there are finches at the feeder./My parrot screams with fear at a cloud./Hyacinths are budding.  Light is longer” (401).

Again, the bolstering undercurrent of this time is the work routine at the desk itself.  Sarton relates that this particular work ethic comes from her father.  In Plant Dreaming Deep, Sarton writes from this rich store, reflecting on her father who placed the opening lines of the Koran, “‘In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate,” over the door of his study, written in Arabic, to remind himself and all who entered that “the scientist lives as close to Mystery as anyone.”  Sarton describes her father’s approach to his work and his writing of his multivolume history of science:  “My father led as devoted and disciplined a life as any religious; for him the writing of the history of science was a vocation, and he served it through his whole life with the whole of himself”  (48).  As she notes, there is something of both the “saint” and the “enfant terrible” in her father’s devotion to his vision, as there was in Sarton’s own modeling of her work ethic and vocational, contemplative practice after his.

Sarton reveals as well here the early morning routine that sustains her at her desk throughout the sometimes anxious hours.  She writes that “the work I do at my desk is not unlike arranging flowers.  Only it is much harder to get started writing something!”  She continues:

The writer, at his desk alone, must create his own momentum, draw the enthusiasm up out of his own substance, not just once, when he may feel inspired, but day after day when he often does not.  […] the writer faces a daily battle with self-questioning, self-doubt, and conflict about his own work. Half the time what he finds on his desk in the morning looks hardly worth tinkering with; in the cool morning light every weakness is exposed.

To get through this almost Sisyphean journey at the desk, Sarton relates some of her practices that help her get started and continue working.  While she admits that “Every writer has his own ways of getting started,” these are the ones that work for her:

I often rinse out my mind by reading something, and I sometimes manage to put off getting down to the hard struggle for an unconscionable time.  Mostly I am helped through the barrier by music.  I play records while I am writing, and especially at the start of each day one particular record that accompanies the poem or chapter I am working at.

Her musical tastes for writing focus on baroque and neoclassical composers because of their “clarity and structure” (58).

The time as a seeming prisoner at the desk thus becomes somewhat sacrosanct with its own rituals of invocation (reading to “rinse the mind”) and meditation, which includes the listening to structured classical music and the writing practice itself.  Like Natalie Goldberg writes in her manifesto at the end of Thunder and Lightning, “writing is a true spiritual path, an authentic Zen way” (218).  Like a Zen retreat, retreating to write produces the same inner work, “out alone on a lonesome cliff hanging onto a craggy rock, your hands bleeding.  The same wrestling, openings, surrender, the same scraping against yourself, same humbling, final, broken weary acceptance.”[6]  As with Goldberg, Sarton’s own routine and practice affirms these principles of writing as a valid religious practice, akin to Buddhist meditation, and becomes a model for other writer/contemplatives.

In the passage from Journal of a Solitude concerning the need for writers to find balance that I cited earlier, Sarton turns to the poet Louise Bogan to reflect on the sometimes detrimental effects that keeping balance has on producing one’s art.  Sarton reflects that for Bogan to keep balance in her last days, she had to give up writing poetry: “It was partly […],” Sarton opines, “that the detachment demanded of the critic (and especially his absorption in analyzing the works of others) is dramatically opposed to the kind of detachment demanded of the poet in relation to his own work.”  Sarton concludes with a description of the poet finding detachment “only after the shock of an experience has been taken in.  […] [It] comes with examining the experience by means of writing the poem” and considering the “central perception” of the experience and the poem as “a kind of [immoderate] white heat” (143).

Despite this criticism, the writing and, more importantly, friendship of Bogan provides Sarton a point from which to clarify her own contemplative poetic practice further.  In the September 29th entry, Sarton cites Bogan to explain the goals of her poetry.  She starts with the critique that Bogan offered her, saying that Sarton as a poet “‘keep[s] the Hell out of” her poems.  For Sarton, however, this criticism helps her clarify her own view of poetry.  Sarton tells us that she has “felt that the work of art” is “a kind of dialogue between me and God,” and therefore “must present resolution rather than conflict.  The conflict is there all right, but it is worked through by means of writing the poem” (30-31).  Like one of her favorite poets George Herbert, the seventeenth-century Anglican priest, Sarton’s poems work to move the reader from the conflict (for instance, the perception that sitting at a desk is like sitting at a prison, or that confronting a fearful silence) to resolution and, indeed, reaffirmation (in this case, to opening oneself up to the mystical archetypes and being willing to go out to hear nature—the hoarse cry of the mother sheep—and take that into the desk and the page, in “Prisoner at a Desk” and “The Silence” respectively).

Bogan’s own lifestyle provides a model for that kind of clarity despite the sometimes tumultuous relationship Sarton had with the person herself.  Sarton relates in Plant Dreaming Deep a visit to Bogan’s apartment, describing in positive ways the order and clarity that Bogan evidenced in her choice of surroundings.  Sarton relates that she had learned some of Bogan’s poems by heart even before she met Bogan herself.  Bogan’s style—hard-edged, luminous, arduously worked and seemingly impersonal—appealed to Sarton’s own desires to be an artist who tapped into the universal and archetypal.  She writes that “Louise […] exemplifies the life of poetry.”  Bogan’s apartment, “high over the Hudson,” “had an air, an atmosphere, very like Jean Dominique’s study in Belgium.  In each instance I walked into a room where I knew at once that much had been thought and felt, a room where book s had souls, where life was lived at great intensity in the silence.”[7]

Bogan’s death in February of 1970 leads Sarton to further clarity of what Bogan offered her contemplative model.  Sarton compares her to a distant planet that disappears from the sky, “so […] remote” with a “singular light.”  While she does not shy away from the violence in Bogan’s character and criticism, she also embraces her innocence and asks: “How shall we live without her ironies/That kept her crystal clear and made us wise?”  This chiaroscuro, lightness and darkness, in Bogan’s character as poet and a critic becomes a clarifier for Sarton, who continues her description, noting that Bogan’s spirit continues “Wherever soul meets soul on this dark plain/And we are worth your clarifying pain” (403).  Yet this “clarifying pain” cost Bogan much, as Sarton’s final description of her attests: “Deprived, distraught, often despairing,/You kneaded a celestial bread for sharing” (403).

The “Elegy for Louise Bogan” presents Bogan as a wise but distant model for the contemplative life of poet that Sarton models and makes more intimate and personal.  Seeing Bogan as kneading a “celestial bread” certainly carries with it the Christian symbolism of the Eucharistic feast, so necessary, as the Anglican prayer book states, which cautions us in its priestly prayer to “deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for
renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name” toward the ends of recognizing Christ in “the breaking of the Bread.”[8]  It is the sacramental nature of Sarton’s vision, divested of any particular orthodox theology but resonant with a world of spirit, experience, and practice that makes her solitude into the model for the contemplative poet.  This contemplative solitude, “whether at the letter desk or in the field,” as W. Clark Gilpin reflects, “becomes an imagined intimacy with a separated, perhaps unattainable, object of desire.”[9]

Part 2: Returning to Sarton’s Garden.

                  Of her many and rich volumes, Plant Dreaming Deep is most deeply aligned with Sarton’s gardening aesthetics.  Elizabeth Evans in writing about Sarton’s gardening practice describes the metaphoric import of the garden plants, remarking that for Sarton “flowers are […] the reminder of inevitable growth—its full cycle from the slightest bud to the full open blossom to faded and then falling petals and leaves.”[10]  In addition to the symbolism of the garden, the garden represents the active portion of Sarton’s contemplative theology.  As W. Clark Gilpin records, “the theology of solitude […] names one pole in the tensive oscillation between the active life and the contemplative life that so sharply marks Christian understandings of human orientation toward the absolute.”[11]  Although Sarton moves beyond the foundation of Christian contemplative models, this tension is still present as much of Sarton’s explanations are imbued with Christian imagery that has been resignified (such as the use of the Eucharistic imagery in the Bogan elegy).

Sarton describes her contemplative gardening practice as being modeled on the gardening that her mother did as well as on that her friend Cèline Limbosch, whose garden Sarton says is a “poem […] haunted still by her poet-husband.”  Quoting six lines from the poem “The Garden of Childhood” (included in the original publication of A Durable Fire, but not in the section of Collected Poems taken from that volume), Sarton captures the monastic aura of Limbosch’s garden and the goals for her own practice:  the garden is compared to “an illuminated page” that an “assiduous monk in his joy did not spare/Costly vermilion and gold, nor the rich sage” (65).  Elizabeth Evans labels this “an excellent image,” unfolding its depiction of the garden as an “intermingling of color, art, and labor” that which links the image of the “growing garden” with “the rich illumination from the monk’s hand.”[12]

In this way, the gardening practice becomes sanctified like the monk’s monastic work of copying and illustrating; Sarton describes the garden as being in this way “as haunting as a prayer” (65).

Sarton’s garden at Nelson is helped by the aging Limbosch when she visits; in tandem with Sarton herself and other helpers like Perley Cole, the garden becomes key for the contemplative as a place that is a living memorial and a place of meditation and respite.  Limbosch’s attitude of assistance comes to Sarton at the time when she is setting up her Nelson garden.  In reflecting on a photograph of her dear friend sitting “on a hideous pile of rubble and loose rocks with some ragged bushes behind her,” Sarton applauds Limbosch’s model of faith, averring that

She never questioned what I saw in my mind’s eye, and eagerly shared in the vision of “what might be” one day.  She did more; she set to work at once with the old gardener’s expertise, her beautiful small hands grasping a spade with a strength I could not command, and began to dig up and prepare one of the beds in front of the house.  (65)

Sarton concludes by celebrating her and Limbosch’s “first planting of perennials, phlox, and peonies, in what [Sarton] hoped would become an herbaceous border against the foundation of the old barn” where Sarton’s neighbors made and stored their hay over the winter months (66), rejoicing that, even though Limbosch is back in Europe, she remains “here” with Sarton “in the garden she helped to make” (71).

Along with the ways that the gardens commemorates—and, even more eucharistically, embodies the living spirit of—other gardeners such as Sarton’s mother and Limbosch, Sarton’s contemplative gardening practice comes to express as well the virtues explored by gardening philosopher Isis Brook in her essay “The Virtues of Gardening.”  Among the virtues she lists are patience, the social virtues such as sharing and making space for others, and recognizing reality.  Of patience, Brook writes:  “There is a sense in which, in the garden, things happen in their own time and a desire to see immediate results will impair our ability to properly engage with the activity of gardening.  […]  In the nurturing of a garden we are thereby nurturing patience as a personal disposition.”[13]  The patience of the gardener is manifold in the English attitude described by Sarton and most evidenced in Sarton’s mother’s gardens from which Sarton builds her more contemplative gardening aesthetic.  The English, Sarton opines, make every space into a garden, even turning homes that are “smoke-and-dirt-encrusted” into spaces for a garden that conveys “an expression of the personality and its lover and slave” (120).

It is the Japanese, however, who add to Sarton’s English gardening temperament its more contemplative aesthetic, supplementing the attitude of patience with that of graciousness and holiness.  Sarton writes:

One cannot impose one’s will on a garden; something has already been imposed, the terrain itself, the landscape in which it is to be created.  The Japanese, of course, are the great masters of using and defining what has been given.  When I came back from Japan, I saw every rock in my garden with fresh eyes, the whole state of New Hampshire as a vast Japanese rock garden, where the wildness, the casualness, is the quality to be preserved.  (121).

Sarton commemorates this Japanese experience specifically by planting a plum tree outside her door, reminiscent of the sweetness of scent she experienced while staying at a Zen monastery in Enka-Kuji.  As she codifies this Japanese aesthetic in her poem “The Stone Garden,” the Japanese garden knits “a silent figure/Down through the centuries,//So changeless and changing/It is never exhausted” (33).

                  The patience of the gardener also comes through in the gardener’s failures, which seem at times as plentiful as the successes.  In Plant Dreaming Deep, Sarton writes of her “relief” in discovering that Vita Sackville-West kept at her glorious garden at Sissinghurst “a pile of metal labels in a shed […] as proof of all the experiments that have failed” (127).  In trying and failing to tame the garden in the manner one thinks it ought to be tamed, Sackville-West comes to represent here what Brook labels as the virtue of “recognizing reality” that the gardener acquires: this virtue comes through ‘embodied engagement” and the learning it produces; “In our imaginative, creative work in the garden,” Brook reflects, “we do express ourselves, but partly through making space for the expression of others” including the garden itself.[14]  Sarton also calls this attribute the recklessness that gardening inspires in this gardener, writing in Plant Dreaming Deep of the gardener that, no matter how “sober he may have been before” planting a garden, “he will soon become an inveterate gambler who cuts his losses and begins again; he may think he intends to pare down on spending energy and money, but that is an illusion, and he soon learns that a garden is an ever-expanding venture” (119).

Gardening becomes for Sarton the pinnacle of her contemplative practice, akin to writing poetry and keeping the journal itself.  Sarton writes that

one of the things gardening does for me is to provide a way of resting without being bored; a day divided between writing in the morning and gardening in the afternoon has a good balance; it is possible to maintain what might be called perfect pitch, total awareness, for a good many hours of each day.  And gardening is so rich in sensuous pleasures that I hardly notice its solitariness. (124)

In this way, the gardening practice not only adds the active element to the contemplative/active divide that Gilpin identified for us earlier, but it also wards off another of the evils that contemplative writers face—that of the dangers of boredom and depression.  Boredom, which often covers a more serious depression sometimes referred to in monastic literature as acedia, is a danger for the contemplative and often mimes to the writer and contemplative in a long project that the project is useless or will never be accomplished.  Kathleen Norris in her book Acedia and Me records that acedia was defined by the desert fathers as “‘the noonday demon’ because the temptation usually struck during the heat of the day, when the monk was hungry and fatigued, and susceptible to the suggestion that his commitment to a life of prayer was not worth the effort.”[15]  Sara Maitland in her wonderful work A Book of Silence describes the dangers of acedia, writing that “it is very difficult to describe the effects of accidie, because its predominant feature is a lack of affect, an overwhelming sense of blankness and an odd restless and dissatisfied boredom.”[16]  Sometimes in Maitland’s case it was marked by “an enormous difficulty in moving from one activity to another.”[17]  She notes that acedia “is particularly hard” to distinguish from “our modern understanding of depression, and especially the notion that depression is a physical illness which, like a broken leg, exists completely outside of our will.”  Rather, Maitland suggests seeing the acedia of the contemplative as “a thing in itself, quite separate” from any other identifiable state.[18]  Sarton writes in Journal of a Solitude of one such bout of depression (or acedia) that working with plants tempered.  Sarton describes being awake “at four” a.m. and lying awake “in a bad state.”  She tells her reader that “I got up finally and went about the daily chores, waiting for the sense of doom to lift—and what did it was watering the houseplants.  Suddenly joy came back because I was fulfilling a simple need, a living one.”  It made her “feel calm and happy” again (16).  Gardening indoors or outdoors and caring for living things like her cats give to Sarton a focus for when the writing is going well or not, and something that she can oscillate in her routine between time at the desk and in the house and equally important time outside in the contemplative garden.

Conclusion: The Greening Self in Old Age

                  In conclusion, in one of her final works, the celebratory Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year, in one of my own personal favorite passages, Sarton turns at the end of her journal to the poem “The Flower” by seventeenth-century Anglican priest and poet George Herbert.   Herbert, one of Sarton’s favorite poets alongside Yeats and Bogan, helps Sarton to explain what happens to her as a contemplative now in what she would elsewhere call extreme old age.  Using Herbert’s words, Sarton asks “Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart/Could have recovered greenesse?”  Continuing the gardening and flower metaphor, Sarton notes (via Herbert) that her soul had “gone/Quite Under ground; as flowers depart/To see their mother-root, when they have blown.”  These Sarton identifies along with Herbert as “thy wonders, Lord of power,/Killing and quickening, bring down to hell/And up to heaven in an houre.”  She concludes that

[…] [now  in old age I bud again,

After so many deaths I live and write;

I once more smell the dew and rain,

And relish versing […].[19]

Like her contemplative routines of writing and gardening, Sarton imbues her practice with sacredness in quest of the renewal of the deep wells found through going deeply into the self and facing, as she articulates via Jung and Weil, the shadow itself.  Sarton leaves for us in her journals and poetry the courageous record of a contemplative in her solitude facing all the destructiveness of modern life and finding ways to still make it holy.


[1] All rights reserved.

[2] May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude (New York & London: W. W. Norton, 1973), 63.  Hereafter, references to this volume will be cited parenthetically in the text.

[3] Susan Sontag, Styles of Radical Will (New York: Picador, 1969), 27.  All other references to this volume are given parenthetically.

[4]Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995),  191.  All other references to this volume given parenthetically.

[5] Both poems are cited from the version included in May Sarton, Collected Poems 1930-1993 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993).

[6] Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writers Craft (New York: Bantam Books, 2000), 218.

[7] May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), 68.  All other references to this volume given parenthetically.

[8] The Book of Common Prayer accessed April 28, 2012, http://www.bcponline.org/, Holy Eucharist, Rite II, Eucharistic Prayer C.

[9] W. Clark Gilpin, “The Theology of Solitude: Edwards, Emerson, Dickinson,” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 1 (2001): 40.

[10] Elizabeth Evans, May Sarton Revisited, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989), 97.

[11] Gilpin, “The Theology of Solitude,” 31.

[12] Evans, May Sarton Revisited, 97.

[13] Isis Brook, “The Virtues of Gardening,” in Gardening—Philosophy for Everyone: Cultivating Wisdom ed. Dan O’Brien, (Malden, MA and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000), 20.

[14] Brook, “The Virtues of Gardening,” 23.

[15] Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (New York: Riverhead, 2008), 5.

[16] Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008), 108.

[17] Maitland, A Book of Silence, 109.

[18] Maitland, A Book of Silence, 111.

[19] May Sarton, Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993), 332.

If you wish to contact the author:

Dr. Mark K. Fulk, English Department, Buffalo State College SUNY, 1300 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo, NY 14222