May 3, 2005

An Observation

by May Sarton

TUESDAY, 3 MAY, 2005
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "An Observation" by May Sarton from A Private Mythology. © W.W. Norton & Co. Reprinted with permission.

An Observation

True gardeners cannot bear a glove
Between the sure touch and the tender root,
Must let their hands grow knotted as they move
With a rough sensitivity about
Under the earth, between the rock and shoot,
Never to bruise or wound the hidden fruit.
And so I watched my mother's hands grow scarred,
She who could heal the wounded plant or friend
With the same vulnerable yet rigorous love;
I minded once to see her beauty gnarled,
But now her truth is given me to live,
As I learn for myself we must be hard
To move among the tender with an open hand,
And to stay sensitive up to the end
Pay with some toughness for a gentle world.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of May Sarton, poet and essayist, novelist, born in Belgium in the village of Wondelgem in 1912. Her family fled the country during World War I. She grew up in Massachusetts, but settled in New York City. She wanted to become an actress, and she spent eight years during the Great Depression before her theater company went out of business. She said, "After my theater failed, I never looked back. It was like a fever out of my system. The theater is an angel with feet tied to bags of gold. You can't move without money. It's much better to be a writer. You just need a room."

In the same year her theater shut down, she published her first book of poems, Encounter in April (1937).

She went on to write many more books of poems, and many novels. None of the books sold especially well. She struggled to pay the bills. In her novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, (1965) she wrote, "There were moments ... when it seemed that all one could be asked was just to keep the ashtrays clean, the bed made, the wastebaskets emptied, as if one never got to the real things because of the constant exhausting battle to keep ordinary life from falling apart."

That novel, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, tells the story of an elderly lesbian poet looking back on her life, and it was May Sarton's way of announcing her sexuality to the world. Around the same time, the mid '60s, she also began publishing her journals, writing about her daily routines, what she called "the sacramentalization of ordinary life."

And though she didn't get much critical attention, she began to develop a large following. She'd go off to read her poetry at colleges, and when she showed up, the rooms were packed and she got standing ovations.

In the last 15 years of her life, she published a series of journals about aging: At Seventy and After the Stroke. May Sarton, who said, "If I were in solitary confinement, I'd never write another novel and probably not keep a journal, but I'd write poetry because poems, you see, are between God and me." She said, "My cat likes to go out at one in the morning, so I have to let him out. And at two he meows to come in. [During that time] I make notes for poems. And then in the morning, when I'm all there, as much as I ever am, I work at them. I would not still be a poet without the cat."

It's the birthday of the songwriter Betty Comden, born in Brooklyn (1915), who, along with Adolph Green, wrote Wonderful Town, Singin' in the Rain and other musicals.

It's the birthday of the playwright William Inge, born in Independence, Kansas (1913), who wrote Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, all written within seven years in the 1950s.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show