Saturday, May 3, 2014

May Sarton: Mother of the Memoir

Today is the birthday of May Sarton.  She was first famous for her poetry, but many today might see her journals as the more important work.  The quality of personal writing, like the writing in those journals, led a generation of literary critics to take those kinds of writing seriously.  I could argue that those journals would lead to the boom in memoirs, blogging, and all those Facebook posts and Tweets that can be so lyrical.

In spite of this, let me remember my shock when I first read those journals.  It wasn't the openness about her relationships with women that shocked me.  I read the journals in the late 1990's, after all; it was a time period that wasn't as open as our current period, but I'd already been exposed to all sorts of lesbian literature by then.

No, I was shocked by the whiney nature of her entries about other poets.  I remember that she complained about how the success of a variety of poets while she wondered why her own work didn't get accolades.  I shook my head; after all, she had made a living with her writing, as far as I could see.  Why would she expend that kind of energy?

At the time, I was having weekly lunches with a poet friend, a formalist.  We talked about Sarton's dismissal of some of the best poets of her time, while at the same time, her formalist poems didn't scan--and it wouldn't have been that hard to revise them so that they did.  Her journals suggested that she wanted fame for her formalist work.  If she wanted to be taken more seriously by the literary critics of her day, why didn't she revise so that her work would be taken seriously in the forms that would have brought her that respect/acceptance she craved?

You might say that she didn't do this because she was an early feminist, working to overthrow the oppressive, patriarchal literary structure.  But her journals suggest no such thing.  She seemed to resist all the ways that the feminist movement wanted to praise her.

Frankly, I liked her better before I read the journals.  At the time I was reading, I wondered why she would allow such a manuscript to be published.

Now, of course, we're all revealing all sorts of negativity every day in all sorts of public forums.  Part of me likes the honesty and admires people for being willing to embrace every part of their emotional terrain.  Part of me yearns for a long-ago time when people didn't talk so openly.  Part of me wonders if we might have been healthier when we didn't dwell on everything for so long.

Of course, I know the dangers of being emotionally repressed.  I understand what happens we don't explore our unhappiness.  I just wish we could all achieve some balance.

And at its best, that's what a regular journaling practice should do:  help us get clear on what's making us happy and what's leaving us unsatisfied--and if we're lucky, a good journaling practice will help us discern what to do next.

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