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It's time for the reader's Allman AKh with Warren Bauer. Originally broadcast over station WNYC New York and distributed by national educational radio. The reader's almanac is America's oldest continuous book program. Here now is Mr. Bauer. For some years now I have been aware of a writer who lives in New England New Hampshire to be precise about it. But with a wide and diverse background actually born in Flanders with parents whose differences must have supplied her with the complexities in her mind and work she had been poet a novelist I dare say would be simpler to say writer and leave it at that. Or better to say a poet didn't mean as Europeans do. One can go from one form to another as ideas and feeding it lead or a subject matter persuades. I'm speaking of May Sarton the author of 17 books. I've counted them as they are listed by our publisher opposite the title page of our last novel. Six books of poems in another soon to come out 10 novels including the one I want to notice particularly now
one called poetically enough. Mrs. Stevens hears the mermaid singing one of these plus one that gets the designation nonfiction published by Debbie Debbie Norton and company. A body of work remarkable for its extent and scope for the depth of the feeling that each of these books for the intelligence and subtlety of the writing and whatever form the Arizona go I heard or read from chiefly her last book of poems cloud St.. Sun vine and contemporary American poetry was added to broaden deepen for me as I listen as I re read the poem there after a number of times since then I have been planning to have her appear on the almanac when she was in the city. But occasions for that did not easily come about. Mrs. Stevens hears the mermaid singing was published in 1965 but as I read read it a few days ago it seemed to me to be an even better book than when I first read it first. It is the account of A Day In The Life of Hillary Stevens a poet of mature years with
a sharp mind and tongue. Living in New England. Well it could be New Hampshire. She wakes to face the concerns of a full and active life into which some work at her desk must come but also the entanglements of others problems with her own. Particularly it is the day when a couple of interviewers for a literary magazine come to do an interview in depth. They are bright intelligent sensitive pair in their questions and Mrs. Stevens back over the climactic events of her 70 years she sees these afresh and comes to new terms with them understanding them better being articulate and clear about the pattern that her life has taken with new insight which the probings of the reporters have stirred her to make she can return to the problems of a young man Neymar who helps around the place and is a somewhat disturbed by revelations of his own self. The theme of the novel is the varieties of love the place of love and feeling in a life and the need for courage to live a full life.
Now this is a novel which has a complex fabric and pattered but a simple readable natural exterior. Yet there are deeps in it which will satisfy the needs of the most demanding reader. This is Stephens hears the mermaid singing as a novel of great beauty and wisdom whose qualities I would like to make many more readers aware of. But Mr. Martin is here with me. Come down from New Hampshire at a time when it is possible for us to sit and talk with a microphone between us. Now you're very far from Mrs. Stevens vantage point of 70 years. But I wish in this talk we might be able to look back over your books and separate out for us the differing roles of poetry and prose in your work. I know that's a large not easy to answer request. Maybe I can put it this way are there days devoted to poetry and other days which are plainly for prose. Well I suppose that one cannot
decide to write a poem that is a poem is a seizure and therefore you might be suddenly forced to stop writing a novel to write a poem when you want to see something sufficiently moving to you so that you feel that you must write it. The great difference I think is a difference in tension sustained as against tension. That can be held within a single day although I make many drafts of my lyric poems and some and I found even with free verse this is true I mean upon me go through 60 drafts but still it's usually done in about a day or a day of great intensity whereas a novel you've got to hold for a year with this complex design like a symphony held in your mind the whole time and this is a very sustained tension and a very different kind of tension Roy to the poem. But you can plan a novel somewhat ahead whereas I mean you can say next year I'm not planning or I hope I hope to plan a series of
novels and that will be linked and I want to take a year to do the planning you see and then begin to write well this is very different for a poem. And there's no predicting I suppose those seizures that you speak of it make take you all of a sudden let's say of a fine morning. Exactly and I think this is why it's a great advantage to be a prose writer as well as a poet. And the biggest hazard of the poet who is only a poet is just that there are long intervals when you can't write poetry and what do you do then. I mean many you know you take to drank or LSD or something. I write novels instead of drug you know may the purposes of poetry and prose be roughly the same as you write. No I think that different and that's a very good question I think the point is that poetry on the whole doesn't deal with growth. It deals with absence. And I'm enormously
interested in how people grow and how they affect each other which is what the novel is about it seems to be really what people do to each other. Whereas in poetry you even a love poem the reader for instance doesn't meet the lover he meets the feeling of the person who is in love. I mean to take a little bit about rounding error proponent by now is how shall I love thee let me count the ways where we see more about her feeling than we do about Browning. Don't you think. Yes quite well. Whereas a novel is a chance to enter into other people's lives and to show growth and change. And some poets are like frost for example refused to write prose although he was persuaded to do so now and then and of course he spoke a great deal of it it was clear you have any such feeling and it's a form a report ought not to undertake. No I don't think so I think. For me I can only speak for myself but I think it's a great enrichment to have the two
do have the two. And there are many many ways in which it's an enrichment and one of them a very obvious one for materialistic is that there is no way of earning a living as a poet. But occasionally a novel can can pay for itself in the sense of time and the great problem of course of any serious writer of the kind I am who doesn't sell enormously as how to live how to how to buy the time and to some extent the novels do that. I think for instance that if I were in solitary confinement and nobody were ever to see anything that I wrote that I would still write poetry but I doubt if I would write novels. This is again a difference in essence I think. You write poems sort of for yourself and God and so you go on doing it even if nobody ever heard them or saw them but I don't think you would write a novel under these circumstances. I would like to add a few others besides those two. It's very nice if a few people are leaning over your shoulder as I was talking about this novel of yours.
I very studiously avoided saying because I don't believe in that there is anything like poetic prose in it because I think it's a that's a bastard form and you have not descended into a whore. I wonder if poetic prose is a result of not observing the delimitation of these two forms are a slackening may be in the writer's own discipline. Well yes to some extent although when you've got a very great writer of prose like Virginia Woolf who I think was really a poet I wouldn't you call her prose poetic I think close to it certainly has yes. And yet it's marvelous I think. I mean she's able to communicate certain things just because of this. But I agree with you I've been fighting not to write how to cross in my first novel The single hound was was I think did her in this way. It was a poet's novel whereas I hope I'm a novelist Naam novel novelist now.
Well I do think we need another phrase however of the quake because prose because that's rather pejorative phrase it suggests. So one doesn't approve of all together you see or is too conscious Yes and that's quite true and worked over and labored over my Somebody asked me the other day about how one of the difference in how you prepare yourself for writing a poem and for for prose and I found myself saying and realized suddenly that this really is true that I don't revise prose a great deal but I think terribly hard before I start every morning and this is the agony. It's I paced up and down many for two hours and then I write two pages without really hardly correcting this doesn't always happen but if I'm in good form and maybe then two months or three months later I might change three or four words. But I wouldn't go take it apart and put it together again 60 times as I do with the ponies. So I was thinking over some of things I wanted to ask you I had this poetic prose idea came to me and I was wondering if there is any good
in the best sense I mean in poetic prose and I'm glad to have you mentioned Virginia Woolf possibly Orlando for example. As poetic pro-law to try to lure us to the lighthouse I don't mind which I think you know her greatest book Dylan Thomas. I mean the poetic prose I think which does work but I agree with you that when you think of the great novelists you wouldn't this wouldn't be the first thing you would you know think about because I think a novelist star should be transparent and if you're aware of the stock. I don't consider it a compliment when people say What a wonderful star you have as a novelist because it seems to me what I would like them to say is I was tremendously moved by the book. Why did this character do that. Or you know whatever it might be. What were you trying to say here. But if they say what a wonderful style you feel it. They've never been really moved by the book. They stood outside it looking at it in my hand salad days I used to like
Eleanor Wylie for example the orphanage over that was poorly Probus I'd look back on it no. I suspect I think what it was I liked Mr. Hardy Mr. Haas and better. Yes and there I think that succeeds in a way that often it doesn't quite but I may be wrong. And one of those any remark that you would like to make that there is almost not quite an arithmetical relationship between the numbers of your books of poems and the number of novels is that that's very astute. Your brother's for a long time I was determined to keep them absolutely equal because poetry is what I care about most. And and I write a lot that I never publish. And I did not want the novels to get ahead of it I didn't want to have my name. Primarily that of a novelist. This is one of the sort of hazards you know being into things is that is that you are stuck in a different pocket. And the poets are out to stick me in the novelist pocket and I know I'm not a poet pocket and I think I don't think it's a
hope but I haven't led you yet directly or indirectly into a good discussion of Mrs. Stevens. This is for me a key book of yours quintessential I mean especially you at your most characteristic. I wonder if it is so for you. Yes I think it was the hardest novel I've ever written except faithful are the wounds but there the difficulty was that it was not my problems which were involved my problems as a woman and an artist I think really the concern of Mrs. Stevens My concern in writing it was to try to blow up some American. Ideas about the woman artist. I'm very angry with the with the American idea that everybody must be everything. I mean that a woman in other words must be married have six children have a career and be able to toss off a big face up of a 12 of our husbands friends at the drop of a hat I mean this just seems to
me first place we see that the insane asylums are full of people who try to do this and crack up. But it's if you are going to be a woman and an artist I think you've got to make certain sacrifices. Now whether you you lead a strange life from the general public point of view or not I don't think it's terribly important some women artists have had seven husbands and I consider this rather rather not normal if you want to put it in the case of Mrs. Stevens. She is married but she finds that she's apt to write poetry in connection with a muse who is famine. And this is rather an union book by the way as I'm sure you sensed. I've had several letters from from unions who who point out all kinds of things that I didn't know what you don't know. You don't have an ally as you create but ask you this what was the inception of this book I mean the seed its beginning. What determined you that it should be next to work upon.
I wanted to write it 25 years ago and felt that I ought to wait. It's been with me for a very long time in a way this book was a means of coming to on an understanding of myself. Although Mrs. Stevens is not as you pointed out very wisely is much older than I am and in many other respects is not is not me you know here but but in some essential way and in her relation to poetry she does come very close to how I feel about it and to my own creativity. And I wanted to find out certain things. I always write a novel to find out what I really think about a troubling question. NaMo forces me to come toward our understanding. I think this is. You know when you talk critics particularly I think talk glibly of is that a terminal working novelist uses maybe to keep him on the track. Does it function during the writing of a book.
I think it's everything I mean as far as I'm going to novel is made out of a group of of our dynamic characters. And I think. And the part takes care of itself you've got this. Of course the framework of the interview is this odd pondered alone time because I wanted a means to to make my character both. That able to be detached and at the same time very inward. I don't know that some people feel a flashback in the interview doesn't work. But this was the key thing I wanted to do to show what does is not set what is below the surface. When you asked me a question like the difference between poetry and prose what is going on below the surface when I answer and have you know more or less objective way. This is what interested me to try to do my thought that devise worked exceedingly well of course one remembers a Paris Review Interviews. These two might have been doing just such an interview. You would be such a person as would be interviewed and I didn't say or you I mean in this case Mrs. Stevens.
It seemed to me therefore that it worked admirably. I'm so I'm all ears out of eyes. I'm awfully glad you liked the book. I didn't very much need. I wonder what you would have said if if you hadn't read word by critics or listen to anybody that misses what Mrs. Stevens was about. What would you have said was the theme I took a shot at it and. Well yeah duction I thought this was very well done I mean I agree with what you said and I had various things in mind I always do I think that the book sort of draws them together won't one of them was one of them is as I said is the woman artist and what and what kind of a person she has to be. One of them was the fear of feeling in America which I was in to see Rollo Manet's very good piece in The Sunday Review about. Maybe it's this last week on on the puritanism of Americans today Sex is free for all but as long as you don't
feel everything's all right you can do anything. Well Mrs. Stevens is the exact opposite. I mean what I'm trying to say that the fear of feeling is one of the things that is destroying us. And in relation to the boy this comes up when she says it doesn't matter who you love if it's a true love. I am aware that you're going to have a new book of poems to come out very soon I think we ought to divide this interview. One may at this point between poetry and prose or prose and poetry. So tell me in our listeners about it we may as well do this now even if the book isn't in the hands of any readers as yet. Well actually it is out and it's called a private mythology. And it's the genesis of this book is rather different from any other of my books of poems. I had a 50th birthday a couple of years ago when I decided that I was going to take an enormous or a risk adventure and I went round the world alone not not on a book tour I mean in my own
invented tour of my own invention like the white knight. And I went I spent a month in Japan a month in India and a month in Greece. And the first half of this book is the poems which I could only write after two or three years you see because I took a long time to absorb all this as you can imagine. And then the second part of the book is about New Hampshire my coming home and sort of around the world and home again. Well I do think we have time to hear that poem that you spoke. Oh well good I'd like to read. This is one of the ones of the coming of the of the New Hampshire but it brings together many many things. It's about the old man who works for me and it has a little echo also of Ron Cousy which goes back to my parents days and it has a little echo of my rage against the reviewers not you has to rob someone whom we will not name a recognition for pearly Co.
I wouldn't know how rare they come these days but I know Pearl is rare. I know enough to start fooling around with words and pray is this man who swings aside in subtle ways and brings green order carved out of the rough. I wouldn't know how rare. But I discover they used to tell an awkward learning boy. Keep the heel down son careful of the swing. I guess it perils and peril makes me sane. So let the world go but hold fast to joy and praise the craftsman till hell freezes over. I watched him that first morning when the dew still slightly bent tall toughened grasses sat up in bed to watch him coming through holding the sod so lightly and so true in slow sweeps and in lovely passes. The swaying far
out far out but not too far. The paused to wipe and white the shining black eyed. I felt offended Tay's Farmar and poet share a good deal although they may not know it. It looked as easy as when the world was made and God could pull a bird out or a star. For there was pearly in his own sweet way pulling some order out of ragged land cutting the tough chaotic growth the way so peace could sown had on a summit. For here comes coal with genius in his hand. I saw in him a likeness to that flame brand Cousy in his Paris studio who pruned down lifted from chaotic night those naked shining images of flight. The old man's gentle malice and bravado
boasting hard times. It was my Again same set a moshpit to wrest joy out of pan the endless skillful struggle to unclog the clouded vision to reduce and proven and bring me back from the furnace fired again. A world of magic joy alone allowed. Now Pearlie says Goddamn it. And much worse hearing him. I get back some reverence. Could you they are us call such a man your friend. Yes dammit and yes well without end run Koos is Gaiman here is make the same sense. And not unlike a prayer is pearlers curse. So let the rest go and heel down my boy and praise the artist till hell freezes over for his wrath. He with his size no toy he with his perils
with his skill and Joy who comes to prune to make clear to cover the old man full of wisdom in his prime. They're in the field watching him as he passes. I recognize that violent gentle blood impatient patience. I would if I could call him I can. That siding down the grasses. Call him my good luck and a dirty time. Thank you Mays Arden for that reading it's a lovely poem and I'm sure it's typical of the rest in a private mythology. Now I've put you through a number of questions but I do say I wish I had had as much time as Mr. Stevens interviewers to conduct this interview. We have taken off from the start is beautifully written novel Mrs. Stevens hears the mermaids singing. But look I would urge you listeners to redo it stayed with us so far.
It isn't for everyone to be sure but it's a meaningful novel a work of art and these days that's a rare commodity. Thank you for coming to the almanac. You heard Warren Bauer and author. May Sarton as they discuss the book Mrs. Stevens hears the mermaid singing. This was another program in a series the reader's Allman act on our next program Mr. Bauer's guest will be Paul hire editor of the book architects on architecture the reader's Allman act is produced by Warren Barr and is originally broadcast by station WNYC in New York. The programs are made available to the station by national educational radio. This is the national educational radio network.
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Reader's almanac
May Sarton
Producing Organization
WNYC (Radio station : New York, N.Y.)
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
This program focuses on poet and novelist, May Sarton.
Series Description
A literature series featuring interviews with authors, poets, and others in the literary world.
Media type
Host: Bower, Warren
Interviewee: Sarton, May, 1912-1995
Producing Organization: WNYC (Radio station : New York, N.Y.)
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 67-28-5 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:24:47
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Chicago: “Reader's almanac; May Sarton,” 1967-07-07, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 16, 2024,
MLA: “Reader's almanac; May Sarton.” 1967-07-07. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 16, 2024. <>.
APA: Reader's almanac; May Sarton. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from