INTERVIEW / The daring budding of May: Natasha Walter speaks to May Sarton, whose work voices the pleasure and pain of old age

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The Independent Culture
MAY SARTON is over 80, and makes much and little of it. An American poet and novelist with over 40 published books to her name, her most recent and startling success has been with a series of journals that voice the little-written experiences of old age (the latest of which, Encore, is published this month by the Women's Press). 'I always wanted to be old,' she says, at the beginning of our talk, sitting frail and elegant in a flower- filled room in Durrants Hotel.

Sarton has always resisted the idea that old age is an embarrassing decline. Her first novel, The Single Hound (published by Cresset Press in 1939) centred around the experiences of a young American man in love with an English woman, Georgia. But the book is mainly taken up with a subplot in which the American tracks down a elderly Belgian poet whose work he admires: this poet could be Sarton now, as she muses: 'I've been taming death ever since I can remember,' and gives what little energy she has to her cat, her garden, and her poems.

I mention the similarities between this imagined poet and Sarton's own life now, and Sarton agrees, but then says, 'The work is incredibly autobiographical.' Surely in 1939 she wouldn't already have known her older self, the things she loves now. . . 'No, I was Mark, the American chap. And Georgia, Mark's girlfriend, that was Elizabeth Bowen. I was terribly in love with Elizabeth at that time.'

Sarton came to England for the first time in 1937, when she was 25. She had already lived quite a life - attempting to make a go of a theatre company of her own in the States. When it failed, in the Depression, she was ready to start being a little more light-hearted. 'I was intoxicated by being an attractive young woman, because until then I'd had such a responsible life. Suddenly at 25 it all happened, I was a charming young woman. I was in love with everyone and everyone was in love with me.'

'Everyone' included John Summerson, who had a room next to hers in the superior kind of rooming house she was living in, and played the harpsichord all day long, and introduced her to Elizabeth Bowen at a dinner party. 'Isaiah Berlin was there, and David Cecil, and the conversation - well, I must say, it was that kind of Oxford English which I couldn't understand. It was like a foreign language. I was utterly bewildered, like a little bird, looking around.'

But the young Sarton made enough of a hit to become Elizabeth Bowen's lover, and Virginia Woolf's friend, with whom she regularly had tea. Woolf would plague her with questions about everything, 'Where you buy your clothes, who your lover is. She was definitely going to use it in some way - I mean not necessarily as a character, but she was looking for details. I was immensely flattered.'

Sarton soon returned to the States, but her lesbianism remained discreetly wrapped in the veils of heterosexual fiction until 1975, when she came out in Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, a brief, lyrical book about a poet who gives an interview to a couple of journalists and talks frankly about her life and loves. Again, the book's power comes from using age as a central viewpoint: although Sarton was only 53 when she wrote it, it is an elegiac look at the passing of the years. There is quite a lot of by-play between the poet, Mrs Stevens, now quite firmly the autobiographical character, and a young boy who does some work for her and also aims to be a poet. The paradigm is the same as in The Single Hound: only the place of insertion of Sarton herself - now as the older mentor rather than the confused younger writer - is different.

Other novels - As We Are Now, a bleak, starkly written novel about an elderly woman's incarceration in a cruel nursing home; and The Education of Harriet Hatfield, the tale of 60- year-old lesbian who opens a women's bookshop in Boston - deal with the same, very human themes of how to live honestly and lovingly in a cold world. These books have gained Sarton an immense readership: 'I've always believed in my work, because of my fans. When so many people write to you, of all ages, and both sexes, you have to believe there's something good about it.'

But Sarton sees herself primarily as a poet. If that is not a view her British readership would share, that's because she hasn't been printed as a poet here since 1939, when S S Koteliansky printed her first poems. But the readings she did on her trip to London were packed to the rafters. And in the States, her poetry has always been in print if not always well-received by the critics. 'But my Collected Poems are coming out for my 81st birthday, and hopefully I'll get the critical attention now. The critical establishment for poetry is entirely male. They didn't like me because I was a woman, one, and a lesbian, two.'

One can see other reasons why the critical establishment wouldn't like Sarton's work. All her work suffers from the brittle candour of her style, in which a letter to a friend, a dictated journal, a novel, a carefully revised poem all have the same, easily plumbed, childish clarity. But the human warmth is there, infusing the very ordinary subjects with affection and charm.

'Someone wrote a very interesting essay comparing me to Vermeer,' Sarton herself says. 'What she really had to say was - wait, I wrote it down so I wouldn't forget it - was that it was about the sacramentalisation of the ordinary. It's making a sacrament out of washing the dishes or whatever it might be. To so many people that has its own magic. I'm aware that everything in my life is poetry, and that if it isn't, there's something wrong with me - I haven't rinsed my eye.'

Clearly, Sarton is delighted that at last she is coming into a great reputation. Her 80th birthday was celebrated in the States with huge conferences and publications - the sort of thing only Americans do really well, with papers like 'May Sarton's Poetry: Seeking the Feminine in Silent Snow' or 'Themes of Death and Grief in the Work of May Sarton: A Hospice Perspective'.

'I always thought all of that would happen after my death,' Sarton says candidly. 'If I'd died at 70, as my parents did, I would have missed it all. But it's happening now, and that's lovely. I've had great luck.'

And Sarton still writes poetry - love poetry, political poetry, nature poetry - all filled with the same bright hope and imagery as the verse of her younger years. 'For a lyric poet to still be writing poetry at 80 is amazing,' she says proudly. 'The reason is my cat. My cat likes to go out at one in the morning so I have to let him out, and at two he miaows to come in. Because there are no letters to answer by my bed, 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. Without the cat I would not still be a poet. A cat door I can't have because the racoons get in - and they're very destructive, you know.'

(Photograph omitted)