Book Bits

Like Silt in a Flowing Stream – May Sarton on Solitude and Clutter

“The immense value of a love affair is, of course, that it burns up the clutter like the trash it is.”

– May Sarton


“My need to be alone,” wrote poet and author May Sarton near the beginning of a personal retreat, “is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there.” Sarton’s writing in her journal is the upshot of a journey into herself, into simplification and self-examination. She said of herself, “I am an impossible creature, set apart by a temperament I have never learned to use as it could be used, thrown off by a word, a glance, a rainy day or one drink too many.” Her time alone writing and investigating herself culminated in the publication of her Journal of a Solitude. In the excerpt below, she reflects on what it means to start to move clutter out of one’s life, and to give oneself the opportunity to rest in and reflect upon experience.


Sometimes wonderful presents arrive from nowhere. Yesterday an unknown sent me, out of the blue, a book called Loneliness, by Clark E. Moustakas. I opened to this passage: “I began to see that loneliness is neither good nor bad, but a point of intense and timeless awareness of the Self, a beginning which initiates totally new sensitivities and awarenesses, and which results in bringing a person deeply in touch with his own existence and in touch with others in a fundamental sense.”

I am leading a cluttered life these days. The baby wood-chucks are devouring the garden, but they are so happy-how can I kill them? The raccoon wakes me every night at about one A.M. with a shattering noise of logs being tossed about on the kitchen porch. When I put on the light the raccoon looks up at me with cold curiosity and slowly heaves herself up the pole onto the roof. But she comes down again in a few minutes and it all starts again. Last night I gave up and let her have her way. The three barn cats come and yowl at me five times a day and I weakly give in and feed them. I dislike the two orange males, but the tabby I have cared for all winter and truly love—and she is so pregnant!

En plus, Punch has a huge swelling over his left eye, and I fear may be going blind. After the next two speeches are over (one a commencement address at New England College on Sunday), I must get him to a vet. He doesn’t scream any more, poor dear. Birds are so brave! I remember D. H. Lawrence’s poem in which he says they are “never sorry for themselves.” Punch talks to me in his intimate voice still, but his joyful morning scream is no more.

I am badgered by all these anxieties, but they are not what I mean by clutter.

Clutter is what silts up exactly like silt in a flowing stream when the current, the free flow of the mind, is held up by an obstruction. I spent four hours in Keene yesterday getting the car inspected and two new tires put on, also finding a few summer blouses. The mail has accumulated in a fearful way, so I have a huge disorderly pile of stuff to be answered on my desk. In the end what kills is not agony (for agony at least asks something of the soul) but everyday life.

The immense value of a love affair is, of course, that it burns up the clutter like the trash it is. When X and I first met life was nothing but a long hymn of praise. I am revising those poems now, so I am very much aware of the difference between those first weeks after X came into my life and where our relationship is now. What is asked of us now is to be tolerant, patient, to try to bridge the gaps between our personalities and temperaments, even between our values … and the Gestalt of our lives. When X leaves the job for a week, the job can be cut out entirely. But my job can never be cut out. That would mean an end to feeling and its analysis, an end to perception, and all that becomes not less acute for me when X and I are together. How well said by James Kirkup in his poem “The Poet”:

Each instant of his life, a task, he never rests,
And works most when he appears to be doing nothing.
The least of it is putting down in words
What usually remains unwritten and unspoken,
And would so often be much better left
Unsaid, for it is really the unspeakable
That he must try to give an ordinary tongue to.
And if, by art and accident,
He utters the unutterable, then
It must appear as natural as a breath,
Yet be an inspiration. And he must go,
The lonelier for his unwanted miracle,
His singular way, a gentle lunatic at large
In the societies of cross and reasonable men.

I feel cluttered when there is no time to analyze experience. That is the silt—unexplored experience that literally chokes the mind. Too much comes into this house—books I am asked to read and comment on, manuscripts, letters, an old friend who wants my opinion about a journal (whether it is publishable), and so on. This is the clutter, not woodchuck or raccoon!

May Sarton (1912-1995)
From: Journal of a Solitude


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