Field Notes: Poetry
By Robin Becker
Green in Their Windows for Hope
In Belgium when it was German in the last war and flags were forbidden on the national day everyone simultaneously put green in their windows for hope. I have on a green shirt today for hope’s sake.
It is not true that in a moment of great public stress personal feelings have no place. They are the things that provide a deep inner calmness and faith. Love is necessary too--- as necessary as bombers for England! Bless you for all you are.
And believe me
Yours to command
(Excerpt, letter from May Sarton
to Valeria Knapp, May 22, 1940)
Last year, Penn State’s Center for the History of the Book, in collaboration with the Pennsylvania State University Libraries and Special Collections Library printed May Sarton to Valeria Knapp: Letters and Poems to a Secret Muse in an edition of 1200 unnumbered copies. While university archives provide research materials for scholars and students, they occasionally make their holdings available through limited edition publications. This beautifully produced chapbook-sized volume includes previously unpublished letters and a selection of poems, most of which have never appeared in print. They document Sarton’s passionate attachment to Valeria Knapp (known to Sarton’s biographer, Margot Peters as “V.L.”). who taught history at the Winsor School in Boston; served as headmistress of Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts, from 1937 until 1940; and then returned, in 1951, to the Winsor School as associate director. In Sarton’s letters and poems, I recognized my own youthful obsessions, and the way falling in love ignited poems with a particular woman serving as muse. In addition to Sarton’s love for Knapp, the writing reflects the womens’ shared concerns: the role of the United States at the outbreak of World War II, the education of girls, and the responsibility of individuals to bring about social change. Sarton’s descriptions of meetings with Julian Huxley, Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf, and other literary figures offer intimate, conversational portraits. In the following lyric, sent to Knapp on May 7, 1939, Sarton meditates on her beloved.
I have seen clearly the deep sky cover you,
The spaces around you, the beautiful calm
Distance in your glance and airiness over you.
I know it is air not earth in the cool palm.
So standing alone one has sometimes seen a tree,
Its aerial crest related only to wind,
As if it were flight stilled, and earth-free,
Though the root be there implacably to bind
The perpendicular in air to steadfast earth,
And the fair crest aloof in space and so apart
Must still be nourished to bring the leaf to birth:
For a woman surely that binding root is the heart?
For a copy of May Sarton to Valeria Knapp: Letters and Poems to a Secret Muse send an 8 ½” x 11 envelope with $2.00 postage on it to:
Department of English
Penn State University
112 Burrowes Building
University Park, PA 16802.
In September 2006, the University of Pittsburgh Press will publish Robin Becker's sixth collection of poems, Domain of Perfect Affection. Becker, Professor of English and Women's Studies at the Pennsylvania State University and winner of the 1996 Lambda Book Award for All-American Girl, publishes poems and review-essays in journals including American Poetry Review, Georgia Review, Mid-American Review, Prairie Schooner.