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By May Sarton

Absorbed in planting bulbs, that work of hope,

I was startled by a loud human voice,

“Do go on working while I talk. Don’t stop!”

And I was caught upon the difficult choice—

To yield the last half hour of precious light,

Or to stay on my knees, absurd and rude;

I willed her to be gone with all my might,

This kindly neighbor who destroyed a mood;

I could not think of next spring any more,

I had to re-assess the way I live.

Long after I went in and closed the door,

I pondered on the crude imperative.


What it is to be caught up in each day

Like a child fighting imaginary wars,

Converting work into this passionate play,

A rounded whole made up of different chores

Which one might name haphazard meditation.

And yet an unexpected call destroys

Or puts to rout my primitive elation:

Why be so serious about mere joys?

Is this where some outmoded madness lies,

Poet as recluse? No, what comes to me

Is how my father looked out of his eyes,

And how he fought for his own passionate play.


He could tear up unread and throw away

Communications from officialdom,

And, courteous in every other way,

Would not brook anything that kept him from

Those lively dialogues with man’s whole past

That were his intimate and fruitful pleasure.

Impetuous, impatient to the last,

“Be adamant, keep clear, strike for your treasure!”

I hear the youthful ardor in his voice

(And so I must forgive a self in labor).

I feel his unrepentant smiling choice,

(And so I ask forgiveness of my neighbor).


May Sarton, “A Country Incident” from Collected Poems (1930-1993). Copyright © 1993, 1988, 1984, 1980, 1974 by May Sarton. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Source: Collected Poems (1930-1993) (1993)

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Poet Bio

May Sarton
May Sarton was born in Belgium, and immigrated to the US during World War I. She attended one of the country’s first progressive grade schools, and received a scholarship to Vassar, which she declined to pursue acting. After failing as an actress, Sarton dedicated her energy to writing. She received some critical praise initially, but later reviews were often negative and caused her much personal despair. Over many decades, she managed to develop a sizable audience for both her poetry and her prose. In her poetry, she does not hold to any particular subject or form, writing in both free verse and meter, and about topics ranging from her personal love affairs to the student protests at Kent State. See More By This Poet

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