‘The Work of Happiness’ a poem by May Sarton

The Friday Poem this week is ‘The Work of Happiness’ by May Sarton a writer whose talent was expressed in fiction, autobiography and poetry.

“My first book was a book of poems, Encounter in April, followed by my first novel, The Single Hound. There was quite an interval before the second novel, The Bridge of Years. And then Shadow of a Man. Then it goes on and on for a long time with a book of poems between every novel. That was my wish, that the poems should be equal in number, that the novels should not be more important than the poems because the poems were what I cared about most. Much later, when I was forty-five or so, I began to do nonfiction—first the memoirs and finally the journals, which came as the last of the forms which I have been using. Altogether now I think it amounts to seventeen novels, I don’t know, five or six memoirs and journals, and then twelve books of poems, which are mostly in the collected poems now.”  The Paris Review interview, Fall 1983

Her poetry emerges from reflection and solitude, a choice she explored in a 1974 essay, ‘The Rewards of Living a Solitary Life’.

“The other day an acquaintance of mine, a gregarious and charming man, told me he had found himself unexpectedly alone in New York for an hour or two between appointments. He went to the Whitney and spent the “empty” time looking at things in solitary bliss. For him it proved to be a shock nearly as great as falling in love to discover that he could enjoy himself so much alone…Solitude is the salt of personhood. It brings out the authentic flavor of every experience.”

In the poem, Ms. Sarton provides an alternate view of happiness – “for what is happiness but growth in peace”.

The Work of Happiness

I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of the silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark
Another circle is growing in the expanding ring.
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.

So happiness is woven out of the peace of hours
And strikes its roots deep in the house alone:
The old chest in the corner, cool waxed floors,
White curtains softly and continually blown
As the free air moves quietly about the room;
A shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall—
These are the dear familiar gods of home,
And here the work of faith can best be done,
The growing tree is green and musical.

For what is happiness but growth in peace,
The timeless sense of time when furniture
Has stood a life’s span in a single place,
And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir
The shining leaves of present happiness?
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless;
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.

May Sarton   ‘Collected Poems 1930 – 1993’

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