Form of Forms, with a Poem by May Sarton

As I’ve demonstrated countless times here it is useful to say, form emerges from the process of the poem’s unfolding. The form depends on the poem.

That’s one way to put it. It’s also useful to see the ‘narrative’ of the lyric in terms of its unfolding from scenes linked by a logic of outer to inner, and from lowly particulars to universal. This is a logic of ‘selving,’ using the masks of lyric. What emerges as the form or ultimate significance is the self open to meaning beyond its finitude.

A poem by May Sarton shows the lyric narrative. AA3195D2-6095-40B5-A7B5-091A7BFAEB63

From American Poetry, vol II, Library of America, p. 895.

This narrative which accounts for the universality of the lyric in a modernity born in protest against ‘universals’ appears to be not confined to lyric, which makes sense because lyric is a specialization of language’s capacity for making sense between individuals belonging to a cultural group. What we call the lyric narrative shows up in fourth/century CE China, Ancient Greece, etc. It comes as no surprise that that consummate ‘hunter of forms’ St. Augustine gave it memorable expression in his Exposition on Psalm 145: ab exterioribus ad interiora, ab inferioribus ad superiora.

Notice the complication suggested by the parallel between interiora and inferioribus. But that ‘value judgement’ need not detain us. We have the Sarton poem to flesh out the Latin abstractions. As for ad superiora I’d say Sarton’s meditation on her own death lifts the poem far above conventional sentiment into the universe of finitude.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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