- The Creative Crone: Aging and the Poetry of May Sarton and Adrienne Rich
This fine volume makes important contributions to three areas of scholarship: age studies; literary studies in general, especially as they embrace the discourse of aging; and, specifically, the study of two important women poets of the twentieth century, May Sarton and Adrienne Rich. These are not always seamlessly interwoven. Sometimes the explication of the poems overrides the discussion of aging; sometimes the connection between the discussion of aging and the individual poems seems forced. Occasionally the writing seems awkward, as when Henneberg repeats title, author, and date for a poem she has already discussed. [End Page 108] Minor inelegancies aside, the contributions this book makes to the conversations in all three areas of study are satisfying and significant. The book is well researched, thorough, and especially gratifying in its attempt to fill the serious gap in literary studies that involves the discourse of aging. This reader learned a great deal not only about May Sarton and Adrienne Rich and their poetry, but also about the discipline of aging studies and its relation to literary scholarship.
While the less critically-acclaimed Sarton (1912-1995) explored questions of age directly from the beginning of her career in her poetry and prose, as well as in her personal life, the much-awarded Rich (b. 1929), a public, often confrontational feminist, politicized everything that was of consequence to her (17). Investigating the work of Rich's later career makes it clear that as she aged, her dedication to social causes took complex turns—she "became more patient, more accepting of beginnings, dissonances, and compromises ... [more willing to] enter negotiations" (17). Henneberg considers the work of these two poets in relation to aging, then, to be complementary; taken together, their work demonstrates multiple conscious ways to interrogate, resist, embrace, and give expression to the process of aging. Henneberg's premise is that contemporary literary studies must "encompass all cultural texts and contexts ... to reevaluate the social construction of age across the age spectrum" (1-2) and that a close study of the life work of these two poets can expand scholars' capacity to do so on multiple levels.
It is worth noting here that though Rich gave Henneberg only limited permission to quote, Henneberg references interviews and prose extensively and professionally. Her syntheses of the work of scholars as Gullette, Gelpi and Gelpi, Kastenbaum, and many others new to this reader, along with such familiar names as Gilbert, Alteiri, Heilbrun, and Birkerts, is impressive.
Divided into five chapters, the book situates Sarton and Rich in their critical milieus and narrates succinctly their stories of ageism and aging. Early on, Henneberg distinguishes between passive and positive ageism. The former ignores age as an issue; the latter overcompensates for negative stereotypes of aging, wildly praising the "wisdom" and "depth" that age brings, acknowledging neither the difficulties of age nor the individual ways people experience age. Though Sarton sought out older women mentors from the start, the early writings of both Sarton and Rich (who saw aging, like so much else, as a public responsibility rather than a personal experience) show evidence of positive ageism.
Yet inevitably the "ageism" of each poet modified as she aged. This discussion of their aging—not merely of aging, nor merely of their poetry, nor of aging as a theme in their poetry, but how they aged differently and thus how their poetry evolves differently as they age—is one of the great strengths of this volume. Both Rich [End Page 109] and Sarton sought in midlife to control their own reception. But because Sarton's poetry received little critical praise, her "midlife anxieties" included speaking more and more personally through her journals. On the other hand, Rich seeks "both to widen and to deepen her political vision" (90), seeing herself as a voice of revolution, urging readers to see the ills of war and despotism and to do something about them.
In addition, as "midlife" gave way to older age, both...