Poetic Sabbatical

By Linda Pastan on 4.15.09

When I think about my childhood, the years divide themselves into ordinary time, bounded by school, and vacation time—as if the two periods were of equal length. For a poet who lives a somewhat solitary existence in the Maryland woods, today’s vacations provide me with an alternative kind of life, restoring my often flagging creative energy. Perhaps that’s why they too seem longer than they really are.


Photo by Thorsten Becker on Flickr

I live in a landlocked place, so I vacation by the ocean. I live by fairly rigid schedules, so for a few weeks I get up when I wake and eat when I’m hungry. I ignore newspapers and brooms, emails and haircuts. I surround myself with friends and family. Perhaps it is adolescence I want to regress to, when Poetry was a vast continent I was just getting ready to explore.

I think of these weeks as a kind of sabbatical—because I have no university affiliations, I will never have a real one. These sabbaticals for me serve the same purpose they do for farmers who, following the biblical injunction, let certain fields lie fallow every seventh year so that the nutrients not only won’t be used up but will be renewed. (I even wrote a poem once called “Sabbatical”: seven lines with seven syllables on each line.)

When I go off to the New England shore each summer, friends assume that I will be inspired to write poems, and they are usually surprised to learn that I seldom do. Occasionally I jot down an idea or image in the notebook I carry with me. But there is no sitting down at a desk, no worrying about where a particular poem make take me, or if the random words that occur to me will turn into a poem at all. (“The edges of ocean unravel like a thread that has caught on something sharp…” This refrain does come back to me summer after summer and, I confess, has appeared later in more than one of my poems.)

The proof that this strategy works is that in September I write more than in any other month. I come back to real life impatient to get to work. My desk is clean and waiting. My word processor hums expectantly. The energy fueled by the sun and the sea is all stored up, just waiting to be transformed into language.

topics: Columnists