The first time I saw Carl Sandburg, he didn’t see me

I was simply an admiring member of his audience as he read and sang and played the guitar at a program at Northwestern University in 1931 when I was working for my master’s degree. His hair, not as white as nowadays, even then had fallen into the way of hanging down picturesquely over his forehead. (I am not sure that he held his words so long in his mouth at that time. Later, it seemed to me that he turned them lovingly on his tongue and refused to let them go until he had fully savored them.)

The next time must have been the autumn of 1937. I had been to the Writers’ Conference at Bread Loaf, Vermont, that summer, and there I had heard Robert Frost make his famous statement about free verse. Perhaps he made it at other times and in other places, too, but it was all new to me that night. Frost had been talking and reading for an hour to a spellbound audience in a big barn of a building with a hard rain pelting on the roof. During the question period afterward, someone asked: ‘‘Mr. Frost, do you ever write free verse?’’ and Frost gave his famous answer: ‘‘I would no more think of writing free verse than of playing tennis without a net.’’

In the intervening years, I have heard this riposte quoted many times, but I have never heard anyone mention Sandburg’s equally interesting rejoinder.

In the autumn after that Bread Loaf summer, I was invited to the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) on an evening when Sandburg was to entertain. Frost’s remark had evidently already been repeated to him, for at one point he said: ‘‘One of our foremost poets has said that he would no more think of writing free verse than of playing tennis without a net, but I would have him know that I have not only played tennis without a net but have used the stars for tennis balls.’’

Later that evening I had an opportunity to talk to Sandburg. In the receiving line everyone mentioned his poems, but I happened to speak of my enthusiasm for his Rootabaga Stories with that wonderful beginning about the house where the chimney sat on top of the roof to let the smoke out, the doorknobs opened the doors, the windows were always either open or shut, and everything was the same as it always was. Maybe Sandburg had a special feeling in his heart for Rootabaga Stories, for soon we were deep in conversation about writing in general, and I even had the temerity to argue with him on the subject of free verse.

‘‘If you write in rhyme,’’ said Sandburg, ‘‘you can’t say what you want to. When you come to the end of the line, instead of saying what you started out to say, you have to say what will rhyme.’’

I argued that poets for several centuries had been willing to accept the challenge of saying what they wanted to say and making it rhyme. I have learned since that writers like or dislike rhyme for exactly the same reasons. Those who dislike it feel as Sandburg did that it is too confining, that its strict demands are stifling, to ideas. Those who like it say that, on the other hand, those very demands open up new vistas and shed light on the idea that was not there before—that searching for a rhyme or rephrasing in order to make a rhyme is in itself stimulating to ideas. I really didn’t mean to argue for one or the other, but rather to defend both. Why should anyone, writer or reader, limit himself to rhymed verse or to free verse? Why not enjoy some of both? I can understand that a writer might feel impelled toward one or the other as a form of expression, but why condemn the other? Dog lovers need not be eat haters.

The last time I met the poet was in 1945 when I was working in the research department of Colonial Williamsburg, and Sandburg came there to visit.

‘‘If you stay here long enough,’’ my boss had told me when I took the job, ‘‘you will meet everyone you’ve ever known since you were in kindergarten, because sooner or later everybody comes to Williamsburg.’’ It seemed to be true.

Sandburg enjoyed the restored colonial town with the gusto of a small boy. He even had his picture taken in the stocks. When he was brought to the research department I didn’t expect him to remember me, but he said he did. ‘‘Oh yes,’’ he explained to his amused listeners, ‘‘I met this young lady in Pennsylvania. She fell out of her Conestoga wagon and I came by on horseback and picked her up.’’ I was slightly startled by this account, but I later wondered if the poet improvised on a humorous impulse to remind us that Pennsylvania had ‘‘history’’ as well as Virginia.

The real reason for his visit to Williamsburg that year was that he had been invited to give the Phi Beta Kappa poem at the College of William and Mary. He shared the platform that night with the well known scholar and critic, Chauncey B. Tinker, and the poet seemed bored or sleepy during Professor Tinker’s address. The next day I was invited to be one of a small group to take Sandburg to Jamestown. On the way someone remarked jokingly that Mr. Sandburg might not care for a project like Colonial Williamsburg, the purpose of which is to preserve the past, because he had written, ‘‘The past is a bucket of ashes.’’

‘‘Well, I’ll revise that right now,’’ said Sandburg with a grin. ‘‘I’ll make it, ‘The past is Chauncey B. Tinker.’’’

Sandburg was seeing Jamestown for the first time, and the rest of us were seeing Sandburg see Jamestown. In those days, there was little at the site of our country’s first permanent English settlement to mar the natural beauty. The ruins of the ivy-covered church tower, the graveyard, the statues of Pocahontas and John Smith looking out over the peaceful sweep of the broad James River, and the remains of the foundations of some seventeenth-century houses served only to make the scene impressive and add to the sense of history we were feeling.

There is a plaque on a wall of the Jamestown church in memory of the Indians who brought corn to the settlers ‘‘during the starving time.’’ Those of us who worked in seventeenth-century writings had read a great deal about ‘‘the starving time,’’ but the words were evidently new to the poet, and he spoke them with deep feeling and then whipped out a little notebook and wrote them down. I was always looking for a Sandburg poem in which they would appear, but if he used the phrase I never saw it. Seeing what an impression it made on him may have had something to do with my using it in the poem I later wrote about Jamestown.

Source: Eleanor Graham Vance, ‘‘Glimpses of Carl Sandburg,’’ in North American Review, Vol. 252, No. 2, March 1967, pp. 9–10.

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