Those Who Make Poems

"Poets cry their hearts out. If they don't they ain't poets"  

A man writes the best he can about what moves him deeply. Once his writing gets published as a book, he loses control over it. Time and the human family do what they want to with it. It may have periods of wide reading and acclamation, other periods of condemnation, decline, neglect; then a complete fade-out—or maybe a revival. And what revives in later years is often what was neglected when new. This happens. In literature and other arts—it happens.

Of course there are plenty of pieces in my books that I would write in a different way if I had them before me now as manuscripts for revision and rewriting. And, more than that, there are a few pieces I would throw away or lay by as experimental curiosities. A few such there are, though the titles of them are my own private memoranda and nobody's business just now. However, I could say in confidence that several items had become worn-out for me and had arrived where I would rate them zero—and just about then came along this person and that saying these particular items were tops, were the goods, had what it takes.

Or again certain favorites of mine, so it seemed, were not being read by others as I read them—and I was almost of a notion that these favorites had some personal appeal for me and others were not getting the drift of them. Then after many years would come the surprise of a dancer wishing to build a program number around one of them, or a composer wanting one for a song or a musical setting, or an author for use in a book. I have sat unaware at a radio set and suddenly heard a musical composition or a dramatic sketch or a campaign speech using lines of mine or an entire free-verse piece which for me had long ago gone where the woodbine twineth and the lizards sleep on sunny slabs of inanimate stone.

Often in my travels with a guitar and a program of readings I have met the man or woman saying, "I don't get your poetry, Mr. Sandburg, but my son enjoys it and I wonder if I'm old-fashioned," or, "I've tried to read your poetry, Mr. Sammer, and it doesn't mean anything to me, but my daughter studied you at college and she has all your books and is trying to tell me what they are about." The head of the St. Louis public library, Mr. Charles Compton, once made a survey around the question, "Who reads Sandburg?" and found that beyond a certain array of intellectuals, persons who socially and professionally are strong for Culture with a capital C, there were policemen, taxi drivers, stenographers, beauty-parlor workers, machinists , and a wide range of plain people who could not afford to buy books but were regularly drawing out "the Sandburg poetry books" from the public library and finding in those books something close to their lives, something that sang to them.

Authors, like any others who do their best in some field of art, are in danger of being tricked and fooled by what their audiences do to them. Many an author would better have shut his ears to all that was ever said or written about him—so much of it was polite conversation or shallow in feeling or washed in malice or prejudice or misunderstanding. I have usually taken time to read such reviews and comments as came my way without particular effort on my part, having seen no less than three well-known authors suffer the pangs of hell from what arrived in the mail through a clipping service they paid for.

That a large body of English teachers in high schools, colleges, and universities have been kindly and favorable to my work in the field of free verse, more than occasionally one of them mentioning this or that student's saying, "Until we got into Sandburg, I was never interested in poetry"—this I do not forget. That some of the professional reviewers and critics have been both kindly and eloquent toward my work as a verse writer—this too I do not forget.

Recently a poet was quoted as saying he would as soon play tennis without a net as to write free verse. This is almost as though a zebra should say to a leopard, "I would rather have stripes than spots," or as though a leopard should inform a zebra, "I prefer spots to stripes."

The poet without imagination or folly enough to play tennis by serving and returning the ball over an invisible net may see himself as highly disciplined. There have been poets who could and did play more than one game of tennis with unseen rackets, volleying airy and fantastic balls over an insubstantial net, on a frail moonlit fabric of a court.

The arguments against free verse are old. They are not, however, as old as free verse itself. When primitive and prehistoric man first spoke with cadence or color, making either musical meaning or melodic nonsense worth keeping and repeating for its definite and intrinsic values, then free verse was born, ages before the sonnet, the ballad, the verse forms wherein the writer or singer must be acutely conscious, even exquisitely aware, of how many syllables are to be arithmetically numbered per line.

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