Those Who Make Poems

“Poets cry their hearts out. If they don’t they ain’t poets.”  

Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress) / Wikimedia

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.

The matter should not be argued. Those who make poems and hope their poems are not bad may find readers or listeners—and again they may not. The affair should rest there. Nothing can be proved except that some poets have one kind of readers or listeners—and other poets have other kinds. The mortal and finite rôle of the poet is the same as that of the mathematician who said that after any equation you can write, "Make the sign of infinity and pass on." And all adverse critics of any work not yet tested by time come near falling headfirst into the category of the man who enjoys his personal habit of exclaiming to any and all who vocalize, "Would you just as soon sing as make that noise?"

To every poet of reputation come the young ones, the beginners, asking, "Will you look over my poems and tell me whether they are good or not?" And usually, if the beginner is told his poems are bad or not so good or he needs more practice, he gets sore and takes his manuscripts to still other poets of reputation, hoping to find someone who says he has what it takes. Often I have told a nice lad who considered it important to know whether he was wasting his time, "If you are going to be a poet, you don't care a hoot what I say or what anybody but yourself says. If you're afraid you're wasting your time, you probably are." Quite a case can be made out that Shakespeare wrote his plays and poems because in the time it took him to do them he couldn't think of anything else he would rather be doing.

"Nothing much in the way of advice is going to help you," I once wrote to an inquirer. "You go your own way. You ride whatever horses you want to. You will go here and there and see what the best and the worst have in style, technic, themes ... and after that go your own way.

"You will be in danger very likely at any time you listen seriously to dese, dose, and dem, saying you must looksee about dis or dat. Listen, yes, and listen again and do a lot of listening and rebuke yourself about your listening and pray often that you may be a better listener. You may be advised you must not, for instance, listen to shadows, for how can shadows speak? This is where the eyes must join the ears for listening, for the eyes gather the pantomimes of the shadows and there have been rolling thunders issue from a few crooks and crosses of singing fingers. And anyhow and ennyhoo shadows deal in whispers. Successful contradiction of this thesis cannot be maintained. The fact stands. And the fact is immeasurably important, can it be verified. On this the poets and politicians can have a bowl of chile in peace and understanding. Shadows deal in whispers. Bluebirds burnish their wings with worms they eat. Poets cry their hearts out. If they don't they ain't poets.

"Subsistence won from sharing grief is what? Sorrows blend themselves with sorrows and wryly and bitterly shoot the works of sorrow. Out of it once in a while comes music, companionship, stately consolations. Every good Bach listener is a miniature Bach. Else Bach couldn't get by. You have much to go on. You are licensed to the latest slang; "Is everything under control?" Beware of proud words, sweet gal. On this road you go on lonely and at cost. My prayers are that many strengths be yours, new and harder thongs for the old always.

"You are vivid. Go on so. It will cost ... but go on. Work hard ... they all do when they are any good at all. The sense of futility will ride you often ... and this is not too bad, for usually it means a requisite humility is operating. When you are too sure you are good then pray God help your vain little heart. Write much. Write every day. Lay the pieces by. See what happens later."

Once a college student spoke his anxiety about whether to write his poetry in rhyme or not. The best I could do for him was the advice: "If it jells into free verse, all right. If it jells into rhyme, all right."

Any counselor should go slow about being certain as to what a beginner may or may not have. The more original a piece of writing is, the less likely an adviser or critic is to find what is original. Some of the greatest poetry had to go through many tests of time before it came to be accepted. The early American poet, MacDonald Clarke, wrote of this factor:—

'Tis vain for present fame to wish.
Our persons first must be forgotten;
For poets are like stinking fish,
They never shine until they're rotten.