Good Poets Make Bad Neighbors

Frosty times on the Sandburg range

In retrospect, it is evident that Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg were contesting which one would emerge as the poet laureate of America. At Harvard in 1942 we had both, in succession, as guests—we baker’s dozen newspapermen, there as Nieman Fellows, on leave from our papers for a year. And so we were favored with the barbs each cast at the other.

Frost, who visited first, condescended that Sandburg was “a nice enough fellow”: meaning no enthusiasm for his poetry. Frost had already won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry three times; Sandburg wouldn’t win it for another decade. He had, however, won the prize for his prose, for his monumental biography of Lincoln—strangely, for history, not biography.

Even Sandburg grew weary of his characterization as “Lincolnesque,” though he acted out the role unceasingly. He was indeed tall, rawboned, mop-haired; though if Lincoln was deplored as “ape-like,” Sandburg, if he won no beauty contests, at least looked serene. It was his public face, and he seemed never offstage: after all, wouldn’t all America recognize him from his famous Steichen portrait? Acting became so second nature that it was his true nature, even to the voice—Sandburg didn’t speak, he intoned. (Again unlike Lincoln, who is recalled as shrill.)

It was Frost who said of Sandburg that his poetry read best in translation. In return, Sandburg belittled Frost’s poetic imagery. An old newsman like the rest of us, he demanded that images describe their objects; not for him metaphors that merely approximated. Since Sandburg came after Frost, with us he easily had the last word.

Frost had read for us “The Gift Outright.” First recited publicly at a Phi Beta Kappa symposium two days before Pearl Harbor, it reflected a love of country strengthened by that event. Its famous first line—“The land was ours before we were the land’s”—anticipated the poem’s thesis that Americans, having been given this land, now gave back of ourselves to “the land vaguely realizing westward.”

Sandburg jumped all over that one. He didn’t like the first line; said it couldn’t possibly be so. And as for “vaguely realizing westward,” he wanted to know, “Why ‘vaguely’?”—given a warmaking, frontier-chasing history that had occupied Americans for centuries. And so he was pleased to demolish, to his own apparent satisfaction, at least, the poem that John F. Ken-nedy, 20 years later, would ask Robert Frost to read at his inauguration.

While he was in a mood to demolish, Sandburg took on another poetic sacred cow, Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.” This called for stand-up acting. He undertook to show how the various images Kilmer proposed, each reasonable enough by itself, became a physiological nightmare if you tried to put them all together—as Nature hadn’t!

First, head down, as the hungry mouth is pressed against the Earth’s breast…Try lifting your eyes to God in that position for a moment—let alone all day. All the while your arms are lifted, up by your ears, in prayer, past the robins in your hair; and somehow you twirl to allow for snow to lie on your bosom. Sandburg confessed that every time he tried the Kilmer critique he ended up with a crick in the neck.

The evening with Sandburg was a thing of utter joy until—for me, at least—the last moment. As he was preparing to go, I addressed him:

“Carl, I’m off the Chicago Daily News—your old paper. And though the column wasn’t resurrected for me, from time to time I’ve had to relieve the present custodian; he suffers from periodic disaffection. So I wanted to tell you, I’ve had the pleasure of writing that old column, ‘Sharps and Flats,’ that Eugene Field originated and you yourself wrote for some time.”

He hesitated, arm half down a sleeve, pondered. Then he said, “Eugene Field…Me… You….Progressive degeneracy, wouldn’t you say?”

I knew how Robert Frost must feel.

James Colvin, Nf ’42, is a member of the fourth class of Nieman Fellows. He lives in South Carolina.

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