Poetry Has Lost Its Status Since Sandburg

Published 9:09 am Thursday, September 7, 2017

FLAT ROCK — A pop quiz this week: Name five of the 20th century American poets. Just five … without Google’s help.

I failed the test, too. I named four good ones but strayed with Walt Whitman, a decidedly 19th century poet. Mine were Maya Angelou, Carl Sandburg, E.E. Cummings and James Thurber.

Elizabeth added Bob Dylan, Robert Frost, Robert W. Service and Shel Silverstein. A English teacher friend added Dr. Seuss and T.S. Elliot as we cobbled together a longer list.

In fact, there were hundreds of mostly obscure poets in the past century, but our inability to call them to mind is some indication how the art of poetry has declined in status. There’s more money in prose — no rhyming required. Frankly, the reason for the decline of poetry may also fall on the poets. Their verses got a little weird a couple of generations ago.

There was a time when poetry was big, and American students recited poems with enthusiasm and affected diction. We learned about iambic pentameter and rhyme sequences in English literature classes. We could recite Robert Frost’s:

Whose woods these are I think I know.   

His house is in the village though;   

He will not see me stopping here   

To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

Now that was a poem.

On Sunday we visited the 264-acre goat farm and home of Carl Sandburg, a national historic site that has about 85,000 visitors a year. The home is preserved in the manner and with the furnishings Sandburg had before his death in 1967. All the furnishings had been removed for repair when we visited. Walls in nearly every room of the house support massive bookshelves for his thousands of books. The bookcases were empty for our visit, and we had to imagine with the help of enlarged photos how the rooms looked when Sandburg lived here. His home is not to be confused with the palatial Biltmore House. It’s substantial but not fancy.

Sandburg won three Pulitzer Prizes. He addressed a joint session of Congress to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. He was a big deal. He had a way with words.

This is how he described Chicago:

Hog Butcher for the World,

   Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

   Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;

   Stormy, husky, brawling,

   City of the Big Shoulders

I memorized that impressive symbolism in my salad days and recalled the poem as we strolled the farm called Connemara.

Sandburg’s wife raised prize milk goats and operated a dairy. Maybe 20 goats — descendants of the Mrs. Sandburg’s champions — still graze the hillsides here.

Sandburg described what he did as “dirtying paper.”

The Sandburgs moved here from Michigan for more pleasant weather, for more pasture for the goats and for peace and quiet. They didn’t always find seclusion. Fans often showed up uninvited. One young admirer who knocked on the Sandburg’s door introduced himself as Bob Dylan.

• • • • •

Returning home, we were determined to go a different way through towns we had never seen on the southwestern edge of the state — Saluda, Tryon, Columbus, Rutherfordton, Spindale and Forest City.  They were all scrubbed clean and inviting. We plowed unawares into downtown Hendersonville during the annual apple festival … and brought a bag home.

— Dwight Sparks