Marxists Internet Archive: Subjects: Marxism and Art: Literature: Children's Literature

Sort Talk on Poetry

by Carl Sandburg

Sources: Early Moon, Harcourt Brace, 1930
HTML Markup: For in December, 2001.

with different kinds of explanations for young people as to how little anybody knows about poetry, how it is made, what it is made of, how long men have been making it, where it came from, when it began, who started it and why, and who knows all about it.

WHAT is poetry? Is the answer hidden somewhere? Is it one of those answers locked in a box and nobody has the key? There are such questions and answers.

Once a man reading a newspaper clipped a poem written by a small boy in a school in New York City. The lines read:

There stands the elephant.
Bold and strong–
There he stands chewing his food.
We are strengthless against his strength.

And the man has kept this poem for many years. He has a feeling the boy did a good, honest piece of writing. The boy stood wondering and thinking before the biggest four-legged animal on earth today. And the boy put his wonder and thought, his personal human secret, a touch of man's fear in the wilderness, into the nineteen words of the poem. He asked, "What does the elephant do to me when I look at him? What is my impression of the elephant?" Then he answered his own questions.

Once there was a boy went to school and learned that any two-legged animal is a biped. And he said, "Here I've been a biped all the time and I didn't know it." So there are people sometimes who talk poetry without writing it but they don't know they are talking poetry. And every child, every boy and girl, sometimes has poetry in his head and heart--even though it doesn't get written.

Once there was a wee, curly-headed boy tugged at a cornstalk, tugged till he pulled the cornstalk up all by himself and told about it to his father, who said, "I guess you're getting to be a pretty strong boy now." The little one answered, "I guess I am. The whole earth had a hold of the other end of the cornstalk and was pulling against me." Should we say this boy had imagination and what lie told his father was so keen and alive it could be called poetry? Perhaps he was a poet without knowing it just like the boy who was a biped without knowing it.

Poetry is old, ancient, goes far back. It is among the oldest of human things. So old is it that no man knows how and why the first poems came.

When it shall happen sometime that men gather their gifts and go to work and write a history of language, then it may be that we shall have at the same time a history of poetry. For the first poems of man probably came about the same time the first men, women and children spoke the first human words on the earth.

Is any one surprised to hear that we do not have a history of poetry? Shall we believe that the learned men have written histories of all the important things of mankind? Surely there are many big histories yet to be written on big subjects. We do not have, for instance, a history of Money that goes back to when money first began, telling how and why. We do not have a history of Language which goes far back, telling how and why men first began to talk.

Yes, poetry is old. The first men that walked the earth, before men had learned to write, must have talked poetry to each other sometimes. Among the oldest things we have today which tell us about the Indians, the Chinese, the Egyptians, how they lived and talked, thousands of years ago, are writings we know to be poetry. These writings have words that go along with timebeats, with rhythm, one-two, one-two, or one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four. They had drums among the Indians, the Chinese, the Egyptians, thousands of years ago. And the words of their poetry move along like drum-beats, keeping time, now fast, now slow, drumming easy and slow at the opening of a war dance, drumming faster and faster, wild and furious, till it is so swift only the best-trained warriors can stand the sped of the dance that is drummed.

We have old poems, some so old no man knows how far they go back in time. One beautiful ancient English poem has no author, whose name we know. Where it came from no history books tell us. It goes like this--

On a misty moisty morning, when cloudy was the weather,
I chanced to meet an old man all clothed in leather.
He began to compliment and I began to grin,
"How do you do? and how do you do? and how do you do again?"

This is only one of many fine and strange poems we have out of the long ago. Nobody knows who wrote them or whether they were first spoken centuries before they were written down to meet our eyes in books.

What is poetry? This question no man has ever answered in such a way that all men have said, "Yes, now we know what poetry is." Many men have tried to explain what poetry is. Some men have written thick books so the question might be settled and made clear for all time. But they have all failed. Several fine poets have written essays and papers on what they believe poetry to be. Yet these poets did not do what they started out to do. They meant to explain in prose what poetry is and they ended up with writing poetry to explain poetry. This is like a man inside of a strange house trying to tell people outside who have never been in the house exactly how it feels to be in that house, which is not scientific nor exact and which is like saying, "The way to write poems is to write poems." It is only clear and understandable to those who already understand and therefore need no explanations.

When Walt Whitman says, "The poet is the answerer," we are interested. If we could know just what he means by "the answerer" we would know what he means by "the poet." One poet says poetry must be "cold, lonely and distant," not knowing that some readers of poetry are glad to have books which are warm, friendly and so near that they almost breathe with life. Another poet has said poetry is "emotion remembered in tranquillity." What does that mean? It is anybody's guess what that means. To know exactly what it means we would have to know exactly what is emotion, what is tranquillity, and what we do when we remember. Otherwise it is an escape from words into words, "passing the buck," or winding like a weasel through language that ends about where it begins. "He came out of the same hole he went in at."

There is a science called "esthetics." It is the science which tries to find the laws of beauty. If as a science it ever became perfect then the books dealing with that science would become very important. Then when a builder finished a house and wished to know whether it was a beautiful house he would only have to open the books on esthetics and the books would tell him.

What is beauty? And when shall we call a thing beautiful? These, too, are questions no man has ever answered in such a way that all men have said, "Yes, now we know what beauty is and now we know how to tell the beautiful when we find it." The nearest that men have come to answering the question, "What is the beautiful?" has been in their saying the beautiful is the appropriate, that which serves. No hat is a beautiful hat which does not fit you and which the wind can easily blow off your head. A Five-gallon Hat on a cowboy riding a horse on an Arizona ranch is beautiful but the same hat on a crowded city street car would be out of place, inappropriate. No song is beautiful in a room where persons desire complete quiet. No polite behavior has beauty unless it has thought and consideration for others. The most beautiful room is the one which best serves those who live in it.

The most beautiful skyscrapers are those without extras stuck on after the real structure is finished. Why should a good, honest skyscraper have a dome or a mosque or a cement wedding cake plastered on top of it? Nearly always, what serves, what is appropriate to human use, is beautiful enough--without extras. A farm silo, a concrete grain elevator, a steel barge hauling iron ore on the Great Lakes, or a series of tall coal chutes rising as silhouettes on a moonlight night, may any one of them have as complete a beauty as the Greek Parthenon or a Gothic cathedral. Steichen, the photographer, declares he occasionally meets newspaper photographs which in design and as works of art are superior to many of the proclaimed masterpieces of painting and etching.

Now, poetry is supposed to be the esthetic art which gathers the beautiful into words. The first stuff for making poetry is words. No poems, strictly speaking, have ever been made without words. To make poems without words would be like a painter painting without paint or a bricklayer bricklaying without bricks. Of course, a feeling or a thought, or both must come to a poet before he begins using the words that make a poem. But the right words, the special and particular words for the purpose in view, these must come. For out of them the poem is made.

The words for a poem sometimes come swiftly and easily so that at last when the poem is put down on paper, the writer of them says, "I do not know how these words came. What is here was not my own absolute doing any more than a dream that should come to me in a night of sleep." Yet again the words may come slowly, out of years of toil and sometimes anguish of changing phrases and arrangements.

While we do not know very much in an absolute way about the questions, "What is poetry? How is a poem made?" we do know the one little fact that poems are made of words and without words there can be no poetry. Beyond this we do not know much. However, there is one other little scientific fact we know about poetry. That is, what is poetry for any given individual depends on the individual and what his personality requires as poetry. This links up with one of the few accepted propositions of the science of esthetics: Beauty depends on personal taste. What is beauty for one person is not for another. What is poetry for one person may be balderdash or hogwash for another.

Each of us has a personality different from all others. It has even been said that as no two leaves in a forest are the same no two human characters are precisely alike. This personality that each of us has is strangely woven of millions of little facts, events, impressions out of the past and present. Your personality and mine go back to many mysterious human connections before we were born and since. And what any one of us loves today with depth of passion, and what each of us tries to shape his life by, goes back to strange things in personality, things so darkly mixed and baffling that it is not easy for any of us at a given time to answer the question, "Why do you love this and not that? Why do you want those and not them?" The old song with its line, "I want what I want when I want it," is not entirely comic in its backgrounds.

We do not know the start of the old folk saying, "Every one to his taste as the old woman said when she kissed the cow." We are sure a blunt Indiana philosopher knew his ground well when he wrote, "What is one man's lettuce is another man's poison ivy." These are humorous comments on the deeply serious and involved reality known as human personality. They connect directly with the fact that what is poetry for some is not poetry for others. They indicate that sometimes we cannot help it that we do not merely dislike some poetry; we go farther and hate it. And why we should hate any particular poem, thing or person is no more clear than why we love others, for hate is usually expensive in many ways and is a waste of time that belongs elsewhere. Charles Lamb said he believed an old story he had heard about two men, who had never before seen each other, meeting one day in a street in London--and the moment they saw each other's faces they leaped and began fighting.

Lamb said those two men who began hitting at each other's faces the moment they saw those faces, had "imperfect sympathies." Something clicked in each one saying, "Hit him! Kill hi !" They couldn't help it. Though they met in a crowded street of a great city, and there was no war on, they attacked each other like two soldiers with bayonets in front line trenches.

And exactly like those two men meeting in a London street, some of us register instantly--though not so violently-to faces we meet, buildings, colors, neckties, gowns, designs, pictures, books, plays--and poems. Something clicks in us and we know like a flash whether we like this or that new thing we meet for the first time.

And then may happen afterward a slow change of our viewpoint. What we saw nothing in to begin with takes on a glint or two we had not noticed at first; then as time passes, we gather values, intentions, gleams, that interest us and lead us on till we know we were ignorant, possessed of "imperfect sympathies," in our first impression of hate or dislike. This change of viewpoint from dislike to interest, from indifference to enthusiasm, often has happened with the finest of men and women in respect to great masterpieces of literature. Sometimes we do not know what a writer is talking about in his books because in life we have not met the people, facts, impressions which he is trying to deliver his mind and heart about in his book. Said a great modern artist, "Going along a railroad one day I see a thing I have seen many times. But this day I suddenly see. 'Tisn't that you see new, but things have prepared you for a new vision." As the years pass by and experience writes out new records in our mind life, we go back to some works of art that we rejected in the early days and find values we missed. Work, love, laughter, pain, death, put impressions on us as time passes, and as we brood over what has happened.

Out of songs and scars and the mystery of personal development, we get eyes that pick out intentions we had not seen before in people, in works of art, in books and poetry.

Naturally, too, the reverse happens. What we register to at one period of life, what we find gay and full of fine nourishment at one time, we find later has lost interest for us. A few masterpieces may last across the years but we usually discard some. A few masterpieces are enough. Why this is so we do not know. For each individual his new acquisitions and old discards are different.

The books and poems at hand ready for each of us are so many and so different that we use and throw away, acquire and discard, according to personal taste, and often merely guided by whim like the man in the song, "I want what I want when I want it." Too often both among young people and grownups, there is a careless drifting and they take the easiest way in books and poetry. Millions read without asking themselves why they read and whether in all their reading they have learned anything worth the spending of their time.

It was not for nothing Thoreau said an old newspaper would do for him just as well as a new one. Each of us can sit alone with our conscience for a while on the proposition of Robert Louis Stevenson that the intelligent man can find an Iliad of the human race in a newspaper. And any kindly philosopher could write a thick book on why the shrewd, tolerant reader enjoys even a stupid, vain, hypocritical book because the writer of the book is etching his own portrait on every page, stepping forth and talking off lines like one of the fools, clowns or pretenders in a Russian play. Healthy questions for each of us: "Why do I read books? What do books do to me? Can I improve my form as a reader? What does poetry do to me? Why do I need this or that poetry?"

We have heard much in our time about free verse being modern, as though it is a new-found style for men to use in speaking and writing, rising out of the machine age, skyscrapers, high speed and jazz. Now, if free verse is a form of writing poetry without rime, without regular meters, without established and formal rules governing it, we can easily go back to the earliest styles of poetry known to the human family--and the style is strictly free verse. Before men invented the alphabet, so that poems could be put down in writing, they spoke their poems. When one man spoke to another in a certain timebeat and rhythm, if it happened that his words conveyed certain impressions and moods to his listeners, he was delivering poetry to them, whether he knew it or they knew it, and whether he or they had a name for an art which the poet was practicing on himself and them.

We may go through thousands of pages of the reports of songs, poems and spoken dreams of American Indians as recorded in the volumes of the Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, and we find it all to he in the free verse style. The poems of the ancient Chinese writers Li Po, Tu Fu and others, as read in translations, and as notated by the translators, show how strange and marvelous moments of life can be captured and compressed in the manner called free verse. The Bible is one of the sublime sources of free verse. The orations of Moses, the Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Sermon on the Mount, the "love chapter" of the Apostle Paul, these are in the free verse style of writing poetry.

If those who write in the free verse style fail at getting onto paper any lines worth reading twice, they are in the same class with those who in regular, ordered, formal verse fail to get onto paper lines worth reading twice. The crimes of free verse have been many. The same goes for sonnets, ballads, ballades, triolets, rondeaus, villanelles, and the forms of verse which are governed by hexameters, pentameters, iambics, strophes and by laws which dictate how many syllables shall be permitted to perch on each line of the poem.

Perhaps no wrong is done and no temple of human justice violated in pointing out here that each authentic poet makes a style of his own. Sometimes this style is so clearly the poet's own that when he is imitated it is known who is imitated. Shakespeare, Villon, Li Po, Whitman--each sent forth his language and impress of thought and feeling from a different style of gargoyle spout. In the spacious highways of great books each poet is allowed the stride that will get him where he wants to go.

Should children write poetry? Yes, whenever they feel like it. If nothing else happens they will find it a training for writing and speaking in other fields of human work and play. No novelist has been a worse writer for having practiced at poetry. Many a playwright, historian, essayist, editorial writer, could have improved his form by experimenting with poetry.

At what age should a child begin writing poetry? Any age. Poems are made of words and when a child is learning to talk, to shape words on its tongue, is a proper time for it to speak poetry--if it can.

Does it help a child poet to have praise for his poems? The child should be told that poetry is first of all for the poet, that great poets usually die saying their best work is not written. Perhaps it is wise for every child to be told that it is a mistake for either a child or a grown-up accomplished artist to be satisfied with any past performance.

The foremost American woman poet, Emily Dickinson, had scarcely any of her poetry published in her lifetime. What she wrote had to be. And it is doubtful if her poems would have had the same complete glory they have if she had been taken up and praised. On the other hand there have been poets saved to live and write beautiful pages because they found friends, an audience, and enough money to keep the wolf from sniffing round their little doorways.

The father of a great Irish poet once remarked, "What can be explained is not poetry." There are people who want a book of verse to be like the arithmetic--you turn to the back of the book and find the answers. Ken Nakazawa notes, "The poems that are obvious are like the puzzles that are already solved. They deny us the joy of seeking and creating."

Once a little girl showed to a friend a poem she had written. "Why didn't you make it longer?" asked the friend. "I could have," she answered, "but then it wouldn't have been a poem." She meant she left something in the air for the reader of the poem to linger over, as any of us do over a rose or a sunset or a face. Roses, sunsets, faces, have mystery. If we could explain them, then after having delivered our explanations we could say, "Take it from me, that's all there is to it, and there's no use your going any further for I've told you all there is and there isn't any more."

If poems could be explained, then poets would have to leave out roses, sunsets, faces, from their poems. Yet it seems that for thousands of years poets have been writing about roses, sunsets, faces, because they have mystery, significance, and a heavy or a light beauty, an appeal, a lesson and a symbolism that stays with us long as we live. It was something like this in the heart of the philosopher who declared, "What can be explained is not poetry."