An Encounter With the Poet

READING a review of a recent biography of Carl Sandburg brought to mind my single encounter with the renowned goat-farmer of Flat Rock. It was over 50 years ago, yet details of our meeting returned fresh (and embarrassing) as I recalled the circumstances of that winter night in 1938 when my own vocation was - at best - uncertain.

It's doubtful that I made any impression on the poet, surrounded as he was with admirers, though Carl Sandburg definitely made one -

unfavorably - on me. Even now when I look at his autograph, I recall the bittersweet taste of disappointment that my high-school hero, dancing up there on the stage, had feet of clay. I was convinced he was degrading his art as he plugged his new book in the neighboring city of Waterbury, Conn.

Our local daily newspaper, The American, had been accepting my embryonic poems for some time, which emboldened me to write to the editor and ask for an introduction to the visiting celebrity. He had agreed, directing me to contact his representative for that red-letter night, a certain Miss Mollie C., ``who'll bring two good poets together,'' he'd generously added.

I'd admired Sandburg greatly in high school, typing a dozen of his memorable poems and clipping them in the back of my own loose-leaf notebook of dreams. (The purchase of a Sandburg volume was beyond my means.) I could quote him verbatum, which I did as my friend drove me to meet him. ``What is happiness?'' I recited for her benefit (a crowd of Hungarians picnicking under the trees along the Des Plaines River). She was impressed, though to her loyal judgment I was as eloquent a poet as that nonrhymer. I deluged her with passages: ``He is `The Wilderness:' wolf, fox, hog, fish - and `keeper of the zoo.' ''

I was carrying my own notebook full of my youthful poems, for the poet to review. I had high hopes that he would not just be impressed but would make a date then and there to go over them with me, happily discovering small gems of wisdom, encouraging and welcoming a new poetic star. When my confidence flagged as we approached the auditorium where he was to read, I spouted more memorable lines, fortifying myself with the elixir of Sandburg's ``Joy.'' I was determined to ``keep away from little deaths.''

The star loped onstage. Tall, rumpled, pale hair tumbling in blue eyes - his voice dragged out ordinary words, softening them. It faded to a murmur, whispered with immediacy, and then ``shouted all over God's heaven.'' After the buildup of his heroic stature, I was somewhat embarrassed before my friend. The poet seemed to be prating with unwarranted bombast, I thought. He barbarically yawped. It was his style that disturbed me. He was extraordinarily individualistic, changing pace like an auctioneer who shocks a dozing audience with the cry ``Sold!'' My Yankee reticence protested the sight of genius stooping to huckstering.

Yet there he was: soothing, cajoling, posing, begging sympathy -

acting. Swinging us reluctantly along with homespun country technique. Strumming his guitar like a somnambulant Tommy Tucker, yodeling for his supper.

More than anything, that guitar repelled me. The yarns, the folksy slang - ``The People, Yes,'' I might understand - minus that prop. I wondered how I could escape that toothless lion - and Miss C. - afterwards.

Admittedly, I was naive. My own shortsightedness clouded his freshness. His very vitality made me ashamed as I sat beside my bewildered friend. I cringed to hear the repeated bromide: ``What do you know - today - for sure?'' And I came close to ignorant ridicule when he tamped that old chestnut: ``The rich get richer and the poor get - children'' between reflective puffs of experience.

That I still recall such details attests to the real impression he made. It was just that I wasn't prepared for the guitar, an instrument taken up by a sibling, whose strumming drove me up a wall. Nor was I familiar with Sandburg's Lincoln epic - shortly to receive a Pulitzer Prize. I simply couldn't conceive of anyone able to wear several hats with aplomb. A poet was a poet was a poet - with swinging cape and lofty language and never, never any lowering of standards.

Traipsing cross-country, garnering anecdotes, crackerbarrel wisdom, scrounging data, strumming that guitar, robbed him of dignity, in my mind. The turkey-neck gangling out of loose collar, the bow tie askew, the forward hank of hair (barbered under a bowl?) did nothing to restore it. The lopsided grin, bluebell eyes winking as he ambled for ``God-knows-where-to-God-knows-where,'' unhappily beguiled.

In the end I sought out Miss C. because I'd promised. The poet-legend was signing books. She interrupted him, burbling something about ``a promising poet who writes for our newspapers,'' anxious to meet him. His eyes sparked mischief, looked keenly through me. ``Never write for the newsrags,'' he admonished. ``They'll kill you body and soul.''

``I don't write for them,'' I began. ``They accept....''

``Makes no difference. They strangle inspiration.''

``But I don't write for them. They're printed....''

``Printed?'' He snorted. ``Get published. Never write for those inquisitors. If you're a poet, starve - but don't sell your independence.''

I wasn't aware of his in-joke - of his on-off connection with the Chicago dailies. Nor that he was putting me on, tossing his forelock as if scattering gnats. I shoved my notebook under his nose. ``What's this?'' he asked. ``This isn't my book.''

Beneath what cloud-castle sky had I dreamed that we might sit comfortably somewhere and review those poor verses? How could I imagine that he would perceive the flower blushing unseen in that wild patch and offer nourishment? ``It's my book of poems,'' I stammered. ``Would you please autograph it?'' I flipped it open to where my name was inscribed on the inside-cover. The realization hit me: He'd be less than happy to sign a competitor's book. Sandburg sighed heavily, doubtfully, but did sign his name to be rid of me, just under mine: Carl San dBurg. Thanking him, I fled.

Half a century gone and this ``looking-glass man ... dreamer, play-actor ... dusty drinker of dust,'' lives in my memory. I study that cramped autograph in the battered notebook. ``Under the terrible burden of destiny,'' I can mercifully judge my immature verses today. Thousands since written, a few at last between hard covers. Yet Carl Sandburg still ``locks his elbow in mine/ I lose all - but not him.''

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