Sandburg and Me [essay] by Phillip Sterling

Carl Sandburg appeared to me—miraculously—in 1971, as I made my way across the campus of Centre College. I was a junior that year and tightly scheduled, having declared majors in both English and studio art, and so, as I trekked from the natatorium, where I had just finished teaching a lifesaving course for the local Red Cross, to the Cowan Dining Hall for a quick snack, I swung through the post office to verify that my mailbox was empty, as it usually was. Except for holiday or birthday cards, or the rare brief note and “extra” five dollar bill from my father, Box 1015 was typically nothing more than a narrow, square telescope into the inner workings of the mailroom. But on that particular morning, my view was hindered by what appeared to be a fat letter, wedged in the box at an awkward angle. How exciting! I fumbled the combination several times before I was able to remove a plain, stationary-sized envelope of uncommon girth addressed simply to “1015.” At first, I assumed my mailbox had been confused with someone else’s—which happened occasionally and could be blamed on the work-study nature of college postal employees—yet when I peeled up the flap of the envelope and pulled out the enclosure, I was sure it was meant for me.

Unfolded, the heavy paper measures approximately ten-and-a half inches by fourteen inches and—by the various creases and glued overlap and general design—appears to have led a former life as a small brown grocery sack, the color of the Kentucky River at floodstage. On the right side of the front, Carl Sandburg’s head is reproduced in a “wash” of India ink. His face is in semi-profile; he appears to be looking over my left shoulder, in a contemplative, poetic way, as if he is considering what words of advice he might provide—what words of poetry—words that would be selected for me, and me alone, with considerable care and intent (or so I thought at the time).

To the left of Sandburg’s profile—a quarter turn of his head and he would be facing them—are three selections from his poetry, typed methodically onto the thick brown paper. The uppermost selection begins: “There must be a place / a room and a sanctuary / set apart for silence…”

I continued to Cowan, reading the selections as I walked—concerned about getting something to drink, at least, before Dr. Sweeney’s medieval lit class—when my attention was drawn back to the look on Sandburg’s face. The eyes are clearly those of a poet: they are wise and calm, and provide a look of affirmation, of possibility. But most of all, they are patient eyes.

The artist’s talent, I thought, was remarkable (but for the slightly elephantine left ear, which seems to have posed some problems—though surely to be excused, given the challenges of drawing in indelible ink!)

At Walnut Street, I stopped—as if to wait for traffic to clear (though there wasn’t any)—and turned the paper over. On the back side was a note, written in pencil, in cursive, the margins unjustified and irregularly lineated. Over the years, the writing has faded—the text is now faint—yet the message remains as pronounced as the day I pulled the fat envelope from my mailbox:

There’s something
about the heavy texture of
brown paper that suits my nature
There’s something about the rough
& unfinished quality that suggest warmth
and humility
There’s something about C. Sandburg’s poems
that captures my thoughts & expresses me
when I cannot express myself

Is it wrong to give a poet a poem?
I like Carl Sandburg’s next to yours.
I’d really like to say congratulations
on having one of your works accepted for publication.

 I send you this because I really have
nothing more to give right now

and because you will understand it, while others won’t.
and because some of it suits your nature, too
(at least, as I understand it—although it’s possible
I don’t)

No signature appears anywhere on the brown paper, not on either side, not on the envelope. There are no initials. No hints at who the artist, or the author of the note, might be.

I will admit here that Carl Sandburg has never been my favorite poet. Despite spending much of the rest of that afternoon reading and re-reading the Sandburg selections in my Norton Anthology and then hours in the Doughtry Library exploring what works of Sandburg’s were available there. Still, I was so intrigued by the thought that Sandburg’s poems had expressed something that could not be expressed in any other way—so much so that someone painstakingly typed out selections and sent them to me [if you’ve ever tried to insert a grocery bag into a manual typewriter, you’ll understand what I mean by “painstakingly”]—that I have returned to Sandburg’s books again and again, trying to figure it out. Which has led me, naturally, to other books of poetry on those library shelves, other poets I was not familiar with…

Is it wrong to give a poet a poem?

It was, unquestionably, the first time that anyone—someone I didn’t know, a stranger to me—confirmed my membership in the brotherhood of poets [an arguably acceptable collective noun at that time, though the “sisterhood” was burgeoning and would come into prominence in the next three decades]. I was both cheered and humbled by the confirmation. I wanted to see myself as a poet, for other people to see me as one, though I was also insecure enough (or arrogant enough) to play down the role. I was merely a student after all, a beginner. And yet there is something in the look of Carl Sandburg’s eyes that generated in me—germinated—a certain confidence in that rhetorical question. A confidence that soon encouraged me to “pay it forward,” to pass along—anonymously—not only my own poems but the poems of many poets I’ve discovered since and have come to love—passed them to my friends, to colleagues, to members of my family, to my students …occasionally, even, accompanied by a work of original art (although by my senior year at Centre it was clear I was not meant to be a visual artist).

No, it is not wrong to give anyone a poem, as the Academy of American Poets advocates during National Poetry Month. With poetry, as much as with anything, to give is to receive. Particularly when the gift is anonymous.

Carl Sandburg has seen better days. He followed me to both Central Michigan and Bowling Green State University, where I did graduate study; he was pinned to the corkboard above my office desk for eight years at Keuka College, and then, for twenty-six years, followed me from one office to another (taped and retaped, or push pinned) at Ferris State University, from which we retired together in 2013. The brown paper has aged, has ripped in places, has been creased and recreased many times. There are multiple holes in the two corners that are still intact; the other two corners have chunks missing, ripped from over-adhesion or careless removal. The back of the paper is reinforced at places with white tape; the penciled message is nearly illegible. The heft that grocery bag paper tends to have when it’s new has been worn to the thinness of an aerogram. And there is a significant tear in the middle of the front, from Carl’s forehead to the words “There must be substance here”: the word here itself separated in two. (I’m smiling at the irony…)

If I ever had an inkling, a suspicion, of who introduced Carl Sandburg to me, I no longer recall. I suppose that over the years there must have been times when I looked up at the wall above my desk and wished that I knew—wished, in fact, that the person who gave me Carl had fessed up to it and that it was in fact a person whom I had secretly admired from a distance, and who—like Carl—would suddenly appear at my office door, or somewhere, and…well, you’ve seen enough movies to get the idea. It never happened. Instead, there were occasional moments of doubt, of vulnerability, of failure. But they were brief and passing. More often, when I looked into Sandburg’s eyes—or read his poetry—I gathered from him a knowledge of patience and strength, of endurance.

Now, I don’t any longer care to know who introduced him to me. I’d like to think that the gift could have been given by any number of people I met at Centre—or since then—male or female, friend, colleague, acquaintance, stranger—someone who may have assumed anonymity but who was no stranger by any means. Someone who knew of the poetry in all of us.

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This essay is Phillip Sterling’s tribute to Curtis Smith’s essay “River of Ghosts.”]

Image by Emily Baron

Phillip Sterling is the author of four collections of poetry: Abeyance (Frank Cat Press Chapbook Award 2007), Quatrains (Pudding House 2006), Significant Others (Main Street Rag 2005), and Mutual Shores (New Issues 2000), and the short story collection In Which Brief Stories Are Told (Wayne State University Press 2011).