I had no idea who Carl Sandburg was when my distant and pretty cousin led the way on horseback from the stables along a mountain trail to Connemara, a goat dairy farm in Flat Rock, North Carolina. My father had brought our family to nearby Hendersonville to visit a favorite cousin who owned a restored antebellum restaurant and inn. We ate supreme southern cooking in the historic restaurant but stayed overnight in the cousin’s home. Their sophisticated daughter was put in charge of showing me the sights. We matched ages at fifteen.
The horse trail emerged a distance from the goat pens and the dairy barn to the back of the owner’s residence. There was a low picket fence to keep out the goats. Mrs. Sandburg was a celebrated goat breeder, and she operated this premiere goat dairy farm from 1935 until her husband’s death in 1967.
My cousin halted her horse at the low fence and addressed an elderly man who was sitting in a high-backed chair on the long wooden porch. He had a stack of magazines at his feet, and he put down a copy of Look Magazine when she spoke to him. It was clear to me that he recognized her as a neighbor child, and I was introduced as a visiting cousin. Mr. Sandburg’s face was angular and his frame had the narrowness of hard labor. His shock of parted white hair seemed somehow biblical to me. Maybe the Old Testament Moses looked like him.
We were not offered to dismount, so the conversation was brief, and it ended when Mr. Sandburg said something like, “I guess you best be going,” and the Look Magazine was brought up to cover his face. In 1956, as young teenagers, we were not offended as we turned our horses and rode away.
Later in high school, I was taught about Carl Sandburg and read a few of his poems and excerpts from his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. He also won two additional Pulitzers for his poetry. Much later in my life, while doing post-graduate literary work in Sweden, I became aware that Mr. Sandburg was the son of Swedish immigrants to the United States.
When I met Carl Sandburg, I was saying that I intended to become a medical doctor, and that intention continued as I entered the University of Virginia. But my ambitions changed, and I became a writer of novels, biographies, and poems that include the libretto for a classical music oratorio.
At some mature reflective moment, I realized that I had composed my first poem on the day after meeting Carl Sandburg. I had no literary goals at age fifteen; and being unaware of Mr. Sandburg’s greatness, I could claim no porch-front benediction from him. Nevertheless, I wrote an honest expression of the heart with no anticipation of writing hundreds more.
Many years later, I brought my wife Pat to Flat Rock and took the National Park Service tour of the Sandburg home and grounds. In the attic of the house was Mr. Sandburg’s reading retreat, and there was a straight-back chair amid piles of Look and Life magazines. Outside the house, I took the opportunity to stand at the back porch and recite my first poem to Pat. It is still the only poem of mine that I can recite spontaneously from memory. So wherever you are, my sweet and endearing cousin, thank you for that horse ride into poetry.
AFTER AN ACQUAINTANCE
by Monty Joynes
You meet and then you part.
An empty feeling grips your heart.
You’re sure a friendship
Could have grown,
If time had ceased and
You had known
A love so true could
Make you cry.
But a bit of your heart
After an acquaintance.