The Poet Is In

by Elizabeth Lutyens, Editor in Chief

On Carl Sandburg’s front porch, April 1960

Photo: Michael Mauney

“April is the cruelest month,” wrote T.S. Eliot in the opening lines of “The Waste Land.” The land was dead, lilacs sad, roots dull. He is entitled to his opinion, writing from London in the shadow of World War I. But here, in the cradle of the Smoky Mountains, April is all baby’s breath and cotton candy, soon to be leaves of tenderest green. A kind month, but also stimulating, a showcase for nature’s creativity. No wonder the Academy of American Poets chose April to be National Poetry Month.

The first reason the Academy cited for April being its choice is that this was T.S. Eliot’s birth month. There are other April-born poets who could join him at the top of the list: Baudelaire, Wordsworth, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Maya Angelou, Louise Gluck. Oh, and William Shakespeare.

Although Carl Sandburg was born in January, he is a frequent feature of National Poetry Month offerings. Acclaim for his poetry may have quietened over time (too accessible, some say; too didactic, others say; too plainspoken or too brutalist, say the rest), but he remains the man about whom Lyndon Johnson declared: “He was more than the voice of America … he was America.”

Carl Sandburg won three Pulitzer Prizes; two—yes—for poetry, but the third for history (his Lincoln biographies). He was the first white person to be honored by the NAACP with their Silver Plaque Award, declaring that his reportage on racial injustice made him “a major prophet of civil rights in our time.” He was the only American poet to address a joint session of Congress. He wrote children’s stories that even his adult-critic detractors found enchanting. He was a folk-music composer and performer, and a frequent guest on television shows. He wrote a poem titled “Lines Written for Gene Kelly to Dance to,” and recited it on live TV with Kelly dancing in accompaniment. Carl Sandburg was everywhere in those days.

Or so it seemed. Where he was mostly was at Connemara, a large farm and house in rural Flat Rock, North Carolina, adhering to a firm schedule of writing, reading, and time with his wife and daughters. Early one spring day in 1960, two high school girls and a photographer from a town one hour downhill were heading his way. One of the girls, a Swedish exchange student, had been determined to meet Carl Sandburg, who was famous in Sweden, too. Her American sister (this writer) said no, not possible, he wouldn’t see anybody except goat breeders and other authors. Eva wrote the letter anyway, sprinkled it with Swedish words, and enclosed a photograph of her and me from the local paper, wearing her Nordic sweaters and pretending to ski on a dusting of rare foothills snow. His reply came promptly: Yes. But only on the day he named, at the exact time, for no longer than an hour. Herself and no more than two friends.

On that day, at that time, we arrived. In the rain. The house was pure white, a Greek temple with a porch supported by pillars so tall they dwarfed the trees behind. We made our way up slippery steps, to hear a voice roar from behind the front door: “Who comes to disturb an old man on a rainy day?” The door opened, and out came Carl Sandburg, smiling, going to Eva and chatting as if they were old friends, or even family. (See photo above.) I was at the far end of the porch, back pressed against a fluted column, paralyzed with awe. I could only stare. Shirt with fourth button missing (or undone?). Pens in pocket. Underneath the pocket—ink spots or maybe breakfast jelly. Hand on Eva’s shoulder. The Poet of the People looked a lot like my favorite grandfather. I’d brought with me The Family of Man, the book by him and his brother-in-law, the photographer Edward Steichen. I couldn’t bring myself to have him sign it. There were a lot of pictures from our visit, though, taken by our photographer friend, for Eva. And for me, but I hid mine because my father had forbidden me to take Eva up to visit “that Communist.” Which he was not. He was actually his own style of humanist. In his preface to The Family of Man, he makes that clear: “…Workers, loafers, fighters, players, gamblers…landlords and the landless, the loved and the unloved, the brutal and the compassionate—one big family hugging close to the ball of Earth for its life and being.”

National Poetry Month seems the right time to highlight the Great Smokies Writing Program’s poetry class offerings: rich in variety, taught by top-class faculty. This issue includes a Craft Session essay from our Archives, reprised with the consent of its author, Tina Barr, an ongoing member of that faculty. Her latest book of poems, Pink Moon, has just been released as the Inaugural Winner of the Editor’s Choice Award from Jacar Press. It’s also notable that this issue contains a record number of submissions from students in Tina's and her colleagues' Great Smokies classes. Excellent reading for April, or any month of the year.

About Elizabeth

by Tommy Hays, Executive Director, the Great Smokies Writing Program, 2000-2020

After teaching prose classes for more than twenty years, Elizabeth Lutyens is retiring to focus on her own writing and editing The Great Smokies Review. So, it seemed fitting to ask Tommy Hays,a founder of The Great Smokies Writing Program, to reflect on her many contributions to the program and her students. —Janet Moore, Special Features Editor

Some twenty years ago, in the early days of the Great Smokies Writing Program, I met Elizabeth for the first time when she enrolled in one of my prose workshops. The class met in Asheville School’s library in a lovely dark-paneled booklined conference room, quintessential Harry Potter. I learned that, like me, Elizabeth had graduated from the Warren Wilson MFA Program and that we knew many of the same WWC faculty. It didn’t take more than a class or two for me to realize what a thoughtful and insightful critic of her classmates’ work she was. Unfailingly kind in her feedback, she never shied away from what needed to be said, articulating problems in a student’s piece in such a way that was generous and at the same time accurate. We all learned from Elizabeth. She was never judgmental and had a manner that felt inclusive. I remember years later, after she’d become a teacher in the Great Smokies, hearing her tell one of her students who’d expressed jealousy over a particular writer’s success that we should celebrate others’ successes, that we were all in this together.

It was in that first workshop with Elizabeth that I learned what a masterful writer she was. The pages she submitted to be workshopped, pages from a historical novel set on a plantation on St. Helena Island off the South Carolina coast, were among the best pages I’d ever read in a workshop or anywhere else for that matter. She was, I would learn over time, a writer of the first order. It became obvious to me that with her skills, Elizabeth would make a wonderful teacher in the Great Smokies and thankfully she consented. She would go on to be an essential teacher for the Great Smokies, designing an advanced prose class for our most accomplished students, a class that remained in demand throughout the many years Elizabeth taught in the program. To this day I often hear from former Great Smokies students how key Elizabeth’s class was to their development as a writer.

After a few years of teaching in the program, Elizabeth came up with the idea of The Great Smokies Review, a publication devoted to student work produced in the program’s workshops. The Review included faculty-chosen student work and also interviews with faculty and craft talks. The Review has become an important showcase for the Great Smokies, and Elizabeth has remained its editor since its inception.

I feel deeply indebted to Elizabeth as a trusted colleague and dear friend. She was someone I could consult when problems or challenges about the program presented themselves. I always came away from a conversation with Elizabeth, feeling as her students said they felt in her workshop, heard and supported. Elizabeth is one of the wisest people I know, and I can’t imagine where I or the Great Smokies would’ve ever been without her.

Photo by Michael Mauney