My Favorite Love Letter: Keep Writing or Become the Poem

I often quote Lilian Sandburg to encourage student writing. I remember exactly where I was standing in Carl Sandburg’s home in Flat Rock when I read Lilian’s words on a postcard to her discouraged husband. The National Park Service captures the exchange in these words:

“Once, during the early years of their marriage, when he was off on a business trip and wrote to her, worried over their lack of funds, she told him, The poems are great, Carl. It would be all wrong to give them up. We must give the Poet every chance! If we can only assure ourselves enuff leisure for this—you will arrive. You’ve got it in you. The only question is can we get enuff time to get it out of you! You are great and great and great! Greater poems than some of yours have absolutely never been written! It’s only a question of time till we come to our own. . . It’s all coming, dear—coming sure!” 
Later, Lilian laments that she “shall never write for print. . .” He replies to her, What. . . do I care whether you go in for literary work or not? Don’t we each give the other free loose for anything & everything? . . . All I know is you are a great woman, a splendid girl. In some way you will express yourself. You decide on the way . . . Great you are—great, beautiful, inclusive, daring, quick, orginial. . . I would rather be a poem like you than write poems. I would rather embody the big things as you do than carve or paint or write them. You inspire art–& that’s living.

I love looking at a student and saying with absolute certainty, “You’ve got it in you. The only question is can we get enough time to get it out of you.” And when they decide they simply do not want to write–because it’s not joyful for them; it’s not their calling,–I want to tell them to go ahead and express themselves in another way. “You decide the way. Just be the poem. Embody the big things. Inspire art, then.” 
I also love tucking these letters away as a reminder of great marriages. We can be Sandburg and Lilian to one another when we feel discouraged. 
Have you read the poetry of Carl Sandburg? If you haven’t, do! And if you want to read the whole collection of love letters between Sandburg and his wife, you can find them in A Great and Glorious Romance: The Story of Carl Sandburg and Lilian Steichen. 
Text from “Carl Sandburg Home,” National Park Service, Public Domain


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6 thoughts on “My Favorite Love Letter: Keep Writing or Become the Poem

  1. I know, Patricia! Me too. I found these letters in 1994, and they've stuck with me all these years. Such a beautiful love and commitment to art.

  2. I'm am learning this right now, David. I'm not sure how to have both. I just about lost my mind last month because I knew publishers were considering a novel. I'm still waiting to hear back, and it's not fun. Great words.

  3. Thanks for sharing these delightful love letters! Great marriages are made of spouses who support the other, who don't keep track of who has done the most or best, but who look for the good in any situation.

  4. I think we complicate writing with the whole public consumption aspect. We take the joy out of the journey when we talk platforms, markets, and audience. Sometimes you can have all those things AND joy — but it's a rare place indeed.

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