Tidbits from the Archives Poetry on a Stick (or rather board)

Tidbits from the Archives: Poetry on a stick (or rather board) “Look out how you use proud words. St. Olaf 1935,” wrote Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) on a bunk bed board. Sandburg, arguably one of the finest poets of the twentieth century, visited St. Olaf three times between 1928 and 1935. On his last visit in March 1935, he spoke of poetry with his own definitions: “Poetry is a knapsack of invisible keepsakes; Poetry is a sliver of the moon lost in the belly of a gold frog; and Poetry is the capture of a picture, a song, a flare in a prism of words.”

On that particular evening, the poet with longish gray hair said, “We live in a complex era, and it is more difficult to develop a personality of one’s own. One must ask himself two questions in order to determine what is worth while in art, culture, and education. First, what is worth looking at; and secondly, what is worth listening to? In answering these two questions you will prove the cultural values.”

After the lecture, Sandburg accompanied English Prof. George Weida Spohn to his house. Perhaps the two men stayed up most of the night talking about great literature and their mutual colleague and friend, Ole E. Rølvaag, who had died a few years earlier. Upon retiring to the spare bedroom with a bunk bed, Sandburg could not help but notice that eleven pine boards measuring 5 ½ ” x 36″ spanned the upper bunk bed frame supporting a mattress. Each board bore countless autographs of those that had slept there before him.

Not to be excluded, Sandburg, lying on his back, reached up from the bottom bunk and on board #2 printed the phrase from one of his poems, “Look out how you use proud words” in pencil. Seventy years have passed since and the letters are fading and the boards are worn. Dried brown paint drops cover part of the word “proud.”

The complete poem is as follows:

Look out how you use proud words. When you let proud words go, it is not easy to call them back. They wear long boots, hard boots; they walk off proud; they can’t hear you calling- Look out how you use proud words. -Primer Lesson, 1922

A little history.

What started in the late 1920s with visitors and students boarders, a.k.a. the “Spohn Boys,” signing the bunk boards evolved into a tradition that continued until 1952 when Spohn’s widow, Lucy Tyler Spohn, sold the house and moved back East to live with her daughter. Names familiar to the archivists jump out like G.W. Lokensgard, Alvhild Rowberg, and Nils Flaten. Behind every signature is a story, a connection to the Spohns. Prof. Lowell Johnson, one of the last Spohn boys and signer, stopped by recently and entertained Gary and I with tales of his student days while living at the Spohn house in 1951-1952.

These eleven boards were recently donated by Ole Lokensgard ’68 of Richmond, Virginia. Ole said that on a recent visit to his parents home in Mankato, he came across a carefully set-aside stack of boards in the garage. His father, Hjalmar O “Lucky” Lokensgard, had kept the boards for many years. Donations such as this one are unique and welcome in the College Archives. Steps are being taken to index each name found on the boards.