The Bards of Saugatuck
The poets have been at Saugatuck evenlonger than the artists, extolling the virtues of the place in flowery verse.
Many of the poetswere obscure school girls filling their copy books with love poems, and membersof women's literary societies trying their hand, but at least two authors ofpoems about Saugatuck were writers of national renown.
Carl Sandburg, when he was courting hisfuture wife in February of 1908, sent her a small poem entitled"Perspectives" with the subtitle "(Inscribed toSaugatuck)." The 18-line poem [which his estate will not give uspermission to reprint] admits:
Always in what I love
Is something yet beyond...
and makes the point that Saugatuck is directly across Lake Michigan fromSandburg's vantage point in Wisconsin.He speaks of the "cool-deep open places" and "somberwoodlands" of the opposite shore.
Sandburg neverpublished the poem. He considered it part of his "juvenilia"according to his daughter Margaret. It was published in a biography of Mrs.Carl Sandburg written by another daughter, Helga.
Edgar Lee Masters
The second famous poet to write about the area was Edgar Lee Masters,best known for his Spoon River Anthology. His mother and father, Hardyand Emma Masters, bought a 40 acre farm on the lakeshore south of Saugatuckabout 1906.
Edgar wrote in his autobiography "Myfather had become infatuated with the Michigancountry. He ran up a flag on his front yard with the device 'Masters Farm,' andthough he was now sixty-one he was as young as ever and could pitch hay or chopwood with undiminished vigor. He expected to make money out of his eightybearing cherry trees, and out of his hundreds of peachtrees; but he soon found that the market men in Chicago reaped all the profit in them. Hisreward consisted, mostly, in looking at Lake Michiganwhich bordered his frontage, and in swimming in its
waters, and in loafing at the country store near at hand, where he becamefriends with the owner and the farmers about."
The Masters farmhouse later became thenucleus of Wavecrest resort and rental cottages. Thestore was Hillock's store located on, 68th Street, later the Blue Star Highway, almost due east of theMasters property.
In1916 Edgar Lee Masters published a book called Songs and Satires, which included:
"Come over to Saugatuck
And be with me on the warm sand,
And under coolbeeches and aromatic cedars."
And just then no one could do athing in the city
For the lure of far places, andsomething that
At one's heartbecause of a June sky,
And stretchesof blue water,
And a warm wind blowing from the south.
What could Ido but take a boat
And go to meetyou?
[The poet describes the restless journey on the boat, the man anxiousfor the time go quickly until the boat docked.]
I took theferry,
I crossed theriver,
I ran almostthrough the little batch
Of fisherman's shacks.
I climbed thewinding road of the hill,
And dove in ashadowy quiet
Of paths ofmoss and dancing leaves .. .
I ran to thetop of the bluff
Where the lodge-house stood.
And there thesunlit lake burst on me
And wine-likeair... .
I plunged, Istumbled, I ran
Down the hill...
And I shall never forget your cry,
Nor how youraised your arms and cried,
And laughed when you saw me.
[The poem goes on for several pages. Thelovers decide too many eyes are watching so she sends the man away, with ordersto return that night until the screen of darkness.]
I stole through echoless ways,
Whereno twigs broke and where I heard
Myheart beat like a watch under a pillow.
Andthe whippoorwills were singing.
Andthe sound of the surf below me
Wasthe sound of silver-poplar leaves
Ina wind that makes no pause....
Ihurried down the steep ravine,
Tomy left was the lighthouse,
Andblack and deep purples far away,
Andall was still.
TillI stood breathless by the tent
Andheard your whispered welcome,
Andfelt your kiss... .
Although the poet had been married in thespring of 1898 he was known in literary and social circles as a womanizer. Inthe summer of 1909 he was pursuing a woman he calls Deirdre in hisautobiography, but whose real name was TennesseeMitchell. She had grown up in Jackson, Michigan and was a piano tuner,and later teacher, by trade. (After the affair with Masters ended she marriedanother noted author, Sherwood Anderson.) Early in their relationship Tennessee had sent a note to Masters' Chicagooffice that she was going to Michiganwith a friend, Rachel, and would be gone some weeks. Masters followed her to Michigan. He recountsthe incident in his autobiography:
"She was at a summer camp with Rachel,and I had to take a room in the little hotel in the nearby village. She keptRachel by her side constantly, and we had no privacy together at all. We threelay on the warm sand by the Lake at nightlooking up at the moonless sky full of stars, and listening to the waves. Thatwas all. Finally I had to return to Chicagocompletely defeated. I afterward put this trip into the poem published in Songs and Satires, 'In Michigan,' but with many imaginativevariations."
It is possible that one of the variationsof the poem is a change of venue, and that the actual event took placeelsewhere, possibly in the Benton Harbor area. The settingdescribed in the poem, however, is clearly Saugatuck. The camp would appear tobe the Forward Movement Camp between Saugatuck on the river, and Lake Michigan. Another "imaginative variation"in the poem is the outcome of the trip. In the poem there is no Rachel.
In a 1972 book called Banquet Prayers, Other Essays, Poems" by Clarke Wells, aUnitarian minister in South Weymouth, Massachusetts, a poem, similar to theSandburg verse, compares exotic locations, with the beach of Michigan, nearSaugatuck.
Li Po in sand white lit
I see inhidden years, quiet wanderer.
Pacific opening, bamboo wand,
Himalayas split with tide ofpeach,
poised singer in tongues,
drunk on moon anddolphin spray.
This night on Michigan dunes
I see in dusts of moon,
I looked topeach-lapped waters,
above T'ang or Saugatuck.
The Wells family arrived in Saugatuck inthe first wave of settlers. The first wife of William G. Butler, Saugatuck'sfirst settler, was Mary Wells of Hartford, Connecticut. Samuel Wells livedon the Singaporeroad by 1850. He ran tanneries in Douglas andin Dingleville. His daughter married lumber baron O.R. Johnson. Whether there is any connection between the early settlers and theclergyman-poet is still being explored.
At right is a facsimile of a letter written in 1949 from Saugatuckhistorian May Francis Heath to Jeannette (Walker) Barr, the daughter of Dr.Robert J. Walker who served Saugatuck for nearly 50 years beginning in 1895.Mrs. Heath was responding to a request by Mrs. Barr for a poem that Mrs. Heathhad quoted at some club meeting. She makes no note about whether she wrote thepoem in question or copied it from another source.
(Featuring publications on area history,both present day and in the past. Offered as a guide and inspiration for those whoperuse used book stores.]
Published poems about the area, or by area writers, are listed below.Most are likely to turn up in the old book stores for a dollar or three. TheBoyce book is available from the author.
Calkins, Stella D. E. Poems 1921,8 pp., 5 1/4 x 8 1/2, stiff cover tied with a cord, n.p. Poems about the Saugatuck area including"The Road to Singapore"and "Slumber Bluff' (an old resort on the river.
Carlson, Ann The Murhooing Sands (The Plowman Printing House, Box 414, Whitby Ontario, Canada) 1990.32 pp., 5 1/4 x 8 112, saddlestitched.A narrative poem about the buried town of Singapore. An excerpt:
Keeperof the Big House
Unpainted wasthe big house
the bland gray of adrab March day.
Keeperbrushed her hair from her brow;
leaned over the fatcook stove,
heaped steamingplates of hotcakes,
filled bowls withfried potatoes
and a bird on aplatter
in the icy dampness.
Piercing gusts howled from thelake
and cast ghostly waves on the house.
Townsmen chewed potatoes and bird-
the tavern was alwaysfilled;
but the social whirldid not melt
the near-distant ice from the lake
that gave shiver to keeper's bones.
Oh, thosemourning ghosts, they haunt
as windguests pelt the screeching sands
and bellow throughthe little town
lashing at the biggray house
like monstrous kicksfrom cloven hooves
like monstrous kicksfrom cloven hooves.
Coutoumanos, George Saugatuck Art Colony (Translatedfrom the Greek by Rae Dalven) n.d.,
n.p.,12 pp., 5114 x 8112, saddlestitched.This book was mentioned in this column in the last issue. A small booklet onSaugatuck put out about 1945 by a Greek poet who was a resident of the town. Inaddition to both prose and poems by Coutoumanos thepublication includes an eight verse poem "In Saugatuck," by F. W.Greiner.
Eddy, Lillian Grimes Leaves from a Laurel Wreath (Ann Arbor Press) n.d., 88 pp., 51/2 x 7 314, hardcover. Mrs.Eddy was born in Galesburg, later moved to Allegan andwas in the first class to graduate from high school in Allegan. She moved toDouglas in 1905 to teach Latin in the Douglasschool. This book is poetry translated from the Latin.
Vander Molen, Robert The Pavilion & Other Poems (The Sumac Press: Fremont) 1974. 92 pp., 6 x 9, published inboth hardcover and softbound editions. Several of the poems, including "Resort Town:Chain Ferry," "The River Park" and "ThePavilion" are about the Saugatuck area, and several others speak of dunes.There is a photograph of Saugatuck's Big Pavilion on the cover. Other poetrybooks by Vander Molen include The Lost Book (1968) and Variations(1970). He was born in Grand Rapids, laterlived in Kalamazoo.
The River Park
The chain ferry cranks
Acrossthe river my morning
Thesmell of mud
Floatto the surface
Breathless for tourists the swans.. .
James, David "Digging for Singaporein The Third Coast. Contemporary Michigan Poetry (WayneState UniversityPress: Detroit)1976. Detroiter David James is one of the best known contemporary Michigan poets. In"Digging for Singapore"he uses the battle of the residents against the blowing sand as a metaphor forthe human struggle.
Boyce, Peggy TheGolden Path n.p. 16 pp., 81/2 x 11,hardcover. Poems and artwork, some in full color, mostlyabout the Saugatuck area. Peggy (Webster) Boyce is a native of Allegan County,a member of the Saugatuck-Douglas Art Club and a former art teacher at West Ottawa High School.