News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 7, 2011

The office boy who became a poet

Mike Lunsford
Tribune-Star Correspondent

TERRE HAUTE — I made up my mind when I moved my home office out of the house last summer that I’d organize some of my books, that I’d categorize and catalogue them in a way that would help me find the one I wanted when I wanted it. I can’t say it worked out as well as I had hoped. Already, I have the overflow stacked on the floor and shoved into the spaces where previous tenants once lived. Gradually, expediency is replacing order, so fiction and non-fiction, biographies and novels, are scandalously co-mingling on my shelves.

I did, however, manage to reserve spots closest to my desk for the books that are the closest to me in other ways, and I doubt if they’re going to be reshuffled much over the years. Nearly a dozen of them are by Edgar Guest, the Everyman poet of whom most of us breathing these days have never heard. But for much of the last century, Guest was a household name, a man who published more than 20 books of poetry, had a long-running radio show and who appeared on television. He also attracted critics who considered his folksiness and humor as overly sentimental and hackneyed. One source I found in anticipation of writing this story said, “Guest’s verse reflects the sensibility of his era, and is hardly read today.”Nonetheless, I have enjoyed reading Guest’s poetry over the years. His is a comforting voice in a world that I fear has gone mad, and I find myself occasionally sitting in the lamplight of my space reading from one of his slender blue volumes.



I first read a fragment of one of Guest’s poems years and years ago, and in those days, before the Internet and search engine quick hits, I typed up the few lines I had on a creaky old typewriter and placed them under the glass of my office desk not knowing who wrote them. In time, I discovered Guest’s authorship, that the poem was called “Success,” and that those words would begin an off-again, on-again search for his old books. That is still a bit of a passion for me. The third stanza of the poem is still a favorite:



And I can live my life on earth

Contented to the end,

If but a few shall know my worth

And proudly call me friend.



Guest was born in England in 1881; he came to America with his parents when he was 10, settled in Michigan and found himself running the errands of an office boy for the Detroit Free Press at 14. He never finished school, but eventually became a reporter, first covering local labor stories, then the Detroit waterfront and then the police beat. One has to wonder if he soon saw the worst of the human condition in his work and decided to try his hand at poetry; in December 1898, his first poem appeared in the Free Press. Guest began writing a weekly column and verse, called “Blue Monday Chat,” for the paper by 1904.

According to Poemhunter.com, one story has it that Guest stood in the rain at a fellow newsman’s funeral in 1908; he was the lone mourner. Resolving not to be forgotten, as his colleague was, Guest decided he would write almost exclusively in verse from that time on. Within a year, he and his brother, Harry, a typesetter who had bought a sale box of type, printed 800 copies of Guest’s first book, “Home Rhymes.” By 1914, he had three books in print, and in 1916, his “Heap o’ Livin’” sold a million copies.

Guest’s poetry is simple and optimistic and domestic. With titles such as “Life Is What We Make It” and “No Use Sighin’,” his work is never going to be considered high art. He said it best: “I take simple everyday things that happen to me, and I figure it happens to a lot of other people, and I make simple rhymes out of them.” 



Over time, I have come to look for Guest’s books as they snooze among garage sale flotsam and on bookstore nostalgia shelves; I even have his “Harbor Lights Of Home” checked out of the library as I write this. The book’s title came as a result of a $1,000 prize that Guest’s publisher — The Reilly and Lee Co. — had offered in the fall of 1928. The winner, the Rev. M.S. Rice, was invited to write a foreword to the book, and said, “These are difficult days in our social world. Many things are drifting and uncertain. The home is imperiled. … Edgar Guest, is in my judgment, the finest force in America today in defense of the home.”

A few years ago, I was rummaging through a box of books at an auction, a habit to which I am pleasantly addicted. I found among the cobwebs and dirt and musty volumes a decent collection of poems by James Whitcomb Riley. But tucked inside the huge book, whether accidentally or intentionally, was a familiar blue and gold edition of “When Day Is Done,” a first printing, older by a few months than a treasured copy my mom bought for me in a used bookstore. 

Like all good auction addicts, I screwed on a poker face to outbid a competitor, who later came to me wanting the Riley book; she hadn’t even picked it up to discover the hidden Guest pearl inside. Since it was simply an old re-print, I let her have it, which made us both happy that day. 



Today, that Guest book sits on a shelf with my other favorites. They aren’t expensive, leather-bound tomes or rare copies. They are simply friends. That is a sentiment with which Guest wholeheartedly agreed, and with his poem, “Books,” I’ll leave you…



Upon my shelf they stand in rows,

A city-full of human souls,

Sages, philosophers and drolls-

Good friends that everybody knows.

The drunkard shoulders with the saint;

The great are neighboring with the quaint

And they will greet me one and all

At any hour I care to call.

There’s Dickens with his humble crew

That has no end of joy to give

With all his people I can live

By moving just a foot or two

Or should I choose to sail the sea,

Stevenson there will pilot me,

While jovial, lovable Mark Twain

Waits patiently my call again.

Sometimes a friend drops in and looks

My little sitting room around

And, in a manner most profound,

Remarks: “Your shelves are lined with books!”

“Not books,” I say, “but people wise

And men to cling to or despise.

Vast peopled cities, calm and still;

For me to visit when I will.”



Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at hickory913@aol.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at http://tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at mikelunsford.com. He is currently working on his third collection of stories.