honey, salt & sandburg


My senior year in college, I went to a fine arts contest where one of the dramatic interpretations was the poem Honey and Salt by Carl Sandburg. I had never heard it before, but within minutes it became a favorite. It could’ve been the style of the interpretation, or the ease of the delivery. It might have been that it was humorous timing [for my life], or that I liked the pictures painted by the the words of the artist. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I doubt you will.

Honey and Salt
Carl Sandburg

A bag of tricks—is it?
And a game smoothies play?
If you’re good with a deck of cards
or rolling the bones—that helps?
If you can tell jokes and be a chum
and make an impression—that helps?
When boy meets girl or girl meets boy—
what helps?
They all help: be cozy but not too cozy:
be shy, bashful, mysterious, yet only so-so:
then forget everything you ever heard about love
for it’s a summer tan and a winter windburn
and it comes as weather comes and you can’t change it:
it comes like your face came to you, like your legs came
and the way you walk, talk, hold your head and hands—
and nothing can be done about it—you wait and pray.
Is there any way of measuring love?
Yes but not till long afterward
when the beat of your heart has gone
many miles, far into the big numbers.
Is the key to love in passion, knowledge, affection?
All three—along with moonlight, roses, groceries,
givings and forgivings, gettings and forgettings,
keepsakes and room rent,
pearls of memory along with ham and eggs.
Can love be locked away and kept hid?
Yes and it gathers dust and mildew
and shrivels itself in shadows
unless it learns the sun can help,
snow, rain, storms can help—
birds in their one-room family nests
shaken by winds cruel and crazy—
they can all help:
lock not away your love nor keep it hid.
How comes the first sign of love?
In a chill, in a personal sweat,
in a you-and-me, us, us two,
in a couple of answers,
an amethyst haze on the horizon,
two dance programs criss-crossed,
jackknifed initials interwoven,
five fresh violets lost in sea salt,
birds flying at single big moments
in and out a thousand windows,
a horse, two horses, many horses,
a silver ring, a brass cry,
a golden gong going ong ong ong-ng-ng,
pink doors closing one by one
to sunset nightsongs along the west,
shafts and handles of stars,
folds of moonmist curtains,
winding and unwinding wisps of fogmist.

How long does love last?
As long as glass bubbles handled with care
or two hot-house orchids in a blizzard
or one solid immovable steel anvil
tempered in sure inexorable welding—
or again love might last as
six snowflakes, six hexagonal snowflakes,
six floating hexagonal flakes of snow
or the oaths between hydrogen and oxygen
in one cup of spring water
or the eyes of bucks and does
or two wishes riding on the back of a
morning wind in winter
or one corner of an ancient tabernacle
held sacred for personal devotions
or dust yes dust in a little solemn heap
played on by changing winds.
There are sanctuaries holding honey and salt.
There are those who spill and spend.
There are those who search and save.
And love may be a quest with silence and content.
Can you buy love?
Sure every day with money, clothes, candy,
with promises, flowers, big-talk,
with laughter, sweet-talk, lies,
every day men and women buy love
and take it away and things happen
and they study about it
and the longer they look at it
the more it isn’t love they bought at all:
bought love is a guaranteed imitation.

Can you sell love?
Yes you can sell it and take the price
and think it over
and look again at the price
and cry and cry to yourself
and wonder who was selling what and why.
Evensong lights floating black night water,
a lagoon of stars washed in velvet shadows,
a great storm cry from white sea-horses—
these moments cost beyond all prices.

Bidden or unbidden? how comes love?
Both bidden and unbidden, a sneak and a shadow,
a dawn in a doorway throwing a dazzle
or a sash of light in a blue fog,
a slow blinking of two red lanterns in river mist
or a deep smoke winding one hump of a mountain
and the smoke becomes a smoke known to your own
twisted individual garments:
the winding of it gets into your walk, your hands,
your face and eyes.


31 thoughts on “honey, salt & sandburg

  1. Josh says:

    I’ve heard quite a few dramatic interpretations of poems and would have loved to add this one to my “collection.” In my opinion hearing a poem, of any kind, interpreted by someone really illustrates and magnifies its meaning. Judging by my own feelings while I read and re-read this to myself I can only imagine what it was like to hear and feel it interpreted by someone else.

    I really loved this poem and all of a sudden have an urge to read more. Thanks.

    (Hope all is well)

  2. Patricia says:

    I am sorry you doubt others will enjoy this as much as you. Like those who have responded, it has been a favorite for over 40 years. I plan to read it at a wedding–it is so much more real than that Corinthians dribble about love being patient and kind. I love the alliteration and the imagery; it all just rolls off the tongue.

  3. Libia Chavez says:

    I have a now yellowed copy of the book I bought almost 50 years ago when I was still in college and I re read this particular poem over and over all these years. I love the way love is defined. I misplaced my copy for a while and was reminded of it when I heard Placido Domingo and sing Perhaps Love with John Denver. I found it .

  4. Cole says:

    I think that Honey and Salt is probably one of the most overlooked poems in the english language. It is bar none without a doubt my absolute favorite. Forget for a moment that the words stay with you, as if reading you are a bell rung ear to ear. Yes forget that as the titular poem in his final collection of poetry it is in a sense his period; both an epitaph and a quietus. I try to forget that and just read, to listen to the meaning which at least equals if not rivals the definitions found in 1 Corinthians 13 (which DOES do its job even if it is hackneyed) and to listen to the sounds, those beautiful hexagons and hot house orchids.

    I can honestly say that this poem changes lives. I have yet, since the day I first read it, to go very long or very far away before I again can hear it loud and clear. And I’d like to thank you for posting. I have a copy of both the original Honey and Salt as well as Sandburgs collected works, but it is distinct pleasure to finally have an electronic copy to share with people. You have performed a kind service:)

  5. I am so glad to have found this blog. I was looking for an e version of some of Sandburgs writing’s and stumbled across yours. Thank you for posting this piece. And………I believe I did enjoy it as much as you. Some of the lines of this poem leaves photographic snapshots in your mind……..

  6. Atul Shrestha says:

    Man i love Sandburg…he is just great…easily the greatest poet for me…thanx for posting this….i was looking for this poem and had not found it for a long time….thanx again!

  7. Carmen Farmer says:

    Like many who have replied before, I found this many years ago (high school in the mid-60s) and have loved it all this time. Another favorite from the book is Little Word, Little White Bird.

  8. If you’re from BJU I think it may have been me whom you heard do the poem at the commencement contest. Crazy small world. One of my favorite pieces I’ve ever performed!

  9. Bruce says:

    In an American Masters titled ‘The Day Carl Sandburg Died’, a wonderful story about Sandburg’s life, there is a clip of him reading the lines…

    Is the key to love in passion, knowledge, affection?
    All three—along with moonlight, roses, groceries,
    givings and forgivings, gettings and forgettings,
    keepsakes and room rent,

    It is likely you can purchase a DVD of this from PBS online. If you would like some of my poetry recommendations you are welcome to contact me personally for book and online recommendations.

    This is a lovely poem.

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  13. Scott says:

    Did you have permission from the copyright holder to use this? Has it gone into public domain?
    I certainly hope so, because I’m doing a short excerpt from it but will link them to your post of the whole thing.

  14. Megan Anderson Hurlbert says:

    May I ask, where we’re you when you heard the poetic interpretation of this poem? The fine arts contest, where was that?

  15. Jeryl Benway Stoltz says:

    I just watched American Masters and this featured a segment entitled “The Day Carl Sandburg Died.” It ended with this poem. What fun that I now have discovered your blog. Thank you for teaching me and enlightening me. The timing was important and I shall reread this poem with a sense of delight and discovery.

  16. Sue Peterson says:

    Unbelievable! I have been searching for this poem for several months, not realizing Carl Sandburg was the author, I kept looking for the phrase “love is like glass bubbles handled with care” Finally I went into my keepsake box and, thank goodness, I found a copy but no author on the copy! It was a poem I read in poetry interpretation in 1967.I want to use it in a theme for a wedding shower. It is one of those poems one remembers even if not perfectly, because Carl Sandburg has a way of expressing the heart. I am so happy to have found it again and to love it again.

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  18. My dad got a copy of Honey and Salt, the book when I was pretty young and had me read it in the 60s because I loved watching Carl Sandburg on the television. A wise man who spoke in simplicity but whose thoughts were deep as dark waters. I still have that book and memories of my Dad who loved Sandburg and this work. I am almost 67 and his poems were one of the inspirations for me to take up writing poetry about 3 1/2 years ago. I like poems that are simple that provoke deep thought or reflection. I don’t mean to blaspheme Bible scripture but this poem is right up there with i Corinthians chapt. 13.

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