Thresher of wheat, rider of railroads, bricklayer, news hawker, milk hauler, shoeshiner, and brash bard of the nation!—Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) is best described in the expansive language of catalog with which he lionized Chicago. Those big nouns delineate both his early life of odd jobs and boxcars, and his later, more studious life as a journalist, a biographer and a poet.
Sandburg would be gratified to know that his accessible free-verse poetry still remains popular with the people. Alas, his work is not universally admired. Some discerning readers dismiss it as simplistic and prosaic. Certainly his poetry lacks the depth and musicality of his contemporary, Robert Frost. It speaks more plainly and requires less in the way of critical pondering. Now and then, Sandburg did write lyrically, however, as the first few poems below attest, and his mind was penetrating if his chosen style was not. Appreciating his poetry requires one to appreciate its source in American folk music and American manifest spaciousness.
I treasure Carl Sandburg as a great soul who recognized the greatness in humanity and sang in praise of it.
The Road and the EndI shall foot it
Down the roadway in the dusk,
Where shapes of hunger wander
And the fugitives of pain go by.
I shall foot it
In the silence of the morning,
See the night slur into dawn,
Hear the slow great winds arise
Where tall trees flank the way
And shoulder toward the sky.
The broken boulders by the road
Shall not commemorate my ruin.
Regret shall be the gravel under foot.
I shall watch for
Slim birds swift of wing
That go where wind and ranks of thunder
Drive the wild processionals of rain.
The dust of the traveled road
Shall touch my hands and face.
Three Pieces on the Smoke of AutumnSmoke of autumn is on it all.
The streamers loosen and travel.
The red west is stopped with a gray haze.
They fill the ash trees, they wrap the oaks,
They make a long-tailed rider
In the pocket of the first, the earliest evening star.
. . .
Three muskrats swim west on the Desplaines River.
There is a sheet of red ember glow on the river; it is dusk; and the
muskrats one by one go on patrol routes west.
Around each slippery padding rat, a fan of ripples; in the silence of
dusk a faint wash of ripples, the padding of the rats going west,
in a dark and shivering river gold.
(A newspaper in my pocket says the Germans pierce the Italian line;
I have letters from poets and sculptors in Greenwich Village; I
have letters from an ambulance man in France and an I.W.W.
man in Vladivostok.)
I lean on an ash and watch the lights fall, the red ember glow, and
three muskrats swim west in a fan of ripples on a sheet of river
. . .
Better the blue silence and the gray west,
The autumn mist on the river,
And not any hate and not any love,
And not anything at all of the keen and the deep:
Only the peace of a dog head on a barn floor,
And the new corn shoveled in bushels
And the pumpkins brought from the corn rows,
Umber lights of the dark,
Umber lanterns of the loam dark.
Here a dog head dreams.
Not any hate, not any love.
Not anything but dreams.
Brother of dusk and umber.
PoppiesShe loves blood-red poppies for a garden to walk in.
In a loose white gown she walks
and a new child tugs at cords in her body.
Her head to the west at evening when the dew is creeping,
A shudder of gladness runs in her bones and torsal fiber:
She loves blood-red poppies for a garden to walk in.
By day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and has a soul.
Elevators slide on their cables and tubes catch letters and parcels and
Hour by hour the caissons reach down to the rock of the earth and
Hour by hour the hand of the mason and the stuff of the mortar
Men who sunk the pilings and mixed the mortar are laid in grave
On the office doors from tier to tier—hundreds of names and eac
Behind the signs on the doors they work and the walls tell nothing
Hands of clocks turn to noon hours and each floor empties its men
Darkness on the hallways. Voices echo. Silence holds. . . Watchmen
Old TimersI am an ancient reluctant conscript.
On the soup wagons of Xerxes I was a cleaner of pans.
On the march of Miltiades’ phalanx I had a haft and head;
I had a bristling gleaming spear-handle.
Red-headed Caesar picked me for a teamster.
He said, “Go to work, you Tuscan bastard,
Rome calls for a man who can drive horses.”
The units of conquest led by Charles the Twelfth,
The whirling whimsical Napoleonic columns:
They saw me one of the horseshoers.
I trimmed the feet of a white horse Bonaparte swept the night stars with.
Lincoln said, “Get into the game; your nation takes you.”
And I drove a wagon and team and I had my arm shot off
At Spotsylvania Court House.
I am an ancient reluctant conscript.
WarsIn the old wars drum of hoofs and the beat of shod feet.
In the new wars hum of motors and the tread of rubber tires.
In the wars to come silent wheels and whirr of rods not yet dreamed
out in the heads of men.
In the old wars clutches of short swords and jabs into faces with spears.
In the new wars long-range guns and smashed walls, guns running a
spit of metal and men falling in tens and twenties.
In the wars to come new silent deaths, new silent hurlers not yet
dreamed out in the heads of men.
In the old wars kings quarreling and thousands of men following.
In the new wars kings quarreling and millions of men following.
In the wars to come kings kicked under the dust and millions of men
following great causes not yet dreamed out in the heads of men.
To the Ghost of John MiltonIf I should pamphleteer twenty years against royalists,
With rewards offered for my capture dead or alive,
And jails and scaffolds always near;
And then my wife should die and three ignorant daughters
Should talk about their father as a joke, and steal the
Earnings of books, and the poorhouse always reaching for me,
If I then lost my eyes and the world was all dark and I
Sat with only memories and talk—
I would write “Paradise Lost,” I would marry a second wife
And on her dying I would marry a third pair of eyes to
Serve my blind eyes. I would write “Paradise Regained,” I
Would write wild, foggy, smoky, wordy books—
I would sit by the fire and dream of hell and heaven,
Idiots and kings, women my eyes could never look on again,
And God Himself and the rebels God threw into hell.
CleoBorn of a slave mother and father, she toiled
in the fields, loved the earth and the sun,
and was strong.
At evening the going down of the sun told her
whether she was written in the book of God as
a good or a bad woman for that day.
In the gloaming of the long autumn day she told
friends, “Every one of us got a baby inside de
body. When de rest of de body shuffle off, dis
baby go to Jesus. Dare is wings waitin’ to be
hitched on. Atter dat, you is angel.”
The fields and the earth were kind to her.
WildernessThere is a wolf in me . . . fangs pointed for tearing gashes . . . a red
tongue for raw meat . . . and the hot lapping of blood—I keep
this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness
will not let it go.
There is a fox in me . . . a silver-gray fox . . . I sniff and guess . . . I
pick things out of the wind and air . . . I nose in the dark night
and take sleepers and eat them and hide the feathers . . . I circle
and loop and double-cross.
There is a hog in me . . . a snout and a belly . . . a machinery for
eating and grunting . . . a machinery for sleeping satisfied in the
sun—I got this too from the wilderness and the wilderness will
not let go.
There is a fish in me . . . I know I came from salt-blue watergates
. . . I scurried with shoals of herring . . . I blew waterspouts with
porpoises . . . before land was . . . before the water went down
. . . before Noah . . . before the first chapter of Genesis.
There is a baboon in me . . . clambering-clawed . . . dog-faced . . .
yawping a galoot’s hunger . . . hairy under the armpits . . . here
are the hawk-eyed hankering men . . . here are the blonde and
blue-eyed women . . . here they hide curled asleep waiting . . .
ready to snarl and kill . . . ready to sing and give milk . . .
waiting—I keep the baboon because the wilderness says so.
There is an eagle in me and a mockingbird . . . and the eagle flies
among the Rocky Mountains of my dreams and fights among the
Sierra crags of what I want . . . and the mockingbird warbles in
the early forenoon before the dew is gone, warbles in the under-
brush of my Chattanoogas of hope, gushes over the blue Ozark
foothills of my wishes—And I got the eagle and the mocking-
bird from the wilderness.
O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony
head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is
a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother
and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-
Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and
no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from
Untitled (A posthumously published poem from Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln series)Paint his head against lavender shadows.
Fling stars around howsoever you choose.
The wing tips of birds circling sunset
Arches of measureless fading gates.
Put in mystery without end.
This man was mystery.
And yet at the end of your hands technique
Of fixing mystery around a head,
Let up on the mystery. Mix in among the
Lavender shadows the gorilla far back
And the jungle cry of readiness for death
Or struggle—and the clean breeds who live on
In the underbrush. Mix in farther back yet
Breeds out of the slime of the sea.
Put in a high green of a restless sea.
Insinuate chlorine and mystic salts,
The make-up of vertebrates,
The long highway of mammals who chew
their victims and feed their children
From milk at a breast. Let him cry from silence
How the fathers and the women went hungry
And battled hunger and tore each other’s jugulars
Over land and women, laughter and language.
Put in mystery without end. Then add mystery.
——Back to Lectio Contents——