Carl Sandburg photo montage by Edward Steichen, 1936.
Whatever current fashion has to say, Carl Sandburg remains one of my three all-time favorite American poets and a personal inspiration. He always set his own course rejecting the obscurism of fashionable modernism, high flown rhetoric, or classical allusions in favor of plain, blunt speech.
Without even dipping into a handful of poems from his first great book, Chicago Poems that have been so widely anthologized that they are familiar to folks who don’t read poetry, here is a sample of his vigorous verse which stand on their merits without further introductions.Sandburg as a Chicago journalist in 1919.
Always the Mob
Jesus emptied the devils of one man into forty hogs and the hogs took the edge of a high rock and dropped off and down into the sea: a mob.
The sheep on the hills of Australia, blundering fourfooted in the sunset mist to the dark, they go one way, they hunt one sleep, they find one pocket of grass for all.
Karnak? Pyramids? Sphinx paws tall as a coolie? Tombs kept for kings and sacred cows? A mob.
Young roast pigs and naked dancing girls of Belshazzar, the room where a thousand sat guzzling when a hand wrote: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin? A mob.
The honeycomb of green that won the sun as the Hanging Gardens of Nineveh, flew to its shape at the hands of a mob that followed the fingers of Nebuchadnezzar: a mob of one hand and one plan.
Stones of a circle of hills at Athens, staircases of a mountain in Peru, scattered clans of marble dragons in China: each a mob on the rim of a sunrise: hammers and wagons have them now.
Locks and gates of Panama? The Union Pacific crossing deserts and tunneling mountains? The Woolworth on land and the Titanic at sea? Lighthouses blinking a coast line from Labrador to Key West? Pigiron bars piled on a barge whistling in a fog off Sheboygan? A mob: hammers and wagons have them to-morrow.
The mob? A typhoon tearing loose an island from thousand-year moorings and bastions, shooting a volcanic ash with a fire tongue that licks up cities and peoples. Layers of worms eating rocks and forming loam and valley floors for potatoes, wheat, watermelons.
The mob? A jag of lightning, a geyser, a gravel mass loosening…
The mob … kills or builds … the mob is Attila or Ghengis Khan, the mob is Napoleon, Lincoln.
I am born in the mob—I die in the mob—the same goes for you—I don’t care who you are.
I cross the sheets of fire in No Man’s land for you, my brother—I slip a steel tooth into your throat, you my brother—I die for you and I kill you—It is a twisted and gnarled thing, a crimson wool:
One more arch of stars,
In the night of our mist,
In the night of our tears.
Play it across the table.
What if we steal this city blind?
If they want any thing let ‘em nail it down.
Harness bulls, dicks, front office men,
And the high goats up on the bench,
Ain’t they all in cahoots?
Ain’t it fifty-fifty all down the line,
Petemen, dips, boosters, stick-ups and guns—
what’s to hinder?
If they nail you call in a mouthpiece.
Fix it, you gazump, you slant-head, fix it.
Feed ‘em. . . .
Nothin’ ever sticks to my fingers, nah, nah,
nothin’ like that,
But there ain’t no law we got to wear mittens—
Mittens, that’s a good one—mittens!
There oughta be a law everybody wear mittens.
Among the mountains I wandered and saw blue haze and
red crag and was amazed;
On the beach where the long push under the endless tide
maneuvers, I stood silent;
Under the stars on the prairie watching the Dipper slant
over the horizon’s grass, I was full of thoughts.
Great men, pageants of war and labor, soldiers and workers,
mothers lifting their children—these all I
touched, and felt the solemn thrill of them.
And then one day I got a true look at the Poor, millions
of the Poor, patient and toiling; more patient than
crags, tides, and stars; innumerable, patient as the
darkness of night—and all broken, humble ruins of nations.
They Will Say
Of my city the worst that men will ever say is
You took little children away from the sun and the dew,
And the glimmers that played in the grass under the great sky,
And the reckless rain; you put them between walls
To work, broken and smothered, for bread and wages,
To eat dust in their throats and die empty-hearted
For a little handful of pay on a few Saturday nights.
New-mown hay smell and wind of the plain made her
a woman whose ribs had the power of the hills in
them and her hands were tough for work and there
was passion for life in her womb.
She and her man crossed the ocean and the years that
marked their faces saw them haggling with landlords
and grocers while six children played on the stones
and prowled in the garbage cans.
One child coughed its lungs away, two more have adenoids
and can neither talk nor run like their mother,
one is in jail, two have jobs in a box factory
And as they fold the pasteboard, they wonder what the
wishing is and the wistful glory in them that flutters
faintly when the glimmer of spring comes on
the air or the green of summer turns brown:
They do not know it is the new-mown hay smell calling
and the wind of the plain praying for them to come
back and take hold of life again with tough hands
and with passion.
Cross the hands over the breast here—so.
Straighten the legs a little more—so.
And call for the wagon to come and take her home.
Her mother will cry some and so will her sisters and
But all of the others got down and they are safe and
this is the only one of the factory girls who
wasn't lucky in making the jump when the fire broke.
It is the hand of God and the lack of fire escapes.
I am the nigger.
Singer of songs,
Dancer. . .
Softer than fluff of cotton. . .
Harder than dark earth
Roads beaten in the sun
By the bare feet of slaves. . .
Foam of teeth. . . breaking crash of laughter. . .
Red love of the blood of woman,
White love of the tumbling pickaninnies. . .
Lazy love of the banjo thrum. . .
Sweated and driven for the harvest-wage,
Loud laughter with hands like hams,
Fists toughened on the handles,
Smiling the slumber dreams of old jungles,
Crazy as the sun and dew and dripping, heaving life
of the jungle,
Brooding and muttering with memories of shackles:
I am the nigger.
Look at me.
I am the nigger.
Ready to Kill
Ten minutes now I have been looking at this.
I have gone by here before and wondered about it.
This is a bronze memorial of a famous general
Riding horseback with a flag and a sword and a revolver
I want to smash the whole thing into a pile of junk to be
hauled away to the scrap yard.
I put it straight to you,
After the farmer, the miner, the shop man, the factory
hand, the fireman and the teamster,
Have all been remembered with bronze memorials,
Shaping them on the job of getting all of us
Something to eat and something to wear,
When they stack a few silhouettes
Against the sky
Here in the park,
And show the real huskies that are doing the work of
the world, and feeding people instead of butchering them,
Then maybe I will stand here
And look easy at this general of the army holding a flag
in the air,
And riding like hell on horseback
Ready to kill anybody that gets in his way,
Ready to run the red blood and slush the bowels of men
all over the sweet new grass of the prairie.
Prayers After a World War
Hunting and hoarse, Oh daughter and mother,
Oh daughter of ashes and mother of blood,
Child of the hair let down, and tears,
Child of the cross in the south
And the star in the north,
Keeper of Egypt and Russia and France,
Keeper of England and Poland and Spain,
Make us a song for to-morrow.
Make us one new dream, us who forget,
Out of the storm let us have one star.
Struggle, Oh anvils, and help her.
Weave with your wool. Oh winds and skies.
Let your iron and copper help,
Oh dirt of the old dark earth.
Wandering oversea singer,
Singing of ashes and blood,
Child of the scars of fire,
Make us one new dream, us who forget.
Out of the storm let us have one star.
And They Obey
Smash down the cities.
Knock the walls to pieces.
Break the factories and cathedrals, warehouses
Into loose piles of stone and lumber and black
You are the soldiers and we command you.
Build up the cities.
Set up the walls again.
Put together once more the factories and cathedrals,
warehouses and homes
Into buildings for life and labor:
You are workmen and citizens all: We
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