Last week I watched a PBS documentary called The Day Carl Sandburg Died and I learned a lot about the life of poet and biographer Carl Sandburg. Previously I knew that Sandburg had written some acclaimed biographies of Abraham Lincoln, but I knew nothing about his poetry or his importance as a music preservationist and a political radical. Carl Sandburg led a very interesting life, and his life is another example of something I have discovered about our American heritage. Most of the great American artists and writers who shaped our American culture were to the left of the political spectrum, and this leftist viewpoint helped shape an egalitarian and populist American viewpoint.
Carl Sandburg started out as a very radical leftist activist. As a young man, he was a member of the Social-Democrat Party, and he worked on Socialist Eugene Debs campaign for President of the U.S. From 1920 to 1912, Carl Sandburg worked as the secretary for Milwaukee's Socialist mayor. He wrote for many leftist magazines, and supported the work of radical organizations like the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies). After 1920, he moved away from radical activities, but he stayed active in progressive politics, supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and voicing his support for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
This left wing viewpoint had a deep influence on Sandburg's poems. Rosellen Brown wrote an essay for the book Poetry Speaks Expanded that describes the sympathy for the workers that is found in Sandburg's poems. Brown wrote:
Neither as complex as Whitman nor as subtle as Frost, that other white-haired sweetheart of the people, Sandburg brought a blunt, honest, documentary anger to his vision of impoverished workers, neglected children, the overworked, and the underpaid. As a young journalist he had been an earnest socialist, and he never tired of punching out his casually free verse indictments of the plutocrats, industrialists, religious hucksters, and crooked politicians who feast on the flesh of the poor. ("The lawyers- tell me why a hearse horse snickers hauling a lawyer's bones.") In nearly two hundred pages of "The People, Yes", he constructed a precise and compassionate monument to the diversity of democracy that is, finally, both wearing and magnificent. Sometimes sentimental but just as often acute and bitter in its populist cynicism about where economic and political power lie, what finally prevails is his admiration for the patience with which the powerless wear the yoke of their oppression.
I went to the library and checked out the book Selected Poems of Carl Sandburg edited by Rebecca West so I could discover more of Carl Sandburg's poetry. I selected a few poems to include on this blog, as well as youtube videos of Carl Sandburg and recitals of his poetry.
by Carl Sandburg
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your
painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: yes, it is true I have seen
the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women
and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my
city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be
alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall
bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted
against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his
ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked,
sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.
I am the People, the Mob
by Carl Sandburg
I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world's food and
I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me
and the Lincolns. They die. And then I send forth more Napoleons
I am the seed ground. I am a prairie that will stand for much plowing.
Terrible storms pass over me. I forget. The best of me is sucked out
and wasted. I forget. Everything but Death comes to me and makes
me work and give up what I have. And I forget.
Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history
to remember. Then—I forget.
When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the
lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year,
who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the
world say the name: "The People," with any fleck of a sneer in his
voice or any far-off smile of derision.
The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then.
At a Window
by Carl Sandburg
Give me hunger,
O you gods that sit and give
The world its orders.
Give me hunger, pain and want,
Shut me out with shame and failure
From your doors of gold and fame,
Give me your shabbiest, weariest hunger!
But leave me a little love,
A voice to speak to me in the day end,
A hand to touch me in the dark room
Breaking the long loneliness.
In the dusk of day-shapes
Blurring the sunset,
One little wandering, western star
Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow.
Let me go to the window,
Watch there the day-shapes of dusk
And wait and know
by Carl Sandburg
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
Memoir of a Proud Boy
By Carl Sandburg
He lived on the wings of storm.
The ashes are in Chihuahua.
Out of Ludlow and coal towns in Colorado
Sprang a vengeance of Slave miners, Italians, Scots,
Killings ran under the spoken commands of this boy
With eighty men and rifles on a hogback mountain.
They killed swearing to remember
The shot and charred wives and children
In the burnt camp of Ludlow,
And Louis Tikas, the laughing Greek,
Plugged with a bullet, clubbed with a gun butt.
As a home war
It held the nation a week
And one or two million men stood together
And swore by the retribution of steel.
It was all accidental.
He lived flecking lint off coat lapels
Of men he talked with.
He kissed the miners' babies
And wrote a Denver paper
Of picket silhouettes on a mountain line.
He had no mother but Mother Jones
Crying from a jail window of Trinidad:
'All I want is room enough to stand
And shake my fist at the enemies of the human race.'
Named by a grand jury as a murderer
He went to Chihuaha, forgot his old Scotch name,
Smoked cheroots with Pancho Villa
And wrote letters of Villa as a rock of the people.
How can I tell how Don Magregor went?
Three riders emptied lead into him.
He layed on the main street of an inland town.
A boy sat near all day throwing stones
To keep pigs away.
The Villa men buried him in a pit
With twenty Carranzistas.
There is drama in that point...
...the boy and the pigs.
Griffith would make a movie of it to fetch sobs.
Victor Herbert would have the drums whirr
In a weave with a high fiddle-string's single clamour.
'And the muchacho sat there all day throwing stones
To keep the pigs away,' wrote Gibbons to the Tribune.
Somewhere in Chihuaha or Colorado
Is a leather bag of poems and short stories.
The Mayor of Gary
By Carl Sandburg
I asked the Mayor of Gary about the 12-hour day
and the 7-day week.
And the Mayor of Gary answered more workmen steal
time on the job in Gary than any other place in
the United States.
'Go into the plants and you will see men sitting around
doing nothing- machinery does everything,' said
the Mayor of Gary when I asked him about the
12-hour day and the 7-day week.
And he wore cool cream pants, the Mayor of Gary,
and white shoes, and a barber had fixed him up
with a shampoo and a shave and he was easy and
imperturbable though the government weather
bureau thermometer said 96 and children were
soaking their heads at bubbling fountains on the
And I said good-bye to the Mayor of Gary and I went
out from the city hall and turned the corner into
And I saw workmen wearing leather shoes scruffed
with fire and cinders, and pitted with little holes
from running molten steel,
And some had bunches of specialized muscles around
their shoulder blades hard as pig iron, muscles of
their forearms were sheet steel and they looked to
me like men who had been somewhere.
Gary, Indiana, 1915
A preview of the documentary "The Day Carl Sandburg Died"
A short documentary of Carl Sandburg and his use of poetry for social reform
A Four Seasons Productions Moving Poetry Series recital of Carl Sandburg's "Good Morning America" by Dr. Allen Dwight Callahan
A Four Seasons Productions Moving Poetry Series recital of Carl Sandburg's "Skyscrapers" by Dr. Allen Dwight Callahan
A recital of Carl Sandburg's "To a Contemporary Bunkshooter"