poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

About this poet

Carl Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, on January 6, 1878. His parents, August and Clara Johnson, had emigrated to America from the north of Sweden. After encountering several August Johnsons in his job for the railroad, the Sandburg's father renamed the family. The Sandburgs were very poor; Carl left school at the age of thirteen to work odd jobs, from laying bricks to dishwashing, to help support his family. At seventeen, he traveled west to Kansas as a hobo. He then served eight months in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American war. While serving, Sandburg met a student at Lombard College, the small school located in Sandburg's hometown. The young man convinced Sandburg to enroll in Lombard after his return from the war.

Sandburg worked his way through school, where he attracted the attention of Professor Philip Green Wright, who not only encouraged Sandburg's writing, but paid for the publication of his first volume of poetry, a pamphlet called Reckless Ecstasy (1904). While Sandburg attended Lombard for four years, he never received a diploma (he would later receive honorary degrees from Lombard, Knox College, and Northwestern University). After college, Sandburg moved to Milwaukee, where he worked as an advertising writer and a newspaper reporter. While there, he met and married Lillian Steichen (whom he called Paula), sister of the photographer Edward Steichen. A Socialist sympathizer at that point in his life, Sandburg then worked for the Social-Democrat Party in Wisconsin and later acted as secretary to the first Socialist mayor of Milwaukee from 1910 to 1912.

The Sandburgs soon moved to Chicago, where Carl became an editorial writer for the Chicago Daily News. Harriet Monroe had just started Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, and began publishing Sandburg's poems, encouraging him to continue writing in the free-verse, Whitman-like style he had cultivated in college. Monroe liked the poems' homely speech, which distinguished Sandburg from his predecessors. It was during this period that Sandburg was recognized as a member of the Chicago literary renaissance, which included Ben Hecht, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Edgar Lee Masters. He established his reputation with Chicago Poems (1916), and then Cornhuskers (1918), for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1919. Soon after the publication of these volumes Sandburg wrote Smoke and Steel (1920), his first prolonged attempt to find beauty in modern industrialism. With these three volumes, Sandburg became known for his free verse poems that portrayed industrial America.

In the twenties, he started some of his most ambitious projects, including his study of Abraham Lincoln. From childhood, Sandburg loved and admired the legacy of President Lincoln. For thirty years he sought out and collected material, and gradually began the writing of the six-volume definitive biography of the former president. The twenties also saw Sandburg's collections of American folklore, the ballads in The American Songbag and The New American Songbag (1950), and books for children. These later volumes contained pieces collected from brief tours across America which Sandburg took each year, playing his banjo or guitar, singing folk-songs, and reciting poems.

In the 1930s, Sandburg continued his celebration of America with Mary Lincoln, Wife and Widow (1932), The People, Yes (1936), and the second part of his Lincoln biography, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939), for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He received a second Pulitzer Prize for his Complete Poems in 1950. His final volumes of verse were Harvest Poems, 1910-1960 (1960) and Honey and Salt (1963). Carl Sandburg died on July 22, 1967.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Chicago Poems (1916)
Complete Poems (1950)
Cornhuskers (1918)
Good Morning, America (1928)
Harvest Poems (1950)
Honey and Salt (1963)
In Reckless Ecstasy (1904)
Selected Poems (1926)
Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922)
Smoke and Steel (1920)
The People, Yes (1936)

Prose

Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (1926)
Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939)
Mary Lincoln: Wife and Widow (1932)
Steichen the Photographer (1929)
The American Songbag (1927)
The New American Songbag (1950)

Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind

Carl Sandburg, 1878 - 1967
The past is a bucket of ashes.

1

The woman named Tomorrow  
sits with a hairpin in her teeth  
and takes her time  
and does her hair the way she wants it  
and fastens at last the last braid and coil 
and puts the hairpin where it belongs  
and turns and drawls: Well, what of it?  
My grandmother, Yesterday, is gone.  
What of it? Let the dead be dead.  
  
 
2

The doors were cedar
and the panels strips of gold  
and the girls were golden girls  
and the panels read and the girls chanted:  
  We are the greatest city,  
  the greatest nation:
  nothing like us ever was.  
   
The doors are twisted on broken hinges.  
Sheets of rain swish through on the wind  
  where the golden girls ran and the panels read:  
  We are the greatest city,
  the greatest nation,  
  nothing like us ever was.  
   

3

It has happened before.  
Strong men put up a city and got  
  a nation together,
And paid singers to sing and women  
  to warble: We are the greatest city,  
    the greatest nation,  
    nothing like us ever was.  
   
And while the singers sang
and the strong men listened  
and paid the singers well  
and felt good about it all,  
  there were rats and lizards who listened  
  … and the only listeners left now
  … are … the rats … and the lizards.  
   
And there are black crows  
crying, "Caw, caw,"  
bringing mud and sticks  
building a nest
over the words carved  
on the doors where the panels were cedar  
and the strips on the panels were gold  
and the golden girls came singing:  
  We are the greatest city,
  the greatest nation:  
  nothing like us ever was.  
   
The only singers now are crows crying, "Caw, caw,"  
And the sheets of rain whine in the wind and doorways.  
And the only listeners now are … the rats … and the lizards.
   

4

The feet of the rats  
scribble on the door sills;  
the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints  
chatter the pedigrees of the rats  
and babble of the blood
and gabble of the breed  
of the grandfathers and the great-grandfathers  
of the rats.  
   
And the wind shifts  
and the dust on a door sill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints  
tells us nothing, nothing at all  
about the greatest city, the greatest nation  
where the strong men listened  
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was. 

This poem is in the public domain.

This poem is in the public domain.

Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg was awarded three Pulitzer Prizes in his lifetime—the first in 1919 for his poetry collection Corn Huskers, the second in 1940 for his biography Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, and the third in 1951 for Complete Poems.

by this poet

poem
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
poem
It's going to come out all right—do you know?
The sun, the birds, the grass—they know.
They get along—and we’ll get along.

Some days will be rainy and you will sit waiting
And the letter you wait for won’t come,
And I will sit watching the sky tear off gray and gray
And the letter I wait for won’t come.

There
poem

Blossoms of babies
Blinking their stories
Come soft
On the dusk and the babble;
Little red gamblers,
Handfuls that slept in the dust.

Summers of rain,
Winters of drift,
Tell of the years;
And they go back

Who came soft—
Back to the sod,
To