Fate sometimes chooses the writer.
July 2, 2015
CARL SANDBURG WAS SMITTEN with his “endless unrest.”
He had spent years looking for a trade, a vocation, even a profession, and he remained on a hard, shadowed road that was leading him from one dead end to another. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he began to concoct the idea that maybe he had the ability to put a pen and ink to paper and write.
His free verse read like prose, his prose like poetry, full of strength and emotion. The common man did not read poetry. The common man would read Carl.
As his granddaughter said, “In his work, he turned often to the jargon of the people about which he wrote. His most poetic images and phrasing would not seem alien to a store clerk or a steelworker.”
But he wrote alone, preferred the quiet of the night, and remained a vagabond in search of himself. Carl bought bananas for a dime a dozen and a loaf of stale bread for a nickel. He lived and ate simply. He traveled the backroads on a rented bicycle, pedaling from farm to farm and selling stereoscopes throughout Wisconsin.
He traveled winding roads, never ending. He was as restless as always. But the job did give him the freedom to wander alone and think, to sit beneath the trees in the shank of the day and read, to linger at roadsides and write all kinds of formal verse. The poems were not so good he always said, “but I had the lingering, and that was good.”
The lingering would never leave him. His curious journeys had shaped him. The common man molded him. He read so many words along the way, and finally he began to put his own words on paper. He wrote them his way, free and unstructured, powerful and filled with imagery that came from the mind and emotion of a man who saw America at its best, at its worst, and forgot nothing. It was his own style. He fit no other.
It could have turned out far different.
While the burning, splintered remnants of the battleship Maine lay scattered upon the ocean, Carl enlisted in the army simply because President McKinley had declared war. He wound up in Cuba by the time the fighting had ended.
His was not a bloody tour, he said, but a dirty, lousy affair all the same. Long marches. Hard roads. Fifty-pound backpacks. Never-ending rains. Mosquitoes with blood on their faces, his blood. And graybacks in his uniform.
Carl stood tall during the most miserable of times and impressed his commanding officer so greatly that, with only an eighth grade education, he was nominated as a candidate for West Point.
That’s where he took the road not taken. Carl worked on newspapers and magazines, sat down and wrote the Rutabaga Stories for children, and, during the quiet solitude of a long night, began writing the free verse of his poetry.
He had possessed the soul of a poet all along.
Carl Sandburg wrote with his old typewriter mounted atop an orange crate.
“Why not a desk?” he was asked.
“Surely you can afford a desk.”
Carl smiled. “If General Grant could command his troops from an old crate,” he said, “I can certainly write about it from one.”
So he did. Carl championed the cause of “the Poor, millions of the Poor, patient and toiling; more patient than crags, tides, and stars; innumerable, patient in the darkness of the night.” He celebrated the universal toil, blood, and dreams among lovers, workers, loafers, fighters, players, and gamblers.” And as he said at the end of his days, “If God had let me live five years longer, I should have been a writer.”
It could have turned out far different.
If, after his sojourn in the Spanish American War, Carl’s nomination to West Point had been accepted, he might well have settled down to a military career as an officer and a gentleman. His landscape would have been fogged by the gunpowder of two World War battlefields instead of defined by his poems.
Instead, Carl became a poet. He had no other choice. West Point glanced over his application and rejected him.
On his entrance exam, Carl Sandburg failed grammar.
Caleb Pirtle III is the author of Night Side of Dark.