The Carl Sandburg Primer for Writers

His was a curious and a simple life. He would have it no other way. He was a common man who found a curious sense of belonging among common men in common places under common circumstances.

Hidden away among them, he discovered the uncommon rhythm of a life that possessed shape and form but little definition and hardly any meaning at all. He heard only the odd cadence of a nation’s voices, often as loud as thunder, sometimes as soft as a whisper, and they spoke to him, and he spoke for them, and very seldom did their diffident collection of words ever rhyme or need to.

His was a crooked road with twists and turns and crossroads, and he hardly ever knew which road to take, so he tried to take them all. He was a vagabond in the wayward midst of an aimless journey. It could have turned out far different .

A narrow highway stretched out before Carl Sandburg, and it was, at it had always been, a dead end. Like a fly in the ragged web of a spider, he seldom new what to do next. It was not the easiest of times. He had been born on a cornshuck mattress, the son of a Swedish blacksmith who could write his name, not in English anyway.

Mostly, during his early years, Carl just listened to those around him, and the soul of those who fought and survived a hard life became his own soul, his own conscience. He wondered what God had chosen to do with his life, and he found few options. None of them dealt with a pen and paper. It could have turned out far different.

He quit school in the eighth grade and hardly ever lived in the same house for very long. His father was always on the move, and Carl was abandoned with a scattered assortment of newspapers, magazines, and books to read. He crawled between their covers and closed the pages around him. He had no other place to go.

He had never been a stranger to poverty. As a boy, he dug his garden and raised vegetables. He delivered newspapers, scrubbed brick from demolished houses, and cleaned brass cuspidors in a barbershop.

He distributed handbills for twenty-five cents a day and worked as a milk slinger on a wagon route for twelve dollars a month. Carl washed bottles in a pop bottling plant, worked as a water boy for mules and men as they graded the hills where trolley cars would run, rented out rowboats, stacked heavy blocks of ice in an ice house, and sponged down sweating horses at the gamblers racetrack.

Carl could have been discouraged. He wasn’t. He asked for little. He expected little. He found much on a road that allowed him to watch the “fog come in on little cat feet,” witness “a sunset sea-flung, bannered with fire and gold,” and stumble across a “pier running into a lake straight as a rifle barrel.” He could not escape the scenes forged in his mind, and they would not leave him alone. He had no idea what to do with them. It could have turned out far different.

Carl traveled with panhandlers, tramps, thieves, and hoboes that took one road, then another, found one day and lost another, worked for a dime worked for a meal, and possessed a proud dignity because they endured when the odds had given them up for dead.

He rode the rails, slept in train yards or fifteen-cent flophouses, watched the cites come and go, saw the countryside change from mountains to wheat fields, then fall away in the long shadows of thick forests. He felt at home with the great unwashed.

Carl Sandburg, a captive of his loneliness.

Carl was a puzzled man.  Words and lines of free verse were spilling from his brain, and hee had no idea what to do with them. Why write them down? Who would read them?

While the burning, splintered remains of the battleship Maine lay scattered upon the ocean, he enlisted in the Army simply because President McKinley had declared war. Carl wound up in Cuba 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 his life changed for good. It could have turned out far different.

In the dying days of the Spanish American War, if his nomination to West Point had been accepted, Carl Sandburg might well have settled down to a military career as an officer and a gentleman.

His landscape would have been fogged by the death and gunpowder of two world war battlefields.  Instead, it was defined by the power of his poetry. Carl Sandburg had no other choice. He had concocted 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 read Carl Sandburg.

His brilliant verse could have all been lost to war. But West Point glanced over his application and promptly rejected him.

On his entrance exam, Carl Sandburg failed grammar.

He was regarded as a poet. Carl Sandburg considered himself a poet. He won his Pulitzer Prize, however, for writing prose in The War Years, his multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln.

Sandburg's note to his daughter.

His thoughts on poetry mean just as much to those of us who write prose. He understood us well when he said, “There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud.”

  1. I make it clear why I write as I do and other poets write as they do. After hundreds of experiments, I decided to go my own way in style and see what happens.
  2. There was always the consolation that if I didn’t like what I wrote I could throw it away or burn it.
  3. Nothing happens unless first you have a dream.
  4. Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.
  5. Poetry is an echo asking a shadow to dance.
  6. Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what was seen during a moment.
  7. Ordering a man to write poems is like commanding a pregnant woman to give birth to a red-haired child.
  8. Shakespeare, Leonardo Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln never saw a movie, heard a radio, or looked at television. They had loneliness and knew what to do with it. They were not afraid of being lonely because they knew that was when the creative mood in them would work.
  9. I never made a mistake in grammar but one in my life and as soon as I done it, I seen it.

10. We can never possibly know what is about to happen: it is happening, each time, for the first time, for the only time.

11. A book is never a masterpiece. It becomes one. Genius is the talent of a dead man.

12. Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits in his hands, and goes to work.

13. Here is the difference between Dante, Milton, and me. They wrote about hell and never saw the place. I wrote about Chicago after looking the town over for years and years.

14. Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away.

15. Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.

16. Poetry is a packsack of invisible keepsakes.

17. Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at barriers of the unknown and unknowable.

18. I wrote poems in my corner of the Brooks Street Station. I sent them to two editors who rejected them right off. I read those letters of rejection years later, and I agreed with the editors.

19. There are ten men in me, and I do not know or understand them.

20. I’ve written some poetry I don’t understand myself.

He knew well the flaws, foibles, and fears of common writers who spend a lifetime turning the poetry and prose of the world around them into stories that may light up a new day or never see the light of day. He believed there were two ways to be a writer, and he believed each of us should develop our own styles and see what happen, look at life through a pair of eyes that see past the obvious and bore into the burning or bitter emotions of the story.

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