The Writing Traveler: A Poet for the Common Man
February 25, 2022
Caleb Pirtle III
His free verse read like prose, his prose like poetry, full of strength and emotion. The common man would read Carl Sandburg.
Carl Sandburg is one of those writers I read when I’m searching for inspiration. Why? He writes poetry that country boys like me can understand. I learned more about him in the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site at Flat Rock, North Carolina. He wrote for us. He was one of us.
As a young man, Carl had no idea what to do with himself. Words and lines of free verse were forming in his brain. He had no idea what to do with those either. Why write them down? Who would ever read them?
He tried one trade, then another, and none really appealed to him. Carl drove a milk truck, sandpapered houses for a painter, and borrowed every book he could find to read.
Carl was still 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 Sandburg. 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.”
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. Winding roads. Never-ending. 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.
At the end of that unpredictable and circuitous road, Carl Sandburg found pen and paper and finally an old typewriter. He 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.
Although a few holier than thou historians said that a poet’s pen should never meddle with history, Carl wrote the six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, which may well be the finest biography of them all. His were the stories of a man, a President, and an age. Carl told his publisher that he thought the Lincoln book might be “a sort of history and Old Testament of the United States, a joke almanac, prayer collection, and compendium of essential facts.”
The final four volumes, The War Years, contained more than 1.75 million words, more than the Bible or the complete works of William Shakespeare. His Lincoln biography, which took almost two decades to research and write, earned Carl Sandburg his first of two Pulitzer Prizes.
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 Sandburg 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 Sandburg 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.
While the burning, splintered remnants 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 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. 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.
If Carl Sandburg’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 Sandburg 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.
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