The Progenitor

CARL SANDBURG: Classic Poetry Series

Carl August Sandburg (January 6, 1878 – July 22, 1967) was an American poet, biographer, journalist, and editor. He won three Pulitzer Prizes: two for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln. During his lifetime, Sandburg was widely regarded as “a major figure in contemporary literature”, especially for volumes of his collected verse, including Chicago Poems (1916), Cornhuskers (1918), and Smoke and Steel (1920).

 

A Coin

Your western heads here cast on money,
You are the two that fade away together,
Partners in the mist.

Lunging buffalo shoulder,
Lean Indian face,
We who come after where you are gone
Salute your forms on the new nickel.

You are
To us:
The past.

Runners
On the prairie:
Good-by.

Carl Sandburg

A Father To His Son

A father sees his son nearing manhood.
What shall he tell that son?
‘Life is hard; be steel; be a rock.’
And this might stand him for the storms
and serve him for humdrum monotony
and guide him among sudden betrayals
and tighten him for slack moments.
‘Life is a soft loam; be gentle; go easy.’
And this too might serve him.
Brutes have been gentled where lashes failed.
The growth of a frail flower in a path up
has sometimes shattered and split a rock.
A tough will counts. So does desire.
So does a rich soft wanting.
Without rich wanting nothing arrives.
Tell him too much money has killed men
and left them dead years before burial:
the quest of lucre beyond a few easy needs
has twisted good enough men
sometimes into dry thwarted worms.
Tell him time as a stuff can be wasted.
Tell him to be a fool every so often
and to have no shame over having been a fool
yet learning something out of every folly
hoping to repeat none of the cheap follies
thus arriving at intimate understanding
of a world numbering many fools.
Tell him to be alone often and get at himself
and above all tell himself no lies about himself
whatever the white lies and protective fronts
he may use against other people.
Tell him solitude is creative if he is strong
and the final decisions are made in silent rooms.
Tell him to be different from other people
if it comes natural and easy being different.
Let him have lazy days seeking his deeper motives.
Let him seek deep for where he is born natural.
Then he may understand Shakespeare
and the Wright brothers, Pasteur, Pavlov,

Michael Faraday and free imaginations
Bringing changes into a world resenting change.
He will be lonely enough
to have time for the work
he knows as his own.

Carl Sandburg

 

A Fence

Now the stone house on the lake front is finished and the
workmen are beginning the fence.
The palings are made of iron bars with steel points that
can stab the life out of any man who falls on them.
As a fence, it is a masterpiece, and will shut off the rabble
and all vagabonds and hungry men and all wandering
children looking for a place to play.
Passing through the bars and over the steel points will go
nothing except Death and the Rain and To-morrow.

Carl Sandburg

 

A Million Young Work Men

A million young workmen straight and strong lay stiff on the grass and roads,
And the million are now under soil and their rottening flesh will in the years feed
roots of blood-red roses.
Yes, this million of young workmen slaughtered one another and never saw their
red hands.
And oh, it would have been a great job of killing and a new and beautiful thing
under the sun if the million knew why they hacked and tore each other to death.
The kings are grinning, the Kaiser and the czar—they are alive riding in leatherseated
motor cars, and they have their women and roses for ease, and they eat
fresh-poached eggs for breakfast, new butter on toast, sitting in tall water-tight
houses reading the news of war.
I dreamed a million ghosts of the young workmen rose in their shirts all soaked
in crimson … and yelled:
God damn the grinning kings, God damn the kaiser and the czar.

Carl Sandburg

 

A Sphinx

Close-mouthed you sat five thousand years and never let out a whisper.
Processions came by, marchers, asking questions you answered with grey eyes
never blinking, shut lips never talking.
Not one croak of anything you know has come from your cat crouch of ages.
I am one of those who know all you know and I keep my questions: I know the
answers you hold.

Carl Sandburg

 

A Tall Man

The mouth of this man is a gaunt strong mouth.
The head of this man is a gaunt strong head.

The jaws of this man are bone of the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachians.
The eyes of this man are chlorine of two sobbing oceans,
Foam, salt, green, wind, the changing unknown.
The neck of this man is pith of buffalo prairie, old longing and new beckoning of
corn belt or cotton belt,
Either a proud Sequoia trunk of the wilderness
Or huddling lumber of a sawmill waiting to be a roof.

Brother mystery to man and mob mystery,
Brother cryptic to lifted cryptic hands,
He is night and abyss, he is white sky of sun, he is the head of the people.
The heart of him the red drops of the people,
The wish of him the steady gray-eagle crag-hunting flights of the people.

Humble dust of a wheel-worn road,
Slashed sod under the iron-shining plow,
These of service in him, these and many cities, many borders, many wrangles
between Alaska and the Isthmus, between the Isthmus and the Horn, and east
and west of Omaha, and east and west of Paris, Berlin, Petrograd.
The blood in his right wrist and the blood in his left wrist run with the right wrist
wisdom of the many and the left wrist wisdom of the many.
It is the many he knows, the gaunt strong hunger of the many.

Carl Sandburg

 

A Teamster’s Farewell

Sobs En Route to a Penitentiary

Good-by now to the streets and the clash of wheels and
locking hubs,
The sun coming on the brass buckles and harness knobs.
The muscles of the horses sliding under their heavy
haunches,
Good-by now to the traffic policeman and his whistle,
The smash of the iron hoof on the stones,
All the crazy wonderful slamming roar of the street-
O God, there’s noises I’m going to be hungry for.

Carl Sandburg

A.E.F.

There will be a rusty gun on the wall, sweetheart,
The rifle grooves curling with flakes of rust.
A spider will make a silver string nest in the
darkest, warmest corner of it.
The trigger and the range-finder, they too will be rusty.
And no hands will polish the gun, and it will hang on the wall.
Forefingers and thumbs will point casually toward it.
It will be spoken among half-forgotten, whished-to-be-forgotten things.
They will tell the spider: Go on, you’re doing good work.

Carl Sandburg

 

Accomplished Facts

Every year Emily Dickinson sent one friend
the first arbutus bud in her garden.

In a last will and testament Andrew Jackson
remembered a friend with the gift of George
Washington’s pocket spy-glass.

Napoleon too, in a last testament, mentioned a silver
watch taken from the bedroom of Frederick the Great,
and passed along this trophy to a particular friend.

O. Henry took a blood carnation from his coat lapel
and handed it to a country girl starting work in a
bean bazaar, and scribbled: “Peach blossoms may or
may not stay pink in city dust.”
So it goes. Some things we buy, some not.
Tom Jefferson was proud of his radishes, and Abe
Lincoln blacked his own boots, and Bismarck called
Berlin a wilderness of brick and newspapers.

So it goes. There are accomplished facts.
Ride, ride, ride on in the great new blimps—
Cross unheard-of oceans, circle the planet.
When you come back we may sit by five hollyhocks.
We might listen to boys fighting for marbles.
The grasshopper will look good to us.
So it goes …

Carl Sandburg

Adelaide Crapsey

Among the bumble-bees in red-top hay, a freckled field of brown-eyed Susans
dripping yellow leaves in July,
I read your heart in a book.

And your mouth of blue pansy—I know somewhere I have seen it rain-shattered.

And I have seen a woman with her head flung between her naked knees, and her
head held there listening to the sea, the great naked sea shouldering a load of
salt.

And the blue pansy mouth sang to the sea:
Mother of God, I’m so little a thing,
Let me sing longer,
Only a little longer.

And the sea shouldered its salt in long gray combers hauling new shapes on the
beach sand.

Carl Sandburg

Alix

The mare Alix breaks the world’s trotting record one day. I see her heels flash
down the dust of an Illinois race track on a summer afternoon. I see the
timekeepers put their heads together over stopwatches, and call to the grand
stand a split second is clipped off the old world’s record and a new world’s record
fixed.

I see the mare Alix led away by men in undershirts and streaked faces. Dripping
Alix in foam of white on the harness and shafts. And the men in undershirts kiss
her ears and rub her nose, and tie blankets on her, and take her away to have
the sweat sponged.

I see the grand stand jammed with prairie people yelling themselves hoarse.
Almost the grand stand and the crowd of thousands are one pair of legs and one
voice standing up and yelling hurrah.

I see the driver of Alix and the owner smothered in a fury of handshakes, a mob
of caresses. I see the wives of the driver and owner smothered in a crush of
white summer dresses and parasols.

Hours later, at sundown, gray dew creeping on the sod and sheds, I see Alix
again:
Dark, shining-velvet Alix,
Night-sky Alix in a gray blanket,
Led back and forth by a nigger.
Velvet and night-eyed Alix
With slim legs of steel.

And I want to rub my nose against the nose of the mare Alix.

Carl Sandburg

All Day Long

All day long in fog and wind,
The waves have flung their beating crests
Against the palisades of adamant.
My boy, he went to sea, long and long ago,
Curls of brown were slipping underneath his cap,
He looked at me from blue and steely eyes;
Natty, straight and true, he stepped away,
My boy, he went to sea.
All day long in fog and wind,
The waves have flung their beating crests
Against the palisades of adamant.

Carl Sandburg

Alley Rats

They were calling certain styles of whiskers by the name of “lilacs.”
And another manner of beard assumed in their chatter a verbal guise
Of “mutton chops,” “galways,” “feather dusters.”

Metaphors such as these sprang from their lips while other street cries
Sprang from sparrows finding scattered oats among interstices of the curb.
Ah-hah these metaphors—and Ah-hah these boys—among the police they were
known
As the Dirty Dozen and their names took the front pages of newspapers
And two of them croaked on the same day at a “necktie party” … if we employ
the metaphors of their lips.

Carl Sandburg

Always The Mob

Jesus emptied the devils of one man into forty hogs and the hogs took the edge
of a high rock and dropped off and down into the sea: a mob.

The sheep on the hills of Australia, blundering fourfooted in the sunset mist to
the dark, they go one way, they hunt one sleep, they find one pocket of grass for
all.

Karnak? Pyramids? Sphinx paws tall as a coolie? Tombs kept for kings and sacred
cows? A mob.

Young roast pigs and naked dancing girls of Belshazzar, the room where a
thousand sat guzzling when a hand wrote: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin? A mob.

The honeycomb of green that won the sun as the Hanging Gardens of Nineveh,
flew to its shape at the hands of a mob that followed the fingers of
Nebuchadnezzar: a mob of one hand and one plan.

Stones of a circle of hills at Athens, staircases of a mountain in Peru, scattered
clans of marble dragons in China: each a mob on the rim of a sunrise: hammers
and wagons have them now.

Locks and gates of Panama? The Union Pacific crossing deserts and tunneling
mountains? The Woolworth on land and the Titanic at sea? Lighthouses blinking a
coast line from Labrador to Key West? Pig iron bars piled on a barge whistling in
a fog off Sheboygan? A mob: hammers and wagons have them to-morrow.

The mob? A typhoon tearing loose an island from thousand-year moorings and
bastions, shooting a volcanic ash with a fire tongue that licks up cities and
peoples. Layers of worms eating rocks and forming loam and valley floors for
potatoes, wheat, watermelons.
The mob? A jag of lightning, a geyser, a gravel mass loosening…

The mob … kills or builds … the mob is Attila or Ghengis Khan, the mob is
Napoleon, Lincoln.

I am born in the mob—I die in the mob—the same goes for you—I don’t care
who you are.

I cross the sheets of fire in No Man’s land for you, my brother—I slip a steel
tooth into your throat, you my brother—I die for you and I kill you—It is a
twisted and gnarled thing, a crimson wool:
One more arch of stars,
In the night of our mist,
In the night of our tears.

Carl Sandburg