A Different Kind of Horror


Halloween is the season of horror.  Goblins, ghoulies and ghosties skulk around the edges of consciousness.  Television movie channels pull from their graves the remains of plots that refuse to die ~ Psycho, Vertigo, Rebecca – while Hitchcock’s Birds wheel through the air.  The little ones may delight in dressing up as princesses, pirates or warlords, but blood drips and body parts pile up for the vampires, zombies and other assorted creatures of the night who seek to displace chainsaw-wielding psychopaths as the epitome of evil terror. 

Everyone understands “there’s gold in them-thar dismemberments”, and across the country everything from neighborhood haunted houses to Universal Studios’ famous Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando is trying to take a bite out of the consumer.   We love to be entertained, and we love to be scared when we know it  doesn’t count.  With its witches’ brew of  Dia De Los Muertos skeletons, decorated graves, black cats,  and whacked-out pumpkins, Halloween is our perfect holiday.  All those sugar highs are lagniappe.


One of the most unlikely purveyors of horror might be the American poet, Carl Sandburg. He’s not much in favor these days. He’s too common, too plain-spoken.  He wasn’t considered “literary” in his day and today he’d be left out of most symposia and cocktail parties.  But he had vision, and he understood people. Like Whitman before him, he acknowledged his debt to the workers and builders, the families and businesses which knit this country together.

I’ve often thought of Sandburg during this past year, after decades of ignoring his work.  Standing in the midst of the detritus of Hurricane Ike, the first words which resonated in the silence were his,  the introduction to his gripping Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind.  “Yesterday” was gone, indeed, along with Bolivar Penninsula,  a good bit of Galveston and the security of people up and down the coast.  “What of it?”  asked the woman named Tomorrow.  “Let the dead be dead.”

Whenever I’ve pitted Sandburg against Faulkner in this matter of the past, Faulkner always won.  Sandburg felt too bleak, too resigned, too dismissive of the possibilities inherent in life.  When Faulkner’s character Gavin Stevens says, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past”, the tone is quite different.  But both men are communicating truth, and it is Sandburg’s truth I ponder today.

In recent months, as economic devastation, social upheaval and political crosscurrents  have surged their way through our national life, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about Sandburg.   He couldn’t have known when he published his works what form his beloved country would have taken years hence. And yet his words are chilling, nearly prescient, as sharp and timely as though he meant to speak them precisely to us, the countrymen and women he never would know.

A Lincoln scholar, a lover of history, a straightforward man of integrity who could touch the hearts of his contemporaries,  Sandburg should speak to us today.  Let the thrill seekers crowd into their theatres or the living dead prowl their haunted houses.  Let the role players smear their blood and the would-be vampires try for a second bite. This Halloween, I’m tired of tricks, and I don’t need the treats. I’d rather  look at my country clear-eyed, and hear the poet speak, and share his unmasked words with those who dare to face our own, unnerving horrors. 


Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind

Carl Sandburg ~ 1922
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.
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.
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.

The feet of the rats
scribble on the doorsills;
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 doorsill 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.

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14 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m not sure that this is horror – one would expect to find rats and crows and the progress of time wherever one went, but the greatest city that ever was, boy! That’s quite another thing…


    I went back once to see a house I’d lived in. It had been sold, then sold again. Then, the neighborhood started going downhill, and the house went with it – broken windows, falling brick, the front door kicked in. It was the emptiness that was so sad – not just that no one lived there, but that I couldn’t even imagine I’d lived there. Maybe that’s what I find so horrible about Sandburg’s poem – it’s like looking at our country and thinking, “How did we get to this state of disrepair?”

    Thanks so much for stopping by, and especially for your comment. You’re welcome any time!


  2. As I ran out of Sandburg’s words, I thought of these by Thornton Wilder, from the final scene of Our Town:

    Emily (in deciding to return to the grave: “Good-by, good-by, world. Good-by Grover’s Corners…Mama, Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

    (Then, to the stage manager) “Do human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”

    Stage Manager: “No.” (pause) “The saints and poets maybe. They do some.”


    As you say, the unmasked words of poets (and I add playwrights) open our eyes. They haunt our spirits, reminding us that we can do better.


    And that haunting, that gentle insistence that yes, there is more, there can be more, is such a precious part of the inheritance the poets and playwrights pass on to us. If we forget that “more”, if we ignore their promptings or turn away from their visions we do so at our peril.

    And what a beautiful, appropriate addition from “Our Town”. I wonder – do schools still produce this? or has it been consigned to irrelevance like so much of our literary heritage? (Oh, dear. I am being a fussy old woman this morning!)


  3. I am haunted by the picture of the man and his dog. There’s a reason a dog is man’s best friend. A dog doesn’t care about how much money someone has, or what kind of car they drive or how big a home you have. Dogs don’t care if you’re broke, don’t own a car or are living on the street.

    Over the past 15 years I’ve been up and I’ve been down but my dog Penny has made me laugh at least once a day and that, alone, is worth the price of the food. I got her from the Puppy Prison and you can believe me when I say they know they’re in the deep doo doo when they’re there and they are grateful that you got them out. She’s old now, not unlike her owner, and she mostly lies around the house, not unlike her owner. But every day she wants to go for her afternoon walk and patrol her territory. The territory has shrunk over the years and it’s all she can do to get around a single city block now but she insists on doing it. It’s all she asks of me and I’m glad to do it with her.

    For all the “cat people” who might read this, go back and look at that photo and see why dogs beat cats all hollow. And who ever heard of a seeing eye cat, anyway? Cats could care less unless you’re opening a can of food for them. A dog will go hungry with you and lick your face to cheer you up if you have nothing to eat yourself.


    I did a little more digging, and found some information about the fellow with his dog.

    When the photo was posted on Flickr, this comment appeared:

    This man is my son. His name is Noel Mathew Cowley. He is 29 & has been missing for almost 2 years now. We want him to know we love him & everyone is concerned about him & all want him home.
    Please email me privately if you know his whereabouts. dragonzdreamz@aol.com
    Posted 27 months ago.

    And here is the link to Kirsten Starcher’s blog, Crows to Burnaby, where she tells the story of taking the photo.

    Everything you say about dogs in general and Penny particularly has the ring of truth to it. I’m not a “dog person” myself and never have had one, but their intelligence and devotion can’t be denied. And friends who’ve gotten their own puppies out of those terrible prisons support what you say – those creatures know they’ve been rescued, and they’re determined to show their gratitude.

    As for the kitties… Well, I’ve got my own Dixie Rose, a lovely calico who’s been with me about seven years now. I could run on about her forever, since of course she’s the smartest, most devoted and most well-behaved cat in the world. But that would only risk you saying, “So? Doesn’t mean much in comparison with a dog!” ;-) I can guarantee you this – whatever cats-in-general may or may not do, Miss Dixie is as boon a companion to me as any pup could be – and its the companionship that counts in the end.


  4. Absolutely chilling. There are so many things which are so much scarier than monsters.

    You illustrated it perfectly here, at the same time giving me a fresh look at Sandberg’s work.

    I love how unpretentious he is.


    Sandburg was a favorite of my growing up years in Iowa. He was taught, for one thing – I learned that the factory where my dad worked and the meat packing plant where my grandfather was night watchman were places that could live in poetry, too. When I went to Chicago for the first time, it was Sandburg I remembered. I learned about metaphor from “Fog”, and learned about healing from “Grass”. I suppose today his poetry as a whole tells us how far we’ve come from that industrial age that still was so intertwined with our rural heritage.

    And how right you are – manufactured monsters never come close to the terrors of real life.


  5. I wrote a lengthy comment here last night, which I deleted, on the difference between the soberness of this post and the giddy confections many–myself included–are offering up for this day. On another blog, I said that I feel that in this country we do not feel the “thinning of the veil” as she put it, between the real and spirit worlds–the living and the dead–in the way that other cultures do. Our Enlightened founders literally rational-ized it out of us, despite Irving, Hawthorne and Poe. In spite of the Victorian obsession with grieving. I hadn’t meant to go there.

    In brief, for every ghost and ghoulie who comes to our door later (and I hope they do) for a Snickers bar, there are two families without bread. Or milk. Or soup. For every dog that stays with its master & licks his or her face, there are three that wind up at a shelter. If they are lucky. Responsible shelters refuse to adopt out black cats at this time of year, for obvious reasons.

    You are eloquent on the devastations wrought by Hurricane Ike and the current economy. Sandburg’s poem (which I did not know)is a bracing call to arms–literal, human arms, meant for rebuilding. May it never be true: “nothing like us ever was.”

    And to think I knew him only as the gentle (quiet), simple poet of “Chicago, city of the big shoulders” and “the fog creeps in on little cat feet,” which is one of my favorite lines of poetry ever.

    Happy Halloween–only treats for you, no tricks :)


    I’ve discovered that “thinning of the veil” is a little more apparent in parts of the country where Dias de los Muertos (The Days of the Dead) and All Saints Day are celebrated publicly and enthusiastically. For many here, All Hallows Eve still has religious meaning, and it’s celebrated along with Halloween. Families decorate graves, build altars, have picnics at cemeteries with the dead, and generally acknowledge the ties between the living and those who’ve gone before. I missed it this year, but there’s a Hispanic cemetery west of San Antonio where I’ve celebrated with friends in the past – you’d be amazed how sunny and cheerful a picnic laid out on tombstones can be!

    I first experienced those close ties in Africa, where the pouring of libations to the ancestors is common, and they feel as close at hand as your neighbor. And though I know very little about their cultures, of course the Japanese, Chinese and other Asians revere their ancestors and include them in their lives. It may be that we’re the ones who are out of the mainstream, here ;-)

    Oh – and that Victorian obsession with grieving? It’s just a thought, but is it possible all that black-wearing, mirror-draping and hair-weaving
    actually cut the ties between the living and the dead? After all, those rituals were more about the living than the dead, and just a touch self-absorbed. Or so it seems.

    Now I have to wait another year to pursue it, but it’s occurred to me that Halloween used to be for children, and the adults’ role was to create a space where they could roam freely, giving expression to their imaginative urges. Now, children are transported, herded, warned, resented, and coached on how to get the most “loot”, while more and more adults dress in costume, drink to excess and generally partake in a “zombie jamboree”.

    It’s always a joke that the “old folks” pine for the old days, and lament how things have changed. But things have changed in this country, and we need to decide whether for better or worse, while there’s still time to recover some of what we’ve lost.

    All that said, it’s also true Mom was ready to shake down the neighborhood for candy last night. If I hadn’t shown up with pumpkin cookies and marshmallow Peeps shaped like ghosts – well, there’s just no telling what would have happened! :-)


  6. Hadn’t thought of Sandberg in so long.. so glad you shared this.


    That’s the refrain I’ve heard over and over ~ that folks simply had forgotten about his work. It amazed me to discover, when I went back to check his biography, that he won two Pulitzers, that he died as recently as 1967 and that he received the honor of Poet Laureate of the United States and the Medal of Freedom from President Johnson. It’s time to pay him a bit more attention!

    Thanks for stopping by!


  7. The poem is powerful. Juxtaposed with the photos, even more so. I think of the recent photos of hollowed out Detroit in Time magazine. Growing up I never even knew it was a grand city – it was always a shell during my cognizant years.

    Reading DS’ comment, I remember writing a comment on my Halloween post about living in an urban neighborhood a few years, and Halloween night we would get homeless men at the door – no teeth, no costume, just a hand, out. We shuddered at it, and we also smiled. Part of us wanted to laugh at the silliness of it, and part of us wanted to cry that life had brought them to this: begging for candy to fill their bellies.

    Are the images yours? I wasn’t sure if the one posted at flickr was yours or someone else’s. It would be quite remarkable if it was yours and the father found it!


    The photo of the man with the dog is Kirsten Starcher’s. If you click on the photo, it takes you to her 2007 page where she gives its history. I also left a direct link to her blog in my comment to Richard, above. Three of the photos which came from publications are clickable links which take you to the original source. There’s supposed to be a title which pops up when you “mouse over the image”, but obviously I didn’t get that done correctly. I’ll have to go back and see if I can figure it out.

    In any event, regardless of photographer, it’s no less remarkable that the family found the photo of their son. Whether they’ve found the young man, I don’t know. The photo has been used extensively by homeless pet shelters and organizations, and the search for the pair has followed the photo, so it may be one of the most publicized searches in the history of families touched by homelessness.

    Reading your story of adult, homeless trick-or-treaters, I feel a flash of the same emotion that surged over me when I heard the story of poor children being bused into well-to-do-neighborhoods for their trick-or-treating this year. It’s easy enough to congratulate ourselves that we’ve made candy available to those who have little or nothing. It’s somewhat more difficult to address the structural problems that might make not only the basics of life, but also its pleasures, possible for everyone.


  8. I don’t know this poem. But boy — it goes for the gut, grabs it, and doesn’t let go. Splendid photo illustration and selection. I agree with others about that photo of the man and the dog. (One thing I was told in Paris: If a homeless person has a dog with them, they are more likely to be given something. I suspect it’s true, the French loving the dogs as they do. Which is another commentary…)

    I live in a city — a capitol city — that used to have a thriving downtown. Movie theatres, businesses, department stores, shops. Then they cut the city with the expressway and the sprawlers moved to points east and west. The city now lives only by day. By 5:30, it is dark, empty. We don’t really “see” our homeless — I don’t know where they are, but I know they are there. We donate food, clothing to this unseen world.

    I attend lots of meetings about our region’s economic future. Our public television station even has engagement projects related to the economy. At every meeting we talk about the problems. We brainstorm the solutions. Then everyone goes back into their silo till the next meeting. When I bring this up, they say, “Well, what can we really do? First we have to define the problem.” Want to define the problem? The state with the highest unemployment rate, a sick manufacturing base that will never come back, and more cities decaying and people lost.

    I’m finding this poem and taking it to my next meeting. He could have written it about my hometown.


    You’re one I thought about while writing this – two of the photos are from Detroit. Sandburg knew how to make a point, which no doubt helps to explain J. Edgar’s Hoover’s deep suspicion of him, and the FBI’s maintenance of a dossier on his activities. At one point, he traveled to Sweden to receive an award from King Gustav IV, and when he returned to this country they got after him for Bolshevik sympathies. He actually was mostly apolitical, but it’s clear folks interested in maintaining the status quo or ignoring realities around them might have had a little trouble with him.

    An amusing side note: he and Robert Frost got sideways rather often, despite their friendship. After a performance in Michigan, Frost said of Sandburg, “His mandolin pleased some people, his poetry a very few and his infantile talk none.” I don’t quite know what Frost had against plain language, since he used a good bit of it himself, but there you are.

    As for that “let’s all get together and define the problem” business – spare me. The problem isn’t knowledge, it’s will – political will, moral and ethical will, human will. All the knowledge in the world isn’t going to make a lick of difference unless somehow, some way, people are motivated to make a difference. The simplest example I can think of is smoking. Everyone knows it’s unhealthy. Everyone – even the young kids I know – have heard the facts and can recite them back almost verbatim. And yet, many continue to smoke. Hitting them over the head with more xrays of damaged lungs and more statistics isn’t going to do any good. The behavior won’t change until there’s a reason to change that touches them far more deeply.

    That’s why the poets, artists and writers among us can be helpful in struggles for justice and dignity. Their ability to touch people, rather than merely to communicate information, can bring action. I might also suggest they possess a clarity of vision and integrity of purpose that politicians lack, but that wouldn’t be very gracious, so I won’t.

    You won’t have a hard time finding the poem, trust me.


  9. “Sandburg felt too bleak, too resigned, too dismissive of the possibilities inherent in life.” It takes courage to point out the bleakness and draw attention to the horrors amidst progress and development. It may take a natural catastrophe, or an economic recession to burst the bubble of ‘human achievements’.

    Thanks for speaking out while most are immersed in festivities, celebrating… what is it that we’re supposed to celebrate? Often we need cold water like this to be poured on us as sombre reminder of the our human and social condition. Thanks for voicing a brave and timely commentary through Sandburg’s poem.


    The more I’ve read about Sandburg in past days, the more intriguing he’s become. His work was so varied that picking and choosing can create quite different writers. There’s the gentle poet of “Fog”, the completely amusing author of childrens’ literature like “Rootabaga Stories” and the big, brawling writer of paeans to industrial progress that just overflow with a kind of workers-of-the-world enthusiasm that probably contributed to the FBI’s raised eyebrow.

    It’s easy to read and teach Sandburg while avoiding pieces like the “Four Preludes”. But he had a prophet’s eye, and words to express what he saw.
    When I read “Four Preludes”, I always remember the words of the Cuban poet and statesman, Jose Marti: “A genuine man goes to the roots. To be a radical is no more than that: to go to the roots. He who does not see things in their depth should not call himself a radical.”

    Sandburg was nothing if not genuine. That may be why he sounds so radical today.


  10. I believe a lot of people are thinking about this now. How did we get here? How did it go so far? Will we pull ourselves to a better place?
    I hope there will be a sea change in our consciousness.

    I sometimes think that it’s only my age. Everyone can recall a better time after they’ve logged enough years, but then I think not. It’s more than that.

    The photos along with the poem made such a powerful statement.


    There will have to be a change in consciousness for some of our problems to be ameliorated – I can’t bring myself to say solved. I suspect we’re only now beginning to see that we will reap what has been sown in society. Some people see the harvest as good. Others, like myself… not so much.

    What intrigues me is that the few twenty-somethings I know feel very much as I do about some things. One dropped out of an intramural soccer team she was playing on. It was guided by the “everyone’s a winner” mentality, and everyone got a participation patch to wear. As she put it, “If I’m going to put out all this effort, I want a trophy.” There may be hope….

    Picking and processing the photos took as much time as the writing on this one – thanks for noticing.


  11. This is a treat. I love Carl Sandburg and have since forever. And he’s still very much in favor among us progressives and probably always will be. If you ever run across a slim volume called Honey and Salt, it has some wonderful poetry.

    I really don’t understand why Halloween has become so popular with American adults. But there’s so much about American pop culture that baffles me that I sometimes feel like a stranger in my own land.

    Thanks for a delightful post!


    Oh, gosh – I’m so glad you enjoyed it! As an Iowa girl, of course we were at home with Sandburg – unions were different back then, and so was populism, and factories still were exciting places. He gave all of it a voice that we responded to.

    I’ve never heard of “Honey and Salt” that I know of, but I’ll look around for it. I wasn’t aware he’d done so much writing for children, either. Some teachers I know are going to be dredging up those stories.

    As for Halloween ~ who knows? Maybe it’s that adults always want to barge in if something looks like fun, or maybe it’s just another excuse to drink. I do like the candy corn, though ;-)

    Glad to see you out and about – it must feel good to be getting somewhat settled.


  12. Hi. DS sent me this way; and I’m glad. This is a banquet to be enjoyed at leisure.

    Hi, rosaria,

    Thanks so much for stopping by! Ds is one of my favs – so nice to know you enjoy her, too.

    You’re always welcome, as are your comments. If you’re one who just likes to read, that’s fine. I’m just glad to know you’re here!


  13. I know I’m way behind in reading your blog, Linda, but I knew I’d find the time eventually! As Ruth said, text and image together really pack a wallop here. Man! So much to think about…so many emotions! If anyone can do it, I always know it will be you. :)


    My gracious, woman! With everything you’ve been doing, I’m flat honored to see you show up at all! I hope everything went well over the weekend and you’re feeling a lovely mixture of relief and anticipation.

    Funny – this entry packed enough of a wallop for me that it nearly wore me out. I was really happy to get something else up just so I could move on. I have a lot of concerns with events in this country, and Sandburg’s words seemed so applicable it was a little unnerving. But that’s one of the truths about the great ones – their words do apply, over and over.

    Thanks for stopping by, and for the wonderful vote of confidence!


  14. My day job is working as a Communication Designer for the State Bar of Michigan. I have met some lawyers who are decent folks, but the profession has much to answer for, particularly in light of the current conditions of this nation. What follows is a portion of Sandburg’s “The Lawyers Know Too Much,” a poem that says so much with a humble eloquent economy.

    The work of a bricklayer goes to the blue.
    The knack of a mason outlast a moon.
    The hands of a plasterer holds a room together.
    The land of a farmer wishes him back again.
    Singers of songs and dreamers of plays
    Build a house no wind blows over.
    The lawyers—tell me why a hearse horse snickers hauling a lawyer’s bones.


    I’ve been re-introduced to Sandburg through this post and its comments, and am chagrined to realize how much of his work I’ve forgotten or never known.

    Perhaps because I work with my hands I’m especially sensitive to a critical difference between two kinds of workers. The bricklayers, plasterers and farmers are directly responsible for the quality of their work, and depend on its success or failure for their own well-being.

    The lawyers – not so much. And reading this, I can’t help but think of the politicians in Washington – none of whom will be required to live under whichever health care system they devise and impose on the rest of the country, and none of whom will be held accountable for it – at least in this life.

    In any event, there’s no question that they all “know too much” – or at minimum know a lot more than we’re ever going to about what actually goes on in the circles of power. I might be more resentful than I am, were it not for those snickering hearse horses.


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