The Sandburg Season

In the heart of Kansas, there’s a certain sweetness to Halloween celebrations, touched though they may be with autumn’s poignant tang. Corn shocks and smiling jack-o-lanterns abound, heaped atop hay bales and spilling from wagons pulled by broomsticked witches.

Still, goblins, ghoulies and ghosties skulk around the edges of consciousness,  not to mention old plots that insist on rising up from their graves – Psycho, Vertigo, Rebecca.  Hitchcock’s Birds wheel through the air, and while little ones delight in becoming princesses, pirates or talking pumpkins, blood drips and body parts pile up as vampires, zombies and other night-creatures 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 two-room haunted houses to Universal Studios’ famous Halloween Horror Nights is trying to take a bite out of the consumer.   I suspect most of us don’t mind. 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, American poet Carl Sandburg rarely receives an invitation to Halloween parties.  To be honest, Sandburg isn’t much favored these days in any context.  Perhaps he’s too common, too plain-spoken.  He wasn’t considered “literary” in his own time, and there’s a better than even chance he’d be left out of  today’s symposia and cocktail parties.  Still, his vision was extraordinarily clear, and he understood people. Like Whitman before him, he acknowledged his debt to the workers and builders, families and businesses which knit our country together.

I’ve found myself thinking more of Sandburg in recent years, after decades of ignoring his work.  Standing amid the detritus of Hurricane Ike, his words resonated,  the introduction to his gripping Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind as relevant as the latest news report.  “Yesterday” was gone indeed, along with Bolivar Penninsula,  a good bit of Galveston Island and the security of people up and down the coast.  “What of it?”  asked the woman named Tomorrow.  “Let the dead be dead.”

When it comes to the past, the memories that reside there and their relationship to the present, Sandburg’s tone can seem bleak, resigned, dismissive of the possibilities inherent in life.  For years I preferred Gavin Stevens famous line as a touchstone.  When he says,”The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past”, the tone is different and the truth palpable.  But Faulkner and Sandburg both communicate truth, and it’s 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, Sandburg’s words have demanded consideration.  When he published his work, he couldn’t have known what future struggles his beloved country would endure. And yet his words are chilling, nearly prescient, as sharp and timely as if 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. As Halloween passes and autumn begins to fade, I’m tired of tricks and have no need to be handed treats. I’d rather  look at my country clear-eyed, hearing the poet speak and sharing 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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Published in: on October 29, 2012 at 11:27 am  Comments (78)  
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  1. His words are strong and powerful. He was a very gifted poet. The truth of your post makes me ashamed of my weekend frivolities and post-weekend photos splattered across the net.

    • BW,

      No need for shame at all – none of us can tell the whole story of a season like this, and believe me, I would have given anything to be down there to see the Rougarou! That’s completely new to me, and quite a variation on the usual celebrations.

      Sandburg and Frost are two of my favorites. I’ve been thinking about Frost a good bit on this trip, too. The stone fences and buildings here are marvelous beyond words.

      Happy recovery! And count your blessings. I got to scrape heavy frost from my car windows on Sunday!


  2. Powerful words: Sandburg’s and yours…”I’m tired of tricks and have no need to be handed treats. I’d rather look at my country clear-eyed, hearing the poet speak and sharing his unmasked words with those who dare to face our own, unnerving horrors.”
    Prophetic in the face of Sandy and the coming election.
    Source of photos??

    • Martha,

      There’s a lot of horizon out here in the midwest, and a lot of fresh air. It’s a good place to think about some of these things. I do hope we all come through Sandy and the election without too much permanent damage.

      Four of the photos are from websites. If you mouse over, you can click and see the source. Others, like the one at the top, are mine. One (the raven) isn’t mine, but I have no idea where it came from – it was passed along to me about five years ago, before I kept records of anything, and has just been living in my files.

      I love the top photo. I took it just yesterday – I was driving along on Kansas 4 and happened to notice the single grave in the middle of a sorghum field. A branch is obscuring the date a bit, but the fellow was born in 1821. I’d say he probably was one of the earliest settlers!


    • Just a note – I finally found the Flickr link for the photo of the man with the dog. This comment was added there: “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.” You can read more about the story here. I can’t find any evidence the family was reunited.

  3. These are sobering images, we always worry about how the poor and the disenfranchised slip through the net in the USA – are we wrong to think that the welfare state is inadequate in many ways?

    Poetry is always something I aspire to read and then rarely do…but it moves me in ways that other writing can’t, why is it so hard to sit down with a book of it?!

    • thinkingcowgirl,

      Clearly, there’s no perfect system, no assurance that everyone will have their needs met. I’ve had the chance to experience two very different systems in my lifetime. Of course I know today’s system, with its emphasis upon governmental support, but I grew up in a time when neighbors, families, mutual aid societies and faith communities were far more active in supporting those in need.

      It’s hard not to be chicken-and-eggish thinking about it all. Some days, I think the government is taking up the slack because traditional means of support are failing. Other days, I think government is set on destroying traditional means of support. Most of the time, I just try to do what I can.

      That’s an interesting question you’ve posed about books of poetry. I have favorite poets and favorite poems, but not many anthologies or collections of a single poet. I’ve never been one to buy a book of poetry for one or two poems – it always feels like buying a CD for one song. It’s so nice to have ways around those issues today!


      • It’s certainly a tricky one, state aid versus community aid. Our current government launched it’s Big Society initiative which in principle sounded reasonable and desirable – that we should all take a bit more responsibility for helping others and giving our time for free. However, in practice, this has often meant withdrawing funds from charitable organisations who were doing that work already and expecting a flood of random citizens to flow in to fill the gap.

        We don’t have quite the same tradition of individual philanthropy as the US, mainly because having tons of money is not something people like to shout about here in the UK just in case the masses rise up! Of course, everyone knows superwealth exists so it’s all a bit hypocritical really. I think the culture is shifting a bit, with more of these people being open about supporting a cause. Not really sure how all this can be resolved. I’m like you, I do what I can!

        Hmm maybe I should explore poems online. I was going to buy tickets for a spoken word gig, but living in Cornwall you get really sleepy and when I finally got around to it, it was sold out!

        • Just a stray thought here – I’ve often found those who have the least can be the most generous. When I was a child, it was still a difficult time for many people, even though it was the early 50s. Occasionally I’d take sandwiches my grandmother made to the men who traveled the railroad behind her house. Sometimes, they would do small jobs – setting a post, weeding the garden – in exchange for a meal. There always was a metal cup left hanging on the pump, too, and no one who needed water was shooed away.

          I’ve never seen the cat symbol myself, but I’ve heard reports of it from those who have. The hobos would inscribe the symbol of a cat on a post or other surface as a way of saying, “A kind woman lives here”.

          • That’s a lovely story.

            And just wanted to let you know that I was inspired by your ‘Cowgirl Up’ post in my latest offering on making scones! Thanks.

            • Scones? Yum! And you would know how to make a proper one. I think a scone probably is an English cowgirl biscuit!

            • Haha I actually had some success, which is not usual – must be that ‘cowgirling up’ !

  4. Oh, those 3 grey wooden buildings!
    He’s certainly a poet for these times -Sandburg used to be a favorite – you did equally as good with this post. Nice job
    (Sorghum field…any sorghum syrup left? We used to go to the sorghum mill and get a can each year. May be an acquired taste?)

    • phil,

      Don’t those three barns (grainaries?) look like buddies who’ve stayed a little long at the party and now are singing “just one more song” with their arms thrown around each other?

      Sandberg’s the best.I didn’t know about his “Rootabaga Stories” until last year. They’re so good I had to find a child who’d serve as an excuse to read them aloud.

      I think my mom used to partake of sorghum syrup when she was young, but it never was in our house. Well, at least that I know. We did use molasses – especially for a lovely spice cookie. Did you ever use Steen’s syrup? There’s a Cajun syrup cake that some swear only should be made with Steen’s. I’ve tried it, and it took about two bites for that taste to be acquired.


      • sorghum was “farm” food made from animal feed – and my mother, the city girl, was embarrassed by it. I still like it – and Ribbon Cane Syrup (sweeter), too.
        East TX used to grow a lot of sugar cane – and we’d go to the old still(?) where they crushed it and cooked up the syrup – the old wooden place smelled so sour, but the syrup was so sweet.
        I’ve seen Steen’s but we never bought it
        You’ve been collecting tales, no doubt. Safe travels

        • I learned the right word last Christmas when I went to Louisiana – syrup mill. And I first became aware of that East Texas/Louisiana cane when the wind was just right to blow the smoke from the burning fields across the Bay!

  5. Well local boy grabs your interest, eh?
    And y’alls run up to one of my favorite places, East Kansas.
    No invite…. We drove out in the Konza Prairie back in like ’85.
    Buddy had a KState pass…..

    Thinking I read Sandburg while too young and too fast.

    • blu,

      Yep. Growing up in the midwest, Mr. Sandburg was like one of the family – a nice uncle whose visit we always anticipated. Now, every time I go back to the heartland, I think about him.

      I’m in Cottonwood Falls just now. This afternoon I went down to the bottomland that’s part of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. I don’t know if the red tails are migrating, but I saw more than I have in some time. I suppose the living’s pretty good for them there – plenty of water, trees and pesticide-free critters. The wind sounds good in the grass, too.

      Good to have you stop by. Are we going to be honored with your presence down this way any time soon?


  6. You’ve gathered together a stupendous collection of photographs to accompany Sandburg’s words. Plus ça change, it seems. As I read Sandburg’s poem, I thought how perfect it would be set to music by Woody Guthrie. Don’t you think? And come to think of that, I’ve seen very little in the way of celebration of Guthrie’s centennial. Such a shame, if it’s truly passing by with so little fanfare, though perhaps I’m simply out of the flow of news on that.

    • Susan,

      Sadly, it’s not necesary to comb the Great Depression archives to find photos illustrative of Sandburg’s words. His vision isn’t always so dark – quite the contrary – but these seem appropriate today.

      Poetry and music again! Woody Guthrie would be a good choice, I think. Perhaps we should contact Billy Bragg, since Woody isn’t with us any longer. Billy was selected to write music for some of Woody’s unpublished lyrics, and the results are marvelous. This is my favorite.

      There’s been a bit of a celebration for his centennial – in fact, a whole year’s worth of concerts, symposia, and so on. It kicked off in NY, and there just was a marvelous concert at the Kennedy Center in DC. There were plenty of events in Europe, too, and of course in Oklahoma. I was tempted toward some of those, but just couldn’t do it.


  7. Thank you for introducing me to Sandburg. I too love the photo of the buildings.

    • Julie,

      There’s so much to discover. A friend in California is a teacher, and her school produces a pageant each year focused on one artist. This year, their focus is an Australian aboriginal artist – bit by bit, we learn about one another!


  8. Hi Linda:

    I can see you are having fun during your trip north to Kansas City. I can see that Carl Sandburg and Halloween have joined you, and the results are staggering.

    When I studied English literature, a long time ago, Carl Sandburg was absent in our books; but now that you have placed him under the spotlight, would like to know him better. As for Robert Frost, he’s a more familiar face. Always remember his poem about a frightened mouse who was disturbed while plowing a field.

    As far as Halloween is concerned, I’m afraid I’m not really fond of witches, bats, spider webs, jack-o-lanterns or “trick or treats”. I prefer festivities about the living world.

    Enjoy your trip and your reunions with the poets. Will Henry Wadsworth Longfellow be sitting on your table?

    Warm Regards,


    • Omar,

      You’ve reminded me of a “poem” we used to recite as kids. The literary quality’s non-existent, but it made us giggle:

      Your feet are poets,
      but they don’t know it –
      they’re Long-fellows!

      At least we had to know who Longfellow was for it to be funny to us.
      Actually, that’s the sort of “trick” we had to produce for some neighbors to get our Halloween treats. We couldn’t just show up at the door and be cute – we had to be entertaining, too.

      I mentioned Sandburg’s “Rootabaga Stories” up above. Here’s a link to them.
      I think you’d find them pure fun. And if you want more of a glimpse into the world I grew up in, his poetry tells the tale.


  9. The Sandburg poem, which I didn’t know, reminds me of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
    And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    `My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
    Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
    The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

    • Steve,

      One truth, two expressions – Shelley and Sandburg. And what a different feeling Ozymandias’ pedestal and inscription evoke when compared to the statue and inscription I found yesterday, here on the Santa Fe trail.


      • Not only hadn’t I read Sandburg’s poem, I hadn’t heard of the statues in the Madonna of the Trail series:

        • Now it’s your turn to be a little ahead of me. Leimbach’s imaginative vision of his pioneer woman parallels the life of my great-great-grandmother in one or two interesting ways. I’m roaming these prairies in search of her as much as anything.

  10. Hello, Linda;

    I’m just getting caught up on my Internet reading after a weekend of moving, then a day spent cleaning out the old place. I’m exhausted and this gray, breezy day is perfect for a quiet morning of perusing a profound blog such as this one.

    You’ve gifted us with another wonderful piece- marrying Halloween and the poetry of Carl Sandburg. It’s interesting to note that Mr. Sandburg wrote that poem in 1922; it seems as though it would be a Depression or post-Depression work- maybe in addition to being a historian and poet, he was a bit of a clairvoyant as well.

    Your line: “….I’m tired of tricks and have no need to be handed treats.” speaks volumes. I with you on this one.

    Thanks for a fine bit of reading. ~ Beth

    • Beth,

      I’m so glad the moving is done (even if the “settling in” isn’t), and that Sandy didn’t cause you any particular problems.

      Sometimes I think historians are best able to see the future, or at least to recognize the dynamics that shape it if not the precise details. Sandburg was as much historian as poet, and that alone could explain his fall from favor in some quarters. Remember Flip Wilson’s creation of Reverend Leroy and “The Church of What’s Happening Now”? It was funny then and it’s funny now – but it’s also a reminder of what happens when the moorings of history are lost.

      I’m glad you appreciated the “trick or treat” line. Sometimes a sentence comes along that sums up a lot for me, and that’s one of them. ;)


      • Linda; I’m hoping to be more or less settled in in the next coming weeks; I’m about half-way unpacked now and making a little progress every day. Sandy brought some wind and erosion to Cape Cod but not much rain.

        You’re so right in that historians are the best able to predict the future- I’ve always wondered if those who were personally caught up in historic drama were surprised, because even though the signs of coming difficulties were present, they didn’t believe that anything bad could happen. As one of my old bosses once said (when I asked why many of the local people didn’t prepare for hurricanes during hurricane season) he told me; “People are like birds. They get pounced on by a cat but get away and for a few days they’re really afraid of cats. Then, a few weeks later they say ‘What’s a cat?'” So is it just that some people have short memories or that they simply aren’t interested in history and its lessons?

        Yes, I do remember Flip Wilson and “The Church of What’s Happening Now”- Flip was a card, but also could be very astute. And, I recall that he made a very good “Geraldine”- he had better legs than I ever did!

        Well, I’d better get back to the grind! Talk to you soon! ~ Beth

        • I really have sympathy for so many people I’ve seen interviewed in New Jersey and New York. There’s knowledge, and then there’s knowlege. When Tropical Storm Allison pummeled Houston, people “knew” we’d be all right, because it wasn’t predicted to become a strong hurricane. Then it stalled, and we were in the same situation as the NYC hospitals, New Jersey towns and so on. No one had a clue that everything from the freeway system to the Texas Medical Center to the downtown tunnels and theatres would – or could – be innundated.

          I certainly never had experienced a flash flood, and having four feet of water in the house in fifteen minutes – it was a shock. I’m still afraid of those storm-cats, though. I suspect many, many people won’t forget this one, and will be far better prepared in the future.

          As I like to say, I’ve adapted the Chicago approach to things – I evacuate early and often. ;)


          • Linda; Yup! Yup! Yup! As they say: “Hide from wind, run from water.” Been there too many times myself- the bane of living near the coast. It’s good to be wary.

            I’ve heard so many people criticize those who were caught by Sandy’s wrath and who are now seeking help- and sadly, they just don’t understand; they have never had to deal with the aftermath of a serious storm. Some have asked repeatedly; “Why didn’t they prepare for the hurricane and stock up on supplies?” Well, how do you prepare for having your house and supplies flooded, damaged or swept away? How do you evacuate an area populated with millions of people (especially when you don’t know exactly where the storm will make landfall over hundreds of miles of coastline)? It’s just not that easy and I find myself wishing that more folks would save their judgement for people in less dire circumstances.

            Anyway; I know you know the drill! (The “CHICAGO” way- hee-hee!) ~ Beth :-D still giggling!

  11. 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


    The feet of the rats
    scribble on the doorsills;

    It’s the sharp details that make the poem. More of a Frost fan than a Sandburg one, I’m afraid. Frost’s poetry reminds me of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings, the way you have to live with them a while and let them soak in. I was exposed to egg tempera young (we have a famous Peter Hurd mural in our University’s old museum rotunda — Hurd was married to Wyeth’s sister) and I have always love the quality of light Wyeth’s paintings have — it’s that same clear, intense, world bleaching light we have here in the flatlands.

    T’was ever thus: No matter what the high and mighty, the rich and powerful do, the aftermath of them rearranging the world to suit them always falls on the man in the street in a 10 year old car, the woman dragging her kids through the supermarket as she stretches ever dollar thrumming taut, the kids with third hand clothes and skint knees dreaming of things they wish they had, the old woman sitting on her front porch in a metal lawn chair she’s had for 40 years and repainted 18 times, trying to figure out where it all went, all the things that were and aren’t any more, and how they all slipped so soundlessly away when she wasn’t looking. . .

    I don’t need tricks or treats either. Just for the world to hold still for a minute and let me catch my breath.

    My brother’s late wife was born and raised in Kansas (Manhattan), and I have a colleague who lives near Atwater. According to Procol Harum, the Devil came from there as well, tho neither they nor I know where he went to. ( ) Not their famous song, but one I like a lot anyway.

    I shall have to check out the Rootabaga Stories.

    • WOL,

      I’m going to have to wait until I’m home to watch Procol Harum’s song, apparently – I’m having trouble streaming out here in the boondocks. I’m intrigued, as I don’t think I know the song. At least I don’t remember it. I’ll be home tomorrow, and give a listen then.

      I know that light, and learned again on this trip how hard it is to capture. The Kansas prairie was all grays and browns, with a hazy blue-white sky, Frost and freeze had done their work, and while it’s still beautiful, I could only enjoy the larger view. My photos seemed flat and dead, which certainly wasn’t the way I experienced it. When I shifted my vision to smaller bits, it worked better.

      As for the rearrangements of the rich and powerful and their effect on others, you’re quite right. Even when there’s no ill-will meant (as sometimes happens), the “little people” bear a disproportionate burden. One reason to travel the back roads is to be reminded of those repainted metal chairs and patched clothes. I lunched late today in a nondescript country cafe and listened for an hour to a group of men in work boots and denim “chewing the fat”. They ranged through business, politics, county gossip and how to deal with recalcitrant roosters. By the time I left, I wished I could vote for them – for anything.


      • One thing I’ve noticed that makes it hard to appreciate scenery in the flatlands is scale. When you’re walking down a forest path, the scenery is close at hand, intimate. Even the rolling hills and hedgerows of England still have a sense of scale. But when the world is divided into table flat land clear to the horizon no matter which direction you look, and the vast blue bowl of the sky that stretch for miles and miles, it’s like being at sea. You have no points of reference and it’s all too vast for the mind to take in. But look at the bit of it that’s just around your feet, and suddenly you have a frame of reference. You find that big empty landscape is chock full of little details: Rattling, ratcheting grasshoppers, chalky pebbles of caliche, “goathead” stickers with their miniscule green leaves and tiny buttery yellow “plus sign” flowers, the fuzzy leaves and pale lavender flowers of the silverleaf nightshade, or its dried stalk and spherical yellow berries, tufts of grass of one variety or another in every shade from pale green to silverwhite the skirmishing militias of red and black ants, and in the pockets of fine windblown sand that collect in the wind shadows of plants and rocks, the doodle bugs (ant lion larvae) lay their conical deathtraps.

        • Exactly so, and the comparison with the ocean is apt. Clouds help every sky photo, just as confused seas make every offshore photo more interesting. The single photo I’ve kept from all those I’ve taken of the ocean depends on the sunset, some clouds and really lumpy seas for its appeal. A photo of an expansive, slick sea reaching to every horizon “needs” that single vessel, a soaring bird, a reflection, to help communicate its reality..

  12. Wow, what a powerful & prophetic post. I’ve just spent some time looking at pictures of the devastation wrought by Sandy. I thought to write a poem, but I’m no Sandburg. I’ve always liked his writing – I need to go dive into him again.

    [Note - I wrote this comment this morning (I can't comment on your blog at work) & then promptly DID write a poem. Still no Sandburg - but your post inspired me.]

    • The Bug,

      No, you’re not Sandburg, and neither am I. But Sandburg isn’t us, either – at least, he wouldn’t be if he still were alive. There’s no way he could write your poem, any more than I could. We each have our own words to speak – it’s just a matter of deciding how we’re going to do it. I hope you post yours on your blog. I’m still traveling, but I’ll get caught up on my reading this weekend, once I get home.

      Someone told me a couple of years ago that Sandburg isn’t relevant any longer, because we’ve moved into a post-industrial society. I just laughed. That’s like saying Michaelangelo’s sculpture should be tossed because we’ve got plastics now.


  13. It is so fitting that you should post this right now. I wish everyone in our country would think about it.

    • montucky,

      One of Sandburg’s characteristics was his enduring faith in the people. In fact, one of my favorite of his poems is called “The People, Yes”, which contains these words:

      The people yes
      The people will live on.
      The learning and blundering people will live on.
      They will be tricked and sold and again sold
      And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
      The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
      You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it…

      I suspect plenty of people are thinking about it.


  14. Such a wonderful, and timely post. To intersperse such heartfelt words with these current, immediate images makes an even greater impact. ALWAYS a wonderful reminder, lest we forget the struggles of so many around us. I tend to say this a lot, but… We’re all here together, after all. Thanks for a beautiful post.

    • FeyGirl,

      We are in this together, however much some like to deny it. I’m glad you enjoyed the post – and the images – and I’m grateful for your kind words.

      Speaking of images that you really would appreciate, I’m doubly anxious to get home from my trip today. A friend called last night and said that she’s found a place where white egrets are roosting – she’s counted more than a hundred at times. I don’t know which variety they are, but I suspect they’re the Snowy. She says its spectacular, and if I’ve figured out the location, it’s practically at my back door. I hope they’re still there when I get home, and weren’t just out trick-or-fishing!


      • Ohhhhh! It could be, we’re coming up on migration-time! I’m starting to see more hawks, and different varieties of egrets (but of course we have our share of the mainstays down here). Preparing for the breeding / nesting season! Such a wonderful time. Although now, they’re just mingling…. :)

  15. Wait! I can’t keep up! This looks wonderful! Be back after I read it all!….

    …I can’t help but think that your drive has put this in your heart and mind. The trip I took to Kansas was in the gloomy gray late winter and I was flooded with poetry and visions.

    Thank you for this. Thank you for bringing Sandburg back to me. And the photos you chose are superb. After reading this I don’t want to read anything else for a while.

    • Martha,

      Actually, I had this nearly done before leaving, so that I’d be able to post on the road while devoting most of my time to comments. Still, your point is well taken. The country I’ve been traveling is perfectly suited to evoke the kinds of musings Sandburg put into words. And how well I remember those gray, late winter days. I love them, too, and always have.

      I smiled at your comment that you didn’t want to read anything else for a while. After spending some time on the prairie, I didn’t want to see anything else for a while.


  16. Hi Linda

    it’s 6.30 am here in dark, rainy, leaf-strewn post-Hallowe’en Glasgow, Scotland – and reading this deep, rich post and the wonderful range of replies has put me in a meditative mood. It’s now 1st November – Samhain – Samhain has been celebrated in Britain for centuries and has its origin in Pagan Celtic traditions. It was the time of year when the veils between this world and the Otherworld were believed to be at their thinnest: when the spirits of the dead could most readily mingle with the living once again. Later, when the festival was adopted by Christians, they celebrated it as All Hallows’ Eve, followed by All Saints Day, though it still retained elements of remembering and honouring the dead.

    The core sentiments of the Sandburg poem recalled for me – we’ve touched on this before! ! – Shelley’s “Ozymandias”. So I was very struck by its appearing via Steve Schwartzman’s comment. I sense a community of reflection out there, as we descend into the dark of winter, ready for our symbolic death into Winter, knowing the rebirth into Spring will also come.

    Perhaps this is what is happening to our whole culture/civilisation – the signs of descent are everywhere, should we care to look…….and in the meantime, I am with you: “Most of the time, I just try to do what I can.”

    • Anne,

      Speaking of commonalities, your references to the descent into darkness and the various deaths of winter remind me of the lying fallow that is such an important part of the Christian Advent. The need for rest, for sleep, that you described in your own post is a spiritual as well as physical need, and we ignore its promptings at our peril.

      I appreciate the introduction to Samhain, too. The thought of a “thinning veil” intrigues me. In a post that may become a chapter some day, I talk about “time” not as a unidirectional river, flowing inexorably to the future from the past, but as a curtain, a permeable membrane that allows “visits” from past and future in the present. It may be no accident that such musings arose in the bayous of Louisiana, a place where “reality” can skew pretty easily.

      As for that “community of reflection” – I’ve thought a time or two that the internet is aiding the preservation of a common cultural vocabulary in the same way that the monasteries preserved knowledge during the Dark Ages. That’s quite a leap, I suppose, given the amount of foolishness and worse that’s on the web, but good and evil are admixt everywhere, so there’s no reason the internet should be immune!


  17. I don’t usually reply to your reply to my comments, Linda – goodness knows you have enough to do already! But I thought you’d like to know that the post I put up very early this morning is directly inspired by yours. A community, indeed….

    • Anne,

      I’ve been inspired by so many, it’s delightful to think I might have inspired someone. I’m glad you decided to let me know here, so others might stop by, too. Besides, no matter how much I have to do, I’m always ready for another good read! (Not only that, I’m back home and have a little extra time since my beloved kitty has decided to punish me by refusing to come out from under the bed. No kitty-time tonight!)


  18. Thank you for the vivid imagery of your words and Sandburg’s sobering scenes. Somehow, they remind me of this from Psalm 118:

    It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    Than to trust in man.
    It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    Than to trust in princes.

    And welcome back home! Hope you’ll share more photos from your visit.

    • nikkipolani,

      I’m very happy to be home, and happy that Miss Dixie deigned to allow my return. There’s nothing quite so funny as watching a cat torn between the desire to punish and the desire for a nice brushing.

      The Psalmist’s words are apt, comforting and wise. Trust and “trusting in” are quite different, after all, and learning to distinguish between them is so important.

      There are photos galore to be sorted, and thoughts, as well. As so often happens, I was surprised by a few experiences, and I’m eager to share them.


  19. Whoa… Powerful and evocative images as well as expression both Sandburg’s and yours. For me, upon reading this post with the images blending their stories, there was a pull of what is human. There is light and dark, beauty and macabre, spirit and avarice.

    “I’m tired of tricks and have no need to be handed treats. I’d rather look at my country clear-eyed, hearing the poet speak and sharing his unmasked words with those who dare to face our own, unnerving horrors.”

    Indeed, Linda, clearly expressed and I agree.

    And I end my reply with a quote.

    “The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first.” -Jim Morrison

    • Anna,

      I was a casual fan of Morrison and The Doors “back in the day”, but I must admit I’m a little surprised by the quotation. I suppose that proves Morrison’s point – he certainly knew what it was to play a role, to act, to mask himself, and I’m sure his experience contributed to his conviction that personal revolution has to come first. It’s a shame his life ended as it did – though it certainly serves as a cautionary reminder that insight doesn’t guarantee transformation.

      In a way I’m not surprised you thought of him. His music is a nearly perfect mix of ” light and dark, beauty and macabre, spirit and avarice”. Joan Didion writes about one of his recording sessions in her “White Album”. You can find the essay here. The entire book isn’t available, but the section on Morrison is complete on pages 21-25.


  20. As I read the line, “The only singers now are crows crying, “Caw, caw,” a crow in a tree right outside my house began to caw loudly. I got a little jolt out of that.

    Reading all of Sandburg’s words, I felt as though he’d somehow watched the movie all the way through, while the rest of us are somewhere in the middle and not really sure what we’re seeing. In that sense, maybe he’s like the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, showing us the shadows of things that may be, rather than those that will be. I know it isn’t enough to simply hope, but it’s a start.

    Excellent post, Linda. Thank you for this.

    • Charles,

      Perhaps that crow in your yard was trying to scare up a few friends, hoping to have a caw-cus!

      In every era, every generation, the prophetic voice has been connected to extraordinary vision, and it seems to me Sandburg belongs to the company of prophets. One of his gifts was the ability to see ordinary people in new ways and express the truths of their lives in ordinary language.

      The decision to cast one’s lot with ordinary people – artistically or otherwise – can have interesting consequences. Personally, I’m glad Sandburg gave us his vision of an America caught in another time of extraordinary change. As we like to say here in Texas, what goes around, comes around, and Sandburg’s time seems to be coming around again.


  21. I think you captured the mood of many, mine included, with your closing statement “I’m tired of tricks and have no need to be handed treats. I’d rather look at my country clear-eyed, hearing the poet speak and sharing his unmasked words with those who dare to face our own, unnerving horrors.”

    In posting on Thursday — I just couldn’t post something light. I had to release my thoughts about the efforts that are in store for many to rebuild back East. And then I went back to get caught up on my reading–I found clarity again in your post– something you offer up so well. You said it best with your fingers on the pulse of our national health. I think returning to Sandburg is perfect.

    In reading more about him this morning, it’s illuminating to read all the “jobs” he held among regular people. I think I would take the perspective of someone who worked side by side with so many workers, over any well oiled machine.

    The photo of the young man with his dog is heart-wrenching and your follow up story to that photo even more so.

    I wish you safe travels in KS and back home again. I’m amazed you keep up so well.

    • Georgette,

      I’m home again, quite safe and sound, and I’m delighting in the rain we’ve had this morning.

      There’s no question that Sandburg’s life experiences – especially his work – influenced his vision. I’ve had some experience of that myself – my own move from “white collar” to “blue collar” was a scandal and an offense to some, including my dear mother, but it’s been an increasing benefit to me.

      I’ve only half-joked over the years that every lawyer, professor, bureaucrat, corporate executive, professional religious and politician ought to be out in the fields or on a construction site one year out of every five. The reason is simple: the relationship of cause to effect is a little clearer in the physical world. Do what you will in that office, but when you can’t plow a straight furrow, the evidence is there for all to see. ;)

      I do wish I knew what happened to that young man. There are so many hidden among us with similar stories – it takes courage to see them, and respond.


  22. Thank you for introducing me to Sandburg. That was very moving, and very relevant in the light of Hurricane Sandy (which is why, I suppose, you posted it). I sat and watched some footage last night of the devastation in New York and New Jersey and just the small bit I saw was chilling and heartbreaking. Though I’m Canadian, I’m North American, and though as North Americans we are credited with being resourceful, resilient, etc., I still can’t imagine having to start rebuilding my life when everything — everything — is swept away. It seems life is getting tougher and tougher by the day — or, it could just be that I’m getting older and less able to see the silver lining anymore.

    • klrs09,

      Sandburg really is wonderful. I’ll be making use of another of his poems in the near future, but there are wonderful anthologies available online that you might enjoy.

      Hurricanes and severe nor’easters are devastating. I’ve had the experience of rebuilding after Tropical Storm Allison (which was as bad for Houston as any hurricane) and Hurricanes Alicia and Ike. It’s a long, slow process, and one of the biggest challenges for people in the northeast will be coming to terms with the fact that this is going to take a very long time to recover from. Snowstorms and blizzards are one thing – but once the streets are plowed and the electricity restored, life pretty much goes on. That won’t happen here.

      Like you, I’m adding years, but there are some advantages to that, too. I’ve seen so many recoveries by now, I’m more confident that recovery will come. On the other hand, there seem to be far more people who are reluctant to roll up their own sleeves when disaster strikes – that can be a problem, too.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for the thoughtful comment!


  23. Halloween isn’t a big deal down here in Panama. It’s acknowledged but little more. Kids don’t go out trick or treating but there is some dressing up or “masking” as the call it in New Orleans, in a few schools.

    There is also a “Day of the Dead” in Panama, but it isn’t the raucous celebration they have in Mexico. Quite the opposite. This is from

    Dance activities and the sale of alcoholic beverages will be suspended starting tomorrow, Friday, November 2, in the district of Panama because of the commemoration of the Day of the Dead. The measure was ordered by Decree 3214 of October 22, 2012 and applies to the bars, supermarkets, and discos in the 21 districts that form part of the capital district. According to a statement from the Mayor of Panama, the rule comes into force at 12:01 am on 2 November 2012, and will remain in force until 12:01 am, on Saturday, November 3. The order also prohibits the use of loud music boxes, jukeboxes, and dances entertained by orchestras, ensembles and other music media. The penalties for those who fail to comply with this decree range from one hundred to one thousand dollars. (Panama America)

    Editor’s Comment: Routine, normal, happens every year. So buy your booze ahead of time and get drunk quietly at home, because the bars will be closed.

    It more closely resembles the All Saints Day commemoration one finds in Louisiana where family members visit the cemeteries to clean the graves of departed family.

    • Richard,

      That really is interesting, about the regulation of alcohol and entertainment for the Day of the Dead. Is it because of the Catholic influence in the country? Or simply a measure of respect and a nod to a more general tradition? In any event, a little foresight is all that’s needed to deal with that situation!

      Like you, I’ve observed the All Saints’ Day activities at the cemeteries. The practices in Galveston certainly resemble those in New Orleans and other Louisiana towns, and even in places like the Texas Hill Country, the Hispanic communities take advantage of the day to spend time with the departed, eating and drinking while they tend the graves.

      I do like the practices. They remind me of the way Memorial Day used to be in the midwest, when it still was called Decoration Day and was marked by family reunions and graveside picnics as well as commemoration.


  24. Tricks and treats are for children, Sandburg is for grown-ups.
    As is this post, Linda. I can always rely on you to satisfy me.

    • friko,

      Isn’t Sandburg wonderful? Of course I “met” him through the fog that trucks around on those little cat feet, but as the years went on I discovered he has much, much more to offer.


  25. What a coincidence for me, Linda, that this recent post of yours concerns Carl Sandburg. This is because in my current post, the linked photo book, The Family of Man (1955), has a prologue by Sandburg.

    As you might imagine even from the title alone, the tone of his writing there is quite the opposite of the one in your selected work here.

    And I must say what a well selected series of images you have here. That first one by you is beautifully taken. The links are most interesting, too.

    • Andrew,

      I love that top photo. I’ll be using it again, in a larger format and not “darkened” as it is here. I processed it a bit to make it fit a little better with the theme of the entry – and Halloween, of course.

      I’ve been wondering where the family copy of “The Family of Man” ever went to. I can remember leafing through it on many a rainy afternoon, amazed by the variety of people – so different from those I knew in my small Iowa town.

      And yes, Sandburg was far more than the prophet/social critic. At least, he could observe society with a gentler eye, and write with a greater degree of hope. I think I’ll share of some that, too, just so people don’t think this is the beginning and end of Sandburg.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and for mentioning “The Family of Man”!


  26. I always learn so much about your country and its history every time I visit your blog. Thanks for this post, Linda.

    • Damyanti,

      Lovely to see you! My country isn’t perfect, and we have, shall we say, a complex history. But I love it, and love sharing it. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!


  27. the volume of your comments makes me pause before adding more to your reading queue! first, i smiled when i read, lagniappe,’ as i rarely hear that word now that i am in latin america. thanks for the touch of louisiana!

    of course i loved the post, the images and the comments. you are such a gift!


    • z,

      Of course you know there never are too many comments! If I didn’t want to chit-chat with readers, I’d be hunched over my desk with the manuscript of the Great American Whatever in front of me, or sending off tons of query letters to the “Southern Journal of Half-Decent Northern Lit’rature”.

      Not to put too fine a point on it, comments are the lagniappe of blogging – that little added touch that make it a real experience and not just keyboard pounding. I always enjoy yours. And I’m doubly glad you enjoyed the post!


  28. You and Mr. Sandburg bring tears to my eyes for our once great nation. I fear for where we will be left in the future. I once had a teacher in high school say that all great nations usually collapse in about 200 years. I resented her words, thought she was insane to say such things to us in class…

    I have a foreboding for where we are headed now.

    Returning to Sandburg, I must confess that my favorite poem of his would have to be “Arithmetic” because it concisely reveals in words my heartache in math class.

    Arithmetic by Carl Sandburg

    Arithmetic is where numbers fly like pigeons in and out of your
    Arithmetic tells you how many you lose or win if you know how
    many you had before you lost or won.
    Arithmetic is seven eleven all good children go to heaven — or five
    six bundle of sticks.
    Arithmetic is numbers you squeeze from your head to your hand
    to your pencil to your paper till you get the answer.
    Arithmetic is where the answer is right and everything is nice and
    you can look out of the window and see the blue sky — or the
    answer is wrong and you have to start all over and try again
    and see how it comes out this time.
    If you take a number and double it and double it again and then
    double it a few more times, the number gets bigger and bigger
    and goes higher and higher and only arithmetic can tell you
    what the number is when you decide to quit doubling.
    Arithmetic is where you have to multiply — and you carry the
    multiplication table in your head and hope you won’t lose it.
    If you have two animal crackers, one good and one bad, and you
    eat one and a striped zebra with streaks all over him eats the
    other, how many animal crackers will you have if somebody
    offers you five six seven and you say No no no and you say
    Nay nay nay and you say Nix nix nix?
    If you ask your mother for one fried egg for breakfast and she
    gives you two fried eggs and you eat both of them, who is
    better in arithmetic, you or your mother?

    And for the visual learners in the group I share this, just one line, cleverly illustrated:


    • Lynda,

      I know a few folks on either end of the spectrum, those who are sure we’re headed for either Armageddon or The Perfect Society. What neither group takes into account is indeterminacy (also known as the tendency of life to run rampant). Or, as the phrase in my google search terms had it this morning, “sometimes life has a tendency to run off the tracks”. I have some suspicions about how life is going to be a year from now, but I surely wouldn’t predict!

      I’d never come across that Sandburg poem about arithmetic, and thank you for bringing it by. It reminds me of the old joke…

      Q: “If you have two apples, and you give me one, how many apples will you have?”
      A: “Two, because I won’t give you one.”

      That question about the fried eggs sounds like a Zen koan! The video only reinforces the feel! Thanks for it, too!


      • There were two roads to take, neither certain. I agree with your suspicions…

        Now, never having heard of a Zen Koan, I searched for it/them, and found quite a few here:

        Somehow, no matter how hard I tried, I found that while I read them the inner voice in my head was speaking in the voice of the Shaolin Priest from the TV series Kung-Foo. ~L

        • Well, never having heard of a Shaolin Priest, I went looking for that, and managed to watch a minute of a National Geographic video. Here’s the weird thing – in the middle of all the youtubes on Shaolin kung-fu, there was a link to JJ Cale and Eric Clapton’s “Road to Escondido”. That’s so weird, I’m just going to go to work!

          • ?!!! Yup, that’s weird alright.

  29. Carl Sandburg — I loved him, along with Robert Frost, as a child, and last week watched a PBS documentary, “The Day Carl Sandburg Died.” I have renewed respect for him, a people’s poet who stood with his own integrity. Thanks for your post.

    • Amirh,

      Both men were wonderful American writers – in the best sense of the phrase. They knew the country’s people, and its history, and were rooted in the country as a whole. Beyond that, I always have the feeling when reading their work that they liked people. Not all writers do. ;)

      Thank you so much for stopping by, and for your comment. Thanks, too, for mentioning the PBS program. I’d not heard of it, and now I’ll look for it.

      Please feel free to stop by any time!


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