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Crucible -- Carl Sandburg

(Poem #205) Crucible
Hot gold runs a winding stream on the inside of a green bowl.

Yellow trickles in a fan figure, scatters a line of skirmishes, spreads a chorus
of dancing girls, performs blazing ochre evolutions, gathers the whole show into
one stream, forgets the past and rolls on.

The sea-mist green of the bowl's bottom is a dark throat of sky crossed by
quarreling forks of umber and ochre and yellow changing faces.
-- Carl Sandburg
Carl Sandburg is often thought of as a working man's poet, and it's true that
his major theme is the "attempt to find beauty in modern industrialism...
celebrating industrial and agricultural America, American geography and
landscape, and the American common people." His words are plain and unadorned;
his rhythms driving, energetic; his philosophy simple and direct. He eulogizes
workers:  "Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Gary, they make their steel with men", and
glorifies life in all its raw beauty: "Come and show me another city with lifted
head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning."

Yet to dismiss him as merely a hewer of granitic verse - passionate, yes, but
also crude and unsophisticated in the traditions of 'true' poetry - would be to
do him an injustice, for he could wield the finest of chisels with rare skill,
crafting poems of delicate strength and perfect balance. Today's vignette is one
of them: it has all the beauty (both superficial and implicit) of the very best
Imagist poems, while retaining the energy and flow that's so characteristic of
Sandburg. Lovely.



Carl Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, on January 6, 1878. His parents,
August and Clara Johnson, had emigrated to America from the north of Sweden.
After encountering several August Johnsons in his job for the railroad, the
Sandburg's father renamed the family. The Sandburgs were very poor; Carl left
school at the age of thirteen to work odd jobs, from laying bricks to
dishwashing, to help support his family. At seventeen, he traveled west to
Kansas as a hobo. He then served eight months in Puerto Rico during the
Spanish-American war. While serving, Sandburg met a student at Lombard College,
the small school located in Sandburg's hometown. The young man convinced
Sandburg to enroll in Lombard after his return from the war.

Sandburg worked his way through school, where he attracted the attention of
Professor Philip Green Wright, who not only encouraged Sandburg's writing, but
paid for the publication of his first volume of poetry, a pamphlet called
Reckless Ecstasy (1904). While Sandburg attended Lombard for four years, he
never received a diploma (he would later receive honorary degrees from Lombard,
Knox College, and Northwestern University). After college, Sandburg moved to
Milwaukee, where he worked as an advertising writer and a newspaper reporter.
While there, he met and married Lillian Steichen (whom he called Paula), sister
of the photographer Edward Steichen. A Socialist sympathizer at that point in
his life, Sandburg then worked for the Social-Democrat Party in Wisconsin and
later acted as secretary to the first Socialist mayor of Milwaukee from 1910 to

The Sandburgs soon moved to Chicago, where Carl became an editorial writer for
the Chicago Daily News. Harriet Monroe had just started Poetry: A Magazine of
Verse, and began publishing Sandburg's poems, encouraging him to continue
writing in the free-verse, Whitman-like style he had cultivated in college.
Monroe liked the poems' homely speech, which distinguished Sandburg from his
predecessors. It was during this period that Sandburg was recognized as a member
of the Chicago literary renaissance, which included Ben Hecht, Theodore Dreiser,
Sherwood Anderson, and Edgar Lee Masters. He established his reputation with
Chicago Poems (1916), and then Cornhuskers (1918). Soon after the publication of
these volumes Sandburg wrote Smoke and Steel (1920), his first prolonged attempt
to find beauty in modern industrialism. With  these three volumes, Sandburg
became known for his free verse poems celebrating industrial and agricultural
America, American geography and  landscape, and the American common people.

In the twenties, he started some of his most ambitious projects, including his
study of Abraham Lincoln. From childhood, Sandburg loved and admired the legacy
of President Lincoln. For thirty years he sought out and collected material, and
gradually began the writing of the six-volume definitive biography of the former
president. The twenties also saw Sandburg's collections of American folklore,
the ballads in The American Songbag and The New American Songbag (1950), and
books for children. These later volumes contained pieces collected from brief
tours across America which Sandburg took each year, playing his banjo or guitar,
singing folk-songs, and reciting poems.

In the 1930s, Sandburg continued his celebration of America with Mary Lincoln,
Wife and Widow (1932), The People, Yes (1936), and the second part of his
Lincoln biography, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939), for which he was
awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He received a second Pulitzer Prize for his Complete
Poems in 1950. His final volumes of verse were Harvest Poems,and Honey and Salt (1963). Carl Sandburg died in 1967.

    -- from the site of the American Academy of Poets,

[Minstrels Links]

The EB biography of Sandburg can be had at poem #163

'Chicago', Sandburg's most famous poem, was also one of the very first poems to
be run on Minstrels; you can read it at poem #5

And of course, all our other poems are archived at

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