Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Carl Sandburg: Discovering Yourself at Age 50
At age 61 the confusion was over -- Sandburg published his four volume biography of Abraham Lincoln which became an instant classic and yielded awards and honors including some ten or eleven doctoral degrees. Not bad for a folksinger who rode the rails in the 30s and was considered an "imagist" poet of the 20s, a figure of the American imagination whom America had the utmost trouble pegging and putting into a convenient library category.
I found a mint copy of The American Songbag, Sandburg's tribute to our national folklore in song, in a small library in Indianapolis. The librarian had no idea what it was and what it was worth. I told her, "Its worth is incalculable." She replied, "Maybe I shouldn't have it out on the regular shelves then."
Sandburg said as he got older, "I am more suspicious of adjectives than at any other time in all my born days." His writing became bare bones but the rhythm of it was uniquely Sandburg and I think he got that spoken music from the people he grew up with, the Swedish American storytellers whose pauses were full of meaning and whose phrases came from the ancient bards who recited the sagas and never missed a beat.
As he looked back on his life, Sandburg commented that he'd forgotten the meaning of "... twenty or thirty of my poems written thirty or forty years ago." He claimed that all his life he'd "... been trying to learn to read, to see and hear, and to write."
At sixty-five, he wrote his first novel. It took him five years to finish it.
Growing older still Sandburg became the sort of official poet laureate of the plains and along with Robert Frost, the greatest oral reader of poetry alive. Without Sandburg there wouldn't have been a Ginsberg or, for that matter, a raging pile of nonstop verses called Howl.
Carl Sandburg hoped to live to be 89, the same age of Hokusai. Sandburg's paraphrase of Hokusai's farewell to earth and sky ends like this: "If God had let me live five years longer I should have been a writer." Sandburg made it to 89 just as he wished.
I think some of our younger writers, God bless 'em, could learn something from old Hokusai and Old Sandbuggy, as I heard someone say. It gets better. It just gets better -- if you have the patience for it.