Carl Sandburg

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Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during a moment.

Carl August Sandburg (6 January 187822 July 1967) was an American poet, historian, novelist, balladeer and folklorist.


  • There are some people who can receive a truth by no other way than to have their understanding shocked and insulted.
    • In Reckless Ecstasy (1904)
  • Yesterday is done. Tomorrow never comes. Today is here. If you don't know what to do, sit still and listen. You may hear something. Nobody knows.
    We may pull apart the petals of a rose or make chemical analysis of its perfume, but the mystic beauty of its form and odor is still a secret, locked in to where we have no keys.
    • Incidentals (1904)
  • Back of every mistaken venture and defeat is the laughter of wisdom, if you listen. Every blunder behind us is giving a cheer for us, and only for those who were willing to fail are the dangers and splendors of life. To be a good loser is to learn how to win. I was sure there are ten men in me and I do not know or understand one of them. I could safely declare, I am an idealist. A Parisian cynic says "I believe in nothing. I am looking for clues." My statement would be : I believe in everything — I am only looking for proofs.
    • Incidentals (1904); this is sometimes paraphrased: "I am an idealist. I believe in everything — I am only looking for proofs."
  • I'm an idealist. I don't know where I'm going, but I'm on my way.
    • Incidentals (1904)
  • Under the summer roses
    When the flagrant crimson
    Lurks in the dusk
    Of the wild red leaves,
    Love, with little hands,
    Comes and touches you
    With a thousand memories,
    And asks you
    Beautiful, unanswerable questions.
    • "Under the Harvest Moon" (1916)
  • I am the people — the mob — the crowd — the mass.
    Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
    • "I Am the People, the Mob" (1916)
  • Hog Butcher for the World,
    Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
    Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
    Stormy, husky, brawling,
    City of the Big Shoulders.
    • "Chicago" (1916)
  • The fog comes
    on little cat feet.
    It sits looking
    over the harbor and city
    on silent haunches, and then moves on.
    • "Fog" (1916)
  • Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
    Shovel them under and let me work —
    I am the grass; I cover all.

    And pile them high at Gettysburg
    And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

    Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
    What place is this?
    Where are we now?

    • "Grass" (1918)
  • I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes.
    • "Prairie" (1918)
  • When Abraham Lincoln was shoveled into
    the tombs, he forgot the copperheads and
    the assassin... in the dust, in the cool tombs.
    • "Cool Tombs" (1918)
  • Tell me if the lovers are losers... tell me if any get more than the lovers.
    • "Cool Tombs" (1918)
  • Lay me on an anvil, O God.
    Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar.
    Let me pry loose old walls.
    Let me lift and loosen old foundations.
    • "Prayers of Steel" (1920)
  • Drum on your drums, batter on your banjos,
    sob on the long cool winding saxophones.
    Go to it, O jazzmen.
    • "Jazz Fantasia" (1920)
  • The Republic is a dream.
    Nothing happens unless first a dream.
    • "Washington Monument by Night" in Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922)
  • The name of an iron man goes round the world.
    It takes a long time to forget an iron man.
    • "Washington Monument by Night" in Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922)
  • Look out how you use proud words.
    When you let proud words go, it is not easy to call them back.
    They wear long boots, hard boots.
    • "Primer Lessons" (1922)
  • The little girl saw her first troop parade and asked,
    "What are those?"
    "What are soldiers?"
    "They are for war. They fight and each tries to kill as many of the other side as he can."
    The girl held still and studied.
    "Do you know ... I know something?"
    "Yes, what is it you know?"
    "Sometime they'll give a war and nobody will come."
    • "The People, Yes" (1936)
  • 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, Yes" (1936)
  • The people know the salt of the sea
    and the strength of the winds
    lashing the corners of the earth.
    The people take the earth
    as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.
    Who else speaks for the Family of Man?
    • "The People, Yes" (1936)
  • Man's life? A candle in the wind, hoar-frost on stone.
  • Man is a long time coming.
    Man will yet win.

    Brother may yet line up with brother:
    This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
    There are men who can't be bought.
    • "The People Will Live On" (1936)
  • A baby is God's opinion that life should go on. A book that does nothing to you is dead. A baby, whether it does anything to you, represents life. If a bad fire should break out in this house and I had my choice of saving the library or the babies, I would save what is alive. Never will a time come when the most marvelous recent invention is as marvelous as a newborn baby. The finest of our precision watches, the most super-colossal of our supercargo plants, don't compare with a newborn baby in the number and ingenuity of coils and springs, in the flow and change of chemical solutions, in timing devices and interrelated parts that are irreplaceable. A baby is very modern. Yet it is also the oldest of the ancients. A baby doesn't know he is a hoary and venerable antique — but he is. Before man learned how to make an alphabet, how to make a wheel, how to make a fire, he knew how to make a baby — with the great help of woman, and his God and Maker.
    • Remembrance Rock (1948), Ch. 2, p. 7
  • If she forgets where she came from, if the people lose sight of what brought them along, if she listens to the deniers and mockers, then will begin the rot and dissolution.
    • On America, in Remembrance Rock (1948), epilogue, Ch. 2, p. 1001.
  • Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during a moment.
    • "Tentative (First Model)" Definitions of Poetry" in Complete Poems (1950)
  • I see America, not in the setting sun of a black night of despair ahead of us, I see America in the crimson light of a rising sun fresh from the burning, creative hand of God. I see great days ahead, great days possible to men and women of will and vision …
    • Interview with Frederick Van Ryn, This Week Magazine (January 4, 1953), p. 11. Sandburg previously used these words at a rally at Madison Square Garden, New York City (October 28, 1952), praising Adlai E. Stevenson during the latter's 1952 presidential campaign. Reported in The Papers of Adlai E. Stevenson (1955), vol. 4, p. 175.
  • Time is the coin of your life. You spend it. Do not allow others to spend it for you.
    • Declaration at his 85th birthday party (6 January 1963), as quoted in The Best of Ralph McGill : Selected Columns (1980) by Ralph McGill, edited by Michael Strickland, Harry Davis, and Jeff Strickland, p. 82
    • Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.
      • As quoted without source in The School Musician Director and Teacher Vol. 43 (1971) by the American School Band Directors' Association
  • One of the greatest necessities in America is to discover creative solitude.
    • As quoted in Peter's Quotations: Ideas for Our Time‎ (1977) by Laurence J. Peter, p. 448
  • I never made a mistake in grammar but one in my life and as soon as I done it I seen it.
    • As quoted in A Dictionary of Literary Quotations‎ (1990) by Meic Stephens


  • The time for action is now. It's never too late to do something.
    • Quoted as Sandburg in Stop Whining! Start Selling!: Profit-Producing Strategies for Explosive Sales Results (2003) by Jeff Blackman, but without citation of original source; this is elsewhere attributed to Antoine de Saint Exupéry, but also with no original sources cited.


  • The greatest cunning is to have none at all.
    • This line appears in section 94 of "The People, Yes" (1936), but that section contains many common proverbs and expressions not original to Sandburg which he is merely quoting within the poem, including this one.

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