January 6: Personification Day

Photograph of Sandburg
Carl Sandburg

Today is the birthday of American writer and poet Carl Sandburg, who was born on this day in 1878 in Galesburg, Illinois.

The son of Swedish immigrants, Sandburg left school at the age of thirteen to work odd jobs to help support his family.  In 1898, he volunteered to travel to Puerto Rico where he served with the 6th Illinois Infantry during the Spanish-American War.  After the war, he attended the United States Military Academy at West Point but dropped out after just two weeks after failing a mathematics and grammar exam (1).  Returning to his hometown in Illinois, Sandburg enrolled in Lombard College.  At Lombard, he honed his skills as a writer of both prose and poetry, and after college, he moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he worked as an advertising writer and a journalist.

Sandburg achieved unprecedented success as a writer of both biography and poetry.  His great work of prose was his biography of Abraham Lincoln, an exhaustively detailed six-volume work that took him 30 years to research and complete. Not only did he win the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for his stellar writing, he was also invited to address a joint session of Congress on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth on February 12, 1959.  This was the first time a private citizen was allowed to make such an address (2).

Before he began his biography of Lincoln, Sandburg established himself as a great poet, winning the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1919.  Writing in free verse, Sandburg’s poems captured the essence of industrial America.  

Perhaps his best-known poem Chicago begins:

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 . . .

One of the primary rhetorical devices at work here is personification. Sandburg does not just describe the city, he brings it to life, giving it job titles, such as “Tool Maker,” and human characteristics, such as “brawling,” and even human anatomy, such as “Big Shoulders.”

Personification is figurative language used in either poetry or prose that describes a non-human thing or idea using human characteristics.  As Sandburg demonstrates, the simple secret of personification is selecting the right words to animate the inanimate.  The key parts of speech for personification are adjectives, nouns, verbs, and pronouns:

-Adjectives like thoughtful or honest or sneaky

-Verbs like smile or sings or snores

-Nouns like nose or hands or feet

-Pronouns like I, she, or they.

In the following poem, Sandburg personifies the grass.  Notice how he makes the grass human by giving it not just a first person voice, but also a job to do:


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.

Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor:

         What place is this?

         Where are we now?

         I am the grass.

         Let me work.

Today’s Challenge:  I Am the Homework, I Make You Sweat

What are some everyday objects that you might bring to life using personification?  If these things had a voice, what would they say?  Using “Grass” as a model, select your own everyday non-human topic and use personification to give it a first-person voice, writing at least 100 words of either poetry or prose.  Imagine what it would say and what it would say about its job.  Your tone may be serious or silly.

Possible Topics: alarm clock, coffee cup, textbook, guitar, bicycle, paper clip, pencil, car, microwave, baseball

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Carl Sandburg was more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America. -President Lyndon B. Johnson

1- Wikipedia Carl Sandburg.

2-Poetry Foundation. Carl Sandburg


Subject:  Fortune – The Consolation of Philosophy

Event:  Wheel of Fortune debuts, 1975 

Wheel of Fortune logo.png

On January 6, 1975, one of the most popular game shows in the history of television made its debut:  The Wheel of Fortune.  The show was created by Merv Griffin, who also created the game show Jeopardy as well as its famous theme song, called “Think.” The WOF is basically an adaptation of the game Hangman, where contestants guess letters in an attempt to solve word puzzles.  The show gets its name from the large carnival wheel that contestants spin.  Each spin determines how much money or prizes they can earn for each guess; contestants can also lose all their winnings if the wheel falls on “Bankrupt” or “Lose Turn.” 

Hundreds of years before the invention of television, the image of the wheel of Fortune served as a powerful symbol of the capriciousness of human fate.  Long before Vanna White turned the lighted titles to reveal letters of the alphabet, Fortuna, the Roman Goddess of Fortune, turned her wheel to determine the fate of mortals. Those at the top achieve happiness through acquired wealth and career success.  The wheel, however, spins on its axis, and even kings who were at the top of the wheel one minute can find themselves at the bottom in the next.  There at the bottom is the pain and agony of lost fortune:  failure, poverty, and loss.  As Shakespeare says in Sonnet 29 being at the bottom of Fortune’s wheel is not pleasant:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

In addition to her wheel, Fortuna was frequently depicted with two contrasting objects: in one hand she holds a cornucopia, symbolizing abundance and luxury; in the other hand, she holds a tiller, symbolizing her control over people’s destinies.

There is a long tradition in philosophy that seeks to find an antidote to the fickleness of fate.  The Stoics recognized the need to determine some method of hacking Fortune’s wheel, refusing to surrender individual destiny to capricious fate.  

Lady Fortune in a Boccaccio manuscript (Wikipedia)

Probably the best example of this comes from Boethius (475-525), the Roman philosopher who wrote the classic work The Consolation of Philosophy.  Boethius began his career with success, achieving the position as Consul for the Roman ruler King Theodoric.  Poised at the top of Fortune’s wheel, Boethius fell to the bottom when he was accused of plotting against Theodoric and imprisoned.  In his Consolation, Boethius tells the story of how he was visited in his prison cell by Lady Philosophy.  She advised him to remember and resist the whims of Fortuna.  She challenged Boethius to not base his happiness on what was out of his control — those things that may be snatched away at any moment by a spin of the fickle wheel. Instead, she instructed Boethius to meditate on what he could control — that is his powers of reason. Only by controlling his own mind and his own powers of perception could he free himself from the chains of fate.  As Hamlet said, “There is nothing either good nor bad but thinking makes it so.” 

If the sky is full of dark clouds that block the sun, and the rain is falling, you can choose to let it affect your mood; the more philosophical approach, however, is to accept those things that you have no power to change and to focus instead on what you can change — your mind and attitude.   The Stoics remind us that we have power over what we think and what we feel.  We are mere mortals, but we have a super power called reason. 

Descartes said, “I think, therefore, I am”; the Stoics said, “I think, therefore, I am immune to the fickle and frigid finger of fate.”

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the Stoic’s antidote for overcoming the fickleness of Fortune’s wheel?

Challenge:  Respond to the following quotation:

“Two men look out through the same bars; One sees the mud, and one the stars.” -Frederick Langridge

Today’s Word Day:  Happy Personification Day!

Source:  Boethius and The Consolation of Philosophy.  The School of Life.

January 5: List Day

Today is the birthday of Umberto Eco (1932-2016), the Italian novelist, literary critic, philosopher and semiotician (one who studies signs and symbols).  Although he is best known for his historical mystery novel The Name of the Rose, Eco’s most interesting work might just be a work of nonfiction that he published in 2009 called The Infinity of Lists.  In his book, Eco collects and catalogs examples of lists from literature, music, and art, showing over and over how people have turned to lists in an attempt to bring order to chaos (1).

Some people are critical of lists as a writing form.  They see the ubiquitous internet listicles as a sign of the apocalypse (See March 19:  Listicle Day).  Eco, however, views lists differently:

The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists (2).

The following are some of the lists from literature that Eco includes in his book:

-A list of the residents of Hades from Virgil’s Aeneid, Book VI.

-A list of conditions for manhood from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.”

-A list of items that Tom obtained from his friends as payment for the privilege of whitewashing his fence, from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

-A list of book categories from the bookstore in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

Lists fascinate us because they appeal to our inherent need for organization.  A list’s title gives the reader immediate and easily categorized information, such as “The Ten Commandments” or “Thirteen Signs You’re Addicted to Lip Balm.”

Lists are an essential tool that assists writers to shovel up heaping helpings of savory details for the reader to enjoy.  Too often writers dwell too much on abstractions and generalities. Lists remind the writer that the reader is hungry for concrete details.  Readers can be told things for only so long; they prefer, instead, to be shown things, things that they can see, hear, taste, smell, and feel.

Today’s Challenge:  Your Personal Parade of Particulars

What are some titles of lists that you would find interesting to enumerate and catalog your life experiences?  Generating your own lists is a great way to practice generating specific, concrete details in your writing.  Generate at least three list titles of your own, or use some of the examples below.  Then, based on the three titles, generate three separate lists, each containing at least seven items.

Things I’ve Found

Songs on My iPod

Jobs I’d Hate to Have

Things I Love to Hate

Things I Hope to Do by the Time I’m Fifty

Reasons I Get Up in the Morning

Important Numbers in My Life

Things I Can Rant About?

Things I Can Rave About?

Places I’d Like to Go Before I Die

Nicknames I’ve Had in My Life

Most Memorable People I’ve Met

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with . . . . We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.  -Umbeto Eco

1-Eco, Umberto.  The Infinityhttps://www.amazon.com/Infinity-Lists-Illustrated-Essay/dp/0847832961 of Lists.  New York:  Rizzoli, 2009.

2-Beyer, Susanne and Lothar Gorris. We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to DieSpiegal.



Subject:  Leadership – The Shackleton Expedition 

Event:  Ernest Shackelton dies, 1922

In 1914 the polar explorer Ernest Shackelton set off for Antarctica with a crew of 28 men.  Their goal was to be the first to walk across the continent.  The men of the expedition not only failed in reaching their goal, they never even set foot on Antarctica.  And yet the story of the Shackleton Expedition lives on as one of the most successful failures in history.

Shackleton statue by C.S. Jagger outside the Royal Geographical Society (Wikipedia)

Shackleton and his crew set off for Antarctica in their ship, the Endurance, in August 1914.  In January 1915, they came in sight of Antarctica’s coast, but because their ship became trapped in the ice, they were unable to reach the shore.  The only option was to remain immobilized in the ice until the summer thaw.  To combat the fear and disappointment of the unfortunate circumstances, Shackleton kept his men busy, establishing a strict daily schedule that included gathering scientific specimens from the ice, hunting for seals and penguins, and socializing after dinner. 

After spending months on the ice, the crew’s hopes were further frustrated in October 1915 when the ice began to weaken the hull of their ship, causing water to pour in.  Shackleton knew at this point that there was no hope for the Endurance nor was there hope for accomplishing his original mission.  His new mission was now to survive.

After recovering what they could from the ship, including three lifeboats, the crew established a camp on the ice. 

In April 1916, the ice broke up enough so that the crew could attempt to reach dry land in their lifeboats.  Finally, after a week at sea, the crew arrived at uninhabited Elephant Island.  Still a long way from civilization and safety, Shackleton put together a plan to reach South Georgia Island, the location of the whaling settlement where the crew had begun its expedition.  Using one of the lifeboats — the James Caird — Shackleton and a small crew set out for South Georgia.

After more than two weeks at sea in stormy and icy conditions, the lifeboat finally arrived at South Georgia.  Although they had reached shore, the men landed on the opposite side of the island from the whaling station.  The next desperate step was to trudge on foot over mountainous terrain to reach the whaling station.  Finally, after 36 hours of arduous hiking, Shackleton and his two companions reached civilization.

Next, Shackleton’s task was to rescue the rest of the castaways on Elephant Island.  After failing in two attempts to reach the island through icy seas, he finally succeeded on August 30, 1916. One hundred and twenty-eight days after leaving for South Georgia in the James Caird, the entire crew was reunited without the loss of a single man.

Today the Shackleton Expedition is viewed as a case study in leadership.  No leader is perfect, but Shackleton’s perseverance in the face of repeated setbacks, his ability to adapt, and his unwavering determination and commitment to save his crew serve as a model for modern leaders.

In 1921, Shackleton planned another expedition to Antarctica where this time his plan was to circumnavigate — rather than trek across — the continent.  Unfortunately, he never completed the expedition. On January 5, 1922, he had a heart attack while preparing to begin the expedition at South Georgia Island, the same place where he had begun his expedition 1n 1914.   

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: How did Earnest Shackleton transform failure into success?

Challenge – Failure Before Success:  So often we view success as the opposite of failure rather than realizing how failure and the lessons gained from it can create a path for future success.  Research some quotations that deal with the relationship between failure and success.  Pick one that you like, and write an explanation of why you think the quotation conveys necessary wisdom for life.

Today’s Word Day: Happy List Day


1- “Leadership Lessons from the Shackleton ExpeditionNew York Times 25 December 2011.