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, Sandbury 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 and 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 brings the grass alive 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