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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Number 15: Carl Sandburg "Arithmetic"


Arithmetic is where numbers fly like pigeons in and out of your

Arithmetic tells you how many you lose or win if you know how
many you had before you lost or won.

Arithmetic is seven eleven all good children go to heaven -- or five
six bundle of sticks.

Arithmetic is numbers you squeeze from your head to your hand
to your pencil to your paper till you get the answer.

Arithmetic is where the answer is right and everything is nice and
you can look out of the window and see the blue sky -- or the
answer is wrong and you have to start all over and try again
and see how it comes out this time.

If you take a number and double it and double it again and then
double it a few more times, the number gets bigger and bigger
and goes higher and higher and only arithmetic can tell you
what the number is when you decide to quit doubling.

Arithmetic is where you have to multiply -- and you carry the
multiplication table in your head and hope you won't lose it.

If you have two animal crackers, one good and one bad, and you
eat one and a striped zebra with streaks all over him eats the
other, how many animal crackers will you have if somebody
offers you five six seven and you say No no no and you say
Nay nay nay and you say Nix nix nix?

If you ask your mother for one fried egg for breakfast and she
gives you two fried eggs and you eat both of them, who is
better in arithmetic, you or your mother?

--Carl Sandburg

Hap Notes: I have a soft spot for Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) partially because he's from my neck of the woods in Illinois. He's from Galesburg, I'm from a bit further south. I cannot tell you how many times I crossed over his territory in my lifetime.

Sandburg did a little bit of everything in his youth (starting when he was 13) from milk truck driver to shoe shiner to brick layer to dish washer to farm laborer to coal-heaver to waiter to hobo to his stint in the army in the Spanish American War. His parents were poor hard-working Swedish immigrants.

Sandburg worked for the thriving Socialist party in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and did a stint as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News. He started writing poetry in college (he went to, but did not graduate from, Lombard College in Galesburg- sometime between the war and his work in Wisconsin). He was published in Harriet Monroe's highly esteemed and influential poetry magazine and started to make a name for himself with his poetry which was liberally salted with Midwestern vernacular and common sense.

Sandburg was very popular in his day for playing the guitar (he was said to be very good at it), singing, and reciting his poetry. The ladies loved him and he reputedly loved them back although he was married to Lillian Steichen (photographer Edward Steichen's sister.) He was, as we say, "full of it," and he enjoyed his celebrity when he had it. He was full of stories and homilies and jokes. He's always reminded me of my grandpa, Frank Mansfield, who was also poetically "full of it." (So I come by it both geographically and genetically.)

If you want to hear Sandburg's sonorous tones check it out here: His Swedish cadence is enchanting. I believe he's reading from Cornhuskers. (And when he says "our Baltimore neighbor" he's talking about H.L. Menken, who often published him in the American Mercury.)

Critically, his Pulitzer-prize-winning biography of Lincoln is still highly regarded but his poetry is thought to be somewhat glib and simple. Well, that's true, I suppose. He's glib, yes, but when he gets it right, he soars in sections of poems like "The People, Yes." He also wrote some well-loved American "fairy tales" with his "Rutabaga Stories" and a songbook of American folk tunes. In his poetry, often his last few lines are the "punch" or the drive. I think this poem needs no comment from me- but, I love the last line most of all. Always makes me laugh. It might be worth mentioning that Sandburg was vexed by math and was not a particularly good student of it in school.

Everybody in creation knows that fog-creeping-on-little-cat-feet poem he wrote.

Once when I was driving through Galesburg in the night (around 2 a.m.) I had an impulse to stop at Sandburg's house (it's preserved by a historical society) and have a picnic with him. I had a couple of pieces of cold Kentucky Fried Chicken and some biscuits from a stop earlier in the evening (I was driving to see my mom from my home,at the time, in Minnesota) and a bottle of lemonade and a Milky Way bar. I took my little picnic and sat on the sidewalk, like a bum, outside of the white picket fence of the tiny house where he was born. The policeman driving by waved at me amicably. I suppose a woman eating chicken and sitting on the sidewalk didn't look too threatening- who knows, maybe it happens a lot. I ate, cried a little because of the strangeness of it all, got up, said goodbye to Carl and went to mom's. I still think of that picnic sometimes. (Carl didn't eat much being dead and all but I still sorta felt him there. I've never eaten a piece of chicken that tasted quite as good as the ones I ate with Carl.)

The title of this blog, is from Sandburg's poem on poetry. He says, "Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits."

Here's a good Sandburg quote: "Here is the difference between Dante, Milton, and me. They wrote about hell and never saw the place. I wrote about Chicago after looking the town over for years and years."

Here's one, too: "I have often wondered what it is an old building can do to you when you happen to know a little about things that went on long ago in that building."

One more (he's irresistible) : "When a nation goes down, or a society perishes, one condition may always be found; they forgot where they came from. They lost sight of what had brought them along."

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