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Wit, wisdom of Carl Sandburg to be on display in Colorado Springs

April 7, 2014 Updated: April 7, 2014 at 7:50 am
photo - A 1939 photo of poet and author Carl Sandburg.  (AP Photo)
A 1939 photo of poet and author Carl Sandburg. (AP Photo) 

It was billed as "the big event of the year" when in 1929, Carl Sandburg, "the poet of the people," came to Colorado Springs to present one of his multimedia recitals.

It lived up to the high expectations of fans of the man considered America's most famous living poet at the time.

People packed Cheyenne Mountain School, the site of the current Cheyenne Mountain Junior High School, and were captivated by his Jan. 29 performance, according to articles from The Colorado Springs Gazette.

Viewers were "spellbound from the beginning of the program to the end," and Sandburg's "antipathy to the obvious was made conspicuously apparent in his manner of singing the songs of the lowly."

On Wednesday, the public again will have a chance to marvel at Sandburg's wit and wisdom in the same fashion as audiences of the early 20th century.

"Prayers for the People: Carl Sandburg and the Sunburnt West" will take the stage at Colorado College's Cornerstone Arts Center. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. and is free to the public.

Produced by Kate Benzel, professor emeritus of English at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, and David Mason, Colorado's poet laureate, the evening will include poetry from Sandburg and Mason, folk songs from Sandburg's "The Great American Songbag" performed by regional artists Mike Adams and Sons and Brothers Trio, and narration by Charles Peek.

Benzel, who has been studying the work of Sandburg for years, realizes she could have written a book in tribute. But that didn't seem like enough.

"He was such a significant person; I wanted to do something that would really bring Sandburg to the people," she said. "This performance does that."

Sandburg's Colorado connection is the theme of the custom production.

The three-time Pulitzer Prize winner (two for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln) made his first trip to Colorado in 1898, at age 19.

Sandburg had left his southern Illinois prairie home, hopped a freight train and headed west as a hobo, Benzel said.

He traveled through Rocky Ford on Melon Day and on to Canon City, Salida, Colorado Springs and Denver.

"He also walked up Pikes Peak," Benzel said. "When he first saw the Rockies in 1898, he said, 'There's the hand of God.'"

In 1928, he wrote a poem titled "Pike's Peak."

His "Slabs of the Sunburnt West" collection features Western-style poetry gleaned from his trip to Colorado as a young man.

"His view of the American West in the 1920s captures the independent kind of spirit that we can still see today," Benzel said.

Most of Sandburg's poetry is about the working class of last century, or today's middle class, said Jim Ciletti, a former poet laureate of the Pikes Peak region who selected Sandburg poems for a reading Tuesday at Penrose Library.

"Even a cursory glance at his poems will spotlight numerous poems about how ordinary people live, dance, laugh, work, worry, enjoy friendships, music, urban and city life and love - just like all of us today," Ciletti said.

Sandburg's 1929 show at Cheyenne Mountain School was heralded as a coup for the community. His visit was part of the vision of Lloyd Shaw, a CC graduate who worked as superintendent, principal, teacher and coach for Cheyenne Mountain School.

Shaw's creative and sometimes controversial plans for educating children included developing an art collection, writing plays for students to perform and bringing in "a major attraction of merit" each year.

Sandburg fit the bill for 1929 and accepted the faculty's invitation to do a program at the school.

Not only did Sandburg read poetry, but he combined folk songs of the sailor, the cowboy, the railroader, the prisoner and the tramp, along with storytelling from his experiences as a vagabond. He also told jokes and read passages from his biography, "Abraham Lincoln: "The Prairie Years," released in 1926.

In short, it was "overall great entertainment," according to The Gazette.

Sandburg died in 1967 at age 89, but his work is timeless, Benzel said.

"They called him 'the poet of the people' partly because he wasn't an academic poet. The language and rhythms he used weren't a contrived formula but more conversational," she said. "His poems address common emotions and experiences that people have."

Related Programs

The Pikes Peak Library District will complement Colorado College's Visiting Author Series on Carl Sandburg in April:

- Throughout the month, PPLD's Special Collections department at Penrose Library, 20 N. Cascade Ave., will exhibit a display related to Sandburg's poem "Memoir of a Proud Boy." The poem describes the last days of Sandburg's friend Don Magregor, a Socialist reporter who fought alongside striking Colorado coal miners and was witness to the Ludlow Massacre. The exhibit includes photos of several people mentioned in the poem, including Pancho Villa and the composer Victor Herbert.

- Lunch and a Movie, noon Tuesday, Penrose Library, 20 N. Cascade Ave.

Paul Bonesteel's American Masters documentary, "The Day Carl Sandburg Died," prefaced by biographical material on Sandburg.

- Colorado Springs Reads Carl Sandburg, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Carnegie Reading Room, Penrose Library, 20 N. Cascade Ave.

Past Pikes Peak Poet Laureate Jim Ciletti and present Poet Laureate Price Strobridge will host local poets and school kids reading selected Sandburg pieces. There also will be readings from Sandburg's biography of Abraham Lincoln.

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