Poetry Review: “Number Man” by Carl Sandburg

Prairie Sky (photo by m.a.h. hinton)
Prairie Sky (photo by m.a.h. hinton)

Early August in the North Country has brought cooler than normal temperatures making biking to work cool and pleasant. The afternoons though are most often the kind of windy and warm days you expect this time of year. It is a nice balance, one that is easy to appreciate.

Two very brief weekends to prairie country this summer have me reading Sandburg again. His poems about prairie are the best that we have, only Ted Kooser in my mind comes close. It would be wonderful if we had more “prairie poets.”

Here is a familiar Sandburg poem.


Number Man
(for the ghost of Johann Sebastian Bach)

He was born to wonder about numbers.


He balanced fives against tens
and made them sleep together
and love each other.


He took sixes and sevens
and set them wrangling and fighting
over raw bones.


He woke up twos and fours
out of baby sleep
and touched them back to sleep.


He mananged eights and nines,
gave them prophet beards,
marched them into mists and mountains.


He added all the numbers he knew,
multiplied them by new-found numbers
and called it a prayer of Numbers.


For each of a million cipher silences
he dug up a mate number
for a candle light in the dark.


He knew love numbers, luck numbers,
how the sea and the stars
are made and held by numbers.


He died from the wonder of numbering.
He said good-by as if good-by is a number.


Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:


He knew love numbers, luck numbers,
how the sea and the stars
are made and held by numbers.


I could have easily picked the final lines, but these I like for way he “pairs” love-luck, sea-stars, made-held. Sandburg’s genius is in being able to achieve the simple. Poetry does not have to be complex and difficult. In fact, the best poems are neither.

Writing a simple poem though is difficult. To write clear and beautiful lines without tricks and complex sleights-of-hand, remains the most complex thing a poet can attempt… especially an American poet.

Writers are readers and thinkers. It is natural to want to “show off” in vocabulary, and images, and references how smart we are. And yet, the best poets… at least the best American poets… resist this temptation. And Sandburg is easily one of the best American poets.