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Carl Sandburg: Circles

“Circles” is a famous poem by the American poet Carl Sandburg. It is about cultural awareness: knowledge of and respect for other cultures.

Tidsforkortet bilde av solas gang.

Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) was the son of poor Swedish immigrants and had to drop his education at thirteen to go to work. Young Sandburg’s encounter with the harsh working conditions in a new and industrialised America had a strong impact on him, and was to form his character and influence his writing. He tried his hand at different jobs and gradually started a career as a newspaper reporter. He knew he would need a higher education to earn a good living, and he was admitted at college, but did not complete his studies. Instead, he travelled about working for different newspapers, refining his writing skills all the time. He was also, for some time, a political organiser for the new reform party, The Social Democrats. But he did not aim for a political career; he was a writer, first and foremost, and had started to publish some poems in different newspapers - none of which got much attention. But he continued writing and was finally accepted by a publishing company. His first successful volumes manifested his position as a poet for the common man confronted with the tough reality of working class America. Sandburg’s style is clearly influenced by the modernist tradition; free verse with the absence of a rhyming pattern; at the same time close to epic in its form.


Cultural misunderstandings are often caused by the fact that we lack awareness of how people from other cultures feel, think and behave. Most people tend to see their own culture as “normal”, and compared to their own culture other cultures, come out as different or strange. The belief in one’s own cultural superiority is quite normal, and is called ethnocentrism. Through history, white people have demonstrated their ethnocentrism on numerous occasions and treated people with a different culture quite disrespectfully, to put it mildly. Carl Sandburg’s poem is a reminder of how we still tend to judge other people and different cultures by our own cultural standards.

Circles by Carl Sandburg

The white man drew a small circle in the sand
And told the red man “This is what the Indian
Knows” and drawing a big circle around the
Small one, “This is what the white man knows.”
The Indian took the stick and swept an immense
Ring around both circles: “This is where the
White man and the red man know nothing”

A Closer Look at the Poem

  1. The Poem

    • What makes this a poem and not a prose text?
    • Does the line structure mean anything for how we understand the poem?
    • Do you see any metaphors in the poem?
    • Is the poem a historical setting, or do you think it has a more present and universal meaning?
    • How does Sandburg’s position as a “working class poet” shine through in this poem?
    • Does the conclusion say anything about ethnocentrism?
  2. Research

    • Check out YouTube for the intro scene of the Globe Trekker program and see the man drawing the circle in the sand. Why does this scene work so well as a good opening of the program?

    • Search the net for more poems by Carl Sandburg. (Tips: "Washerwoman", "Prayers of Steel", "A Fence", "Fish Crier")
Last updated 05/29/2018
Written by: Jan-Louis Nagel

Learning content

Literature after 1900

What is core content and additional content?

Subject Material

Tasks and Activites

External resources

  • SharedResourceDelte ressurser

    The Waste Land (Part One and Two)

  • SharedResourceDelte ressurser

    Death of a Salesman - Act 1

  • SharedResourceDelte ressurser

    Death of a Salesman - Act 2