Sandburg wrote of the American common people; his work glorified both the everyday person and everyday life. “Moonlight and mittens,” he believed, were the stuff of art. In addition, he made poetry of the harsh realities of immigrant urban life. Like nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman, Sandburg broke with poetic convention by addressing “unpoetic” subjects, such as butchering and railroads. Also like Whitman, he broke with conventional rhyme schemes and forms; his verse is often called “prosy” in that he uses much dialogue and employs long lines.
Sandburg defended free verse by quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Rhythm alone is a tether, and not a very long one. But rhymes are iron fetters.” Sandburg had an excellent ear for speech rhythms and the musical cadences of words. His form grew naturally out of his content, not only because of his skill in hearing the musical connotations of words but also because of his ability to balance and counterbalance phrases and clauses.
Critics sometimes regarded Sandburg as “subliterary.” The polished literary fashion of his time considered form, structure, imagery, tension, and irony more important than content.
Sandburg’s poetry was a vehicle for his message of faith in “the people.” He did not brood over poetry and what constitutes art but instead had an almost irreverent attitude toward aesthetic theories. The question remains, however, whether Sandburg invented adequate poetic structures to replace those he spurned. Sandburg was not without poetic theory, but his definitions of poetry were impressionistic (“poetry is a shuffling of boxes of illusion buckled with a strap of facts”) more than analytical. He wanted to synthesize the ethereal and the concrete, “hyacinths and biscuits,” by juxtaposing one with the other. His poetry itself, however, reveals more care than his vague definitions would indicate.
William Carlos Williams made a classic case against Sandburg by charging that he had no unifying imaginative vision; as he had no formal poetic theory, he could write no coherent poetry. His poetry simply cataloged realistic detail in a sprawl of words. Other critics, however, found this uniting vision in the very inclusiveness of Sandburg’s work and in his faith in the people, a faith that the slang and hardships of the people were the materials as well as the subjects of art.
Sandburg’s poetry touched on the variety of American life, particularly that of the working class. Although he made his reputation on the brassy poem “Chicago,” he also wrote of simple moments of joy, poignancy, and despair. A Jewish fishmonger has “a joy identical with that of [Anna] Pavlova dancing”; a runaway girl is “Gone with her little chin.” His populist views appear in countless images of struggle, such as a woman so worn out from making mittens that she sees evergreens by moonlight as a pair of mittens. That Sandburg should be obsessed with Abraham Lincoln is no surprise. Lincoln exemplified the worker who made good, the American Dream, the practical one who retained Midwest ideals in the face of one of America’s most complex periods.
Sandburg has been faulted for not dealing with the evils of life, but this is a superficial criticism at best. True, there are no villains or monsters either in his poetry or in his children’s tales, but evil exists, usually in the form of poverty, despair, and recurring defeats. The individual is saved not by circumstances, but by one’s resilience, humor, and common sense.
Although Sandburg has often been linked with Whitman, they differ in major respects, such as their attitudes toward death. Whitman celebrates death as undergirding and completing life; Sandburg views it merely as a terminus. Whereas Whitman believes in a pantheistic kind of immortality, Sandburg asks the eternal questions throughout his work but fails to find answers. Only in his last volume does he think he sees something of a “purpose” in life’s randomness.
A typical Sandburg poem, however, does employ literary devices that are similar to those of Whitman. Like Whitman, Sandburg is a master of the long, “prosaic” line, and he catalogs, glorifies, and repeats details from daily life. Sandburg’s repetitions, however, also owe much in style to the Bible. He makes heavy use of dialogue in his work, and the verse is so free...
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