Sandburg, Carl 1878–1967
Sandburg was a poet, biographer, novelist, children's author, and folklorist who is often considered to have captured the essence of America in his works. He recorded and celebrated the history of the American people in such free-verse poems as "Chicago" and The People, Yes, works which reflect his respect and hope for the common man. Sandburg's own background provided a basis for his strong populist feeling. The son of illiterate immigrant parents, he traveled through the Midwest as a self-styled hobo, working a variety of odd jobs before becoming an organizer for the Socialist party and a Chicago newspaperman. Early in life Sandburg began to accumulate material on Abraham Lincoln, the result of which was an exhaustive, monumental six-volume biography for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939. He wrote a novel, Remembrance Rock, and tales for children, The Rootabaga Stories, and also collected and performed national folk songs. Sandburg's second Pulitzer Prize was awarded in 1951 for his Collected Poems. In his poetry Sandburg often presented his images in the language of America, using colloquial and idiomatic lines and phrases which are both colorful and eloquent. Although his poetry has been criticized as being "subliterary," its readers have recognized themselves and their land in it. Sandburg was perhaps the most representative spokesman for Americans among the literary figures of his lifetime. In his eulogy, Lyndon Johnson said, "Carl Sandburg was more than the voice of America…. He was America." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
A prominent theme in Chicago Poems is the longing of ordinary people for the beauty and happiness they have never known. This clutching at dreams was not a creation of Sandburg's fantasy, but a social phenomenon which he accurately observed. (p. 18)
A more cheerful theme in Chicago Poems is the laughter and joy workmen manage to find in spite of their toil and poverty. (p. 19)
In the use of slang and undignified language Sandburg achieved in actuality the theory which Wordsworth set forth in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads: to "present incidents and situations from common life … in a selection of language really used by men …" Sandburg's poems are also more realistic than Wordsworth's, or even naturalistic (in the Zola sense), as in "The Walking Man of Rodin," with "The skull found always crumbling neighbor of the ankles." Yet Sandburg is also just as definitely romantic in his ability to see beauty in the commonplace. "The Shovel Man," for example, is
A dago working for a dollar six bits a day
And a dark-eyed woman in the old country dreams of him for one of the world's ready men with a pair of fresh lips and a kiss better than all the wild grapes that ever grew in Tuscany.
In his second volume of poetry, Cornhuskers (1918), Sandburg played less the role of the urban poet and wrote more about rural sights and sounds and his wider experiences during World War I. (p. 20)
In these poems Sandburg shows his fondness for elemental things: sky, moon, stars, wind, birds, and animals. He celebrates nature in all seasons, but especially late summer and autumn: the ripening corn, the yellow cornflower in autumn wind, the blue of larkspur and Canadian thistle, and red-ripe tomatoes. (p. 21)
Sandburg has often been compared to Whitman, and he frequently wrote on the same themes, but always with his own handling of them. The long verses of "Prairie" look superficially like Whitman's form, but the music is different. A major distinction is in their treatment of the theme of death. To Whitman death was always beautiful, an old mother crooning a lullaby from the ocean of immortality, but to Sandburg death is the final irony of life—stillness, nothingness. In "Cool Tombs" Abraham Lincoln and his assassin, Ulysses Grant and the "con men" who brought shame to his administration, lovely Pocahontas and "a streetful of people" are all equalized "in the dust … in the cool tombs." This is one of Sandburg's most beautiful lyrics, and most devastatingly ironic. In "Grass" the scars of World War I will be covered by the perennial grass, not in a Pantheistic transmutation of men into vegetation, but as nature erases the scars of human violation of life. (pp. 22-3)
There are intimations, almost premonitions, of Eliot's Waste Land and "Hollow Men" in some passages in Smoke and Steel. In "Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind" the cedar doors are broken and the golden girls vanished from the city which thought itself "the greatest city,/the greatest nation:/nothing like us ever was." Now the black crows caw and the rats scribble their hieroglyphic footprints on dusty doorsills. (p. 25)
An important influence unconnected with the war which became obvious in Smoke and Steel was the Japanese haiku. Sandburg had already become more aware of images because of the Imagistic movement discussed and practiced by Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell in Harriet Monroe's Poetry [to...
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[Vachel] Lindsay once said that "the people of America walk through me, all the people walk through my veins, as though they were in the streets of a city, and clamor for voice." But it was Carl Sandburg …, even more than Lindsay, who wrote the poetry whose underlying intention is suggested by these words. His legacies to later poets were his "report of the people," as William Carlos Williams called it, and his flexible, inventive, and scrapbook methods of presentation. His work provoked bitter controversy. To admirers he seemed to give poetry purpose and relevance and to liberate its technique. (p. 356)
The Chicago Poems were a shock to most readers. The title poem created a myth of the city as a strong man, a sweating worker, and rejoiced in his brutal strength. Other poems pictured the urban and industrial milieu. Sandburg underscored the contrast of the slums with the wealthy homes along the lakeshore; he pictured such sights as the skyscrapers looming in the smoke…. He tended especially to give portraits or brief accounts of typical characters….
Here was a directly phrased poetry of the contemporary world. It gave sights and sounds. It showed people at work. It had something to say about the character and quality of their lives. It dwelt on the romance in the familiar and it enforced a political and social message by concrete contrasts. (p. 357)
Sandburg did not merely describe the people; he glorified them. He was the opposite of Eliot, who was repelled by "Apeneck Sweeney" and the "damp souls of housemaids." To Sandburg the picnicking Hungarians, the prostitutes, the shovel man, and the working girls were so many jewels, which his poetry exhibited. (p. 358)
The theme of his next volume, Cornhuskers (1918), was the prairie. Here he pictured farm people and their work. He also dwelled on the beauty and fatness, the mellow scents and sounds of the land. Social protest was not present in all his Chicago Poems nor was it absent from Cornhuskers, but most of the pieces in the latter, such as "Grass" and "Cool Tombs," were lyrics of a more traditional type, contemplating time, vastness, change, perenniality, and death. Sandburg did not wrestle very strenuously with these mysteries; neither did he find them very chilling. It is poetry of the agreeable kind, bland, relaxed, simply direct, and very fond of its subject.
Henceforth Sandburg's poetry tended to fall into one or the other of these loosely separate kinds: he either dwelled on the lives and qualities of the people or felt a "philosophic" pathos—he often did both in the same...
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[Sandburg's] way of using language can be deceptive. It is much like prose in its syntax, and the colloquial vocabulary adds to an apparent casualness. In his best poetry Sandburg uses vernacular language, slang even; by this I mean that in Sandburg's instance it isn't the self-conscious employment of a "low" vocabulary to call attention to commonness, a vaunting of plebeian virtue (though later in his career Sandburg was prone to do just this, ad nauseam). An expression such as "the crack trains of the nation" is an organic part of his vocabulary, not an affectation, and he employs the adjective because it is simply the appropriate word to image what he wishes to convey about the train. As such it...
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