In his famous essay “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson foresaw the conditions from which American poetry would emerge when he remarked that “I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.” The American poet would have to sing of “the shop, the plough, and the ledger.” His subject matter would come from the world of trade and commerce and his language would be that of the common man. The democratic muse would be prosaic; there would be no sublime flights of poesy. Still, it would take a vigorous poetic imagination and a clear sense of poetic form to refine this ore to the pure metal of poetry. Otherwise, the poet might well be overwhelmed by his material and slip imperceptibly from poetry to prose, from singing to talking. This is the problem with much of Carl Sandburg’s verse, and it is intensified by his indifference to poetic craftsmanship and form.
Distaste for formal poetry
Sandburg makes clear his distaste for formal poetry in his “Notes for a Preface” to his Complete Poems. Instead, he is interested in the raw material for poetry, in the unpolished utterances and colloquial speech of Midwest American life. In this same preface, he lists eight poetic precursors—chants, psalms, gnomic utterances, contemplations, proverbs, epitaphs, litanies, and incidents of intensely concentrated action or utterance which form a vital tradition in the history of poetry. This list closely resembles the folk material he selected and edited for The People, Yes, and it suggests in many ways the limitations of Sandburg’s poetics. He is the poet of names and places, of trades and occupations—of unreflected experience and undifferentiated fact. Without the discipline of poetic form, however, Sandburg’s material proves refractory even by the loose standards of vers libre. Robert Frost, a poetic rival, once remarked apropos of Sandburg that “writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” The amorphous character and mechanical reiterations in so much of Sandburg’s verse point to precisely this lack of the shaping imagination that Frost believed to be essential to the poetic vision.
In Chicago Poems, for example, which many critics believe to be the best of Sandburg’s early volumes, the vigorous lines of the opening apostrophe to the city itself are followed by a casual assemblage of character sketches, place descriptions, fleeting impressions, and renderings of urban life. Occasionally the sheer emotional power of a poem will register, as with the grief of “Mag,” the frustration of “Mamie,” or the anger of “To a Contemporary Bunkshooter,” but most of the verses never transcend their prosiness. “Poetry,” Sandburg once said, “is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits,” but too often he presents only the latter—the prosaic and commonplace—rather than lyrical compression or poetic eloquence.
Notable exceptions can be found in the sustained metaphor of “Fog” or the lyrical delicacy of “Nocturne in a Deserted Brickyard,” but for the most part, Sandburg rejects the overrefinement of the genteel tradition by employing the coarse, vigorous language of the common people to present a frank, honest portrayal of his city in all its various moods. Poems such as “They Will Say” express a compassionate regard for the conditions of the working class, though other selections such as...
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