Carl Sandburg Sandburg, Carl (Vol. 4) - Essay

Sandburg, Carl (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sandburg, Carl 1878–1967

Sandburg, an American, was a poet of real people, of folksongs and ordinary speech. His work is characterized by his sincere and abiding love for America's beauty and brawn and he was, as a result, one of this country's most revered literary men. In addition to his poems, he wrote short stories and a well-known biography of Abraham Lincoln. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

Carl Sandburg's poems, generally, are improvisations whose wording is approximate; they do not have the exactness, the guaranteeing sharpness and strangeness of a real style. Sandburg is a colorful, appealing, and very American writer, so that you long for his little vignettes or big folk editorials, with their easy sentimentality and easy idealism, to be made into finished works of art; but he sings songs more stylishly than he writes them, says his poems better than they are written—it is marvelous to hear him say "The People, Yes," but it is not marvelous to read it as a poem. Probably he is at his best in slight pieces like "Grass" or "Losers"….

Randall Jarrell, "Fifty Years of American Poetry" (1962; originally published in Prairie Schooner, Spring, 1963), in his The Third Book of Criticism (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1941, 1945, 1955, 1956, 1962, 1963, 1965 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell; copyright © 1963, 1965 by Randall Jarrell), Farrar, Straus, 1969.

Sandburg's performance has much in common with Whitman's It shows the same interest and delight in the American scene, as in all sorts and conditions of men and women. If it does not celebrate the physical self with the gusto of "Calamus", it speaks out against a repressive respectability. Its affirmative character shows a tie with the older poet that Allen Ginsberg, in his "hungry fatigue … shopping for images" in a California supermarket, trying to turn his nightmare into a vision, cannot as fully claim. Much as Whitman exalted the divine average, Sandburg tends to deify "the People" But his verse denounces the betrayers of the people in plainer accents than Whitman's. The famous phrase about blood, sweat, and tears could be paralleled in Sandburg's offering of "hunger, danger, and hate" in the war against the exploitation of man by man.

Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright by Babette Deutsch), Doubleday, revised edition, 1963, p. 53.

Even if there had never been any New Critics to denigrate it, Sandburg's early work, with the exception of several short poems, would surely have been recognized by this time for what it was, an expression of the times that came as close to being subliterary as the work of any American poet of comparable reputation ever has. It is much more difficult, today, to understand why this poetry was once so greatly admired than it is to think ourselves back into the situation in which Whittier's poems were read with pleasure. However much we may approve of Sandburg's humanitarian and socialist views, and his efforts to write poetry in which "democratic" and "realistic" would amount to the same thing, we are likely to find the poetry itself, when we actually read it, more remote than Tuckerman's. Much of it reads like the worst of Whitman, if Whitman had had only ideology to guide him….

After almost half a century of devoting his energies chiefly to things other than his own poetry, Sandburg published his best volume of verse in 1963. Honey and Salt would be a remarkable achievement for any poet, but for a poet in his middle eighties who gained his fame with "Chicago," it is extraordinary. The poems no longer demand to be classified as tough or tender, violent or sentimental. There is in them the mellowness and wisdom of age, which we should like to feel we could expect of very aged poets, but hardly dare to; and there is much more. This volume reminds us of the development of Williams in his last decade, both in sound and in sense. The lines now are much more strongly cadenced, yet still "free." The sound of "the American idiom," as Williams called it, is in fact more evident here than in the earlier, more "realistic," verse. And the sense is as different as the sound from what the early work prepared us to expect. The old reliance on ideology has been replaced by a concern for actual people and their actual experience and actual needs, without any loss in the strength of the vision of the family of man…. The old tendency to fall back from ideology into pure sentimentalism is gone, too, without any loss of the genuine, controlled and meaningful, tenderness that was the chief distinction of the best early poems. In its place, we find a mature romantic imagination manifesting itself chiefly through sympathetic identification with all forms of life.

Hyatt H. Waggoner, "Carl Sandburg," in his American Poets From the Puritans to the Present (copyright © 1968 by Hyatt H. Waggoner; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton, 1968, pp. 452-57.

What Sandburg had for the poor, frustrated, heroic, and ordinary, was Einfühlung [empathy; sympathetic understanding].

What he also had was a marvelous prosody, a perfect ear for the beautiful potentials of common speech, something he learned from folk song, but mostly he learned from just listening—on a hundred jobs, at ball games, fishing for catfish, soldiering in Puerto Rico, swapping lies in the City Room or in the nearby bar, talking to militant "hunkies, kikes, and dagoes" after a Socialist speech.

Kenneth Rexroth, in his American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (copyright 1971 Herder and Herder, Inc.; used by permission of the publisher, The Seabury Press, New York), Herder, 1971, p. 48.

Sandburg is not writing for the Lincolns and Shakespeares of America, primarily,… and not primarily for the middle class, and in [his] poems he celebrates the vitality of "the mob," arguing that the real silhouettes against the sky, the real bronzes, should be of those who do the basic work of the world. "Chicago Poems" more than anything is intent on enhancing and improving the lot of such people, and thus anathema to Sandburg is the poet or performer who misuses his skill, serving the exploitative and deadening economic powers….

Like Whitman, like William James, like Pound, Mencken, Anderson, Brooks … Sandburg hoped, as he indicated in a dedication to Stephen Vincent Benét, "that men would act because of his words." That he wished this to be and that he worked for it through a unified perspective, purpose, and structure in "Chicago Poems" should enhance our sense of Sandburg as a writer and as a participant in the literary and cultural thrust of the early decades of this century. What he talked about doing, what he urged upon his readers' attention, and, indeed, much of what he did is, as he said of Pound's biplane spirit, "worth having."

William Alexander, "The Limited American, the Great Loneliness, and the Singing Fire: Carl Sandburg's 'Chicago Poems'," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1973 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), March, 1973, pp. 67-83.