Carl Sandburg Sandburg, Carl (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sandburg, Carl 1878–1967

Sandburg was a poet, biographer, novelist, children's author, and folklorist who is often said 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 his career Sandburg began to accumulate material on Abraham Lincoln, the result of which was an exhaustive six-volume biography for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939. 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. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

William Carlos Williams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Carl Sandburg has been around a long time. In that period, during which modern art has celebrated some of its greatest triumphs, he has accumulated a mass of poems which have now been published as a single volume [Complete Poems]….

Search as we will among them we must say at once that technically the poems reveal no initiative whatever other than their formlessness; there is no motivating spirit held in the front of the mind to control them. And without a theory, as Pasteur once said, to unify it, a man's life becomes little more than an aimless series of random and repetitious gestures. In the poem a rebellion against older forms means nothing unless, finally, we have a new form to substitute for that which has become empty from the exhaustion of its means. There never has been any positive value in the form or lack of form known as free verse into which Sandburg's verse is cast.

That drive for new form seemed to be lacking in Sandburg. (p. 272)

There are those all too ready to take the opportunity of Sandburg's comparative failure to reject the whole that he represents—which at least ran synchronously with the upsurge of the modern impetus—ready at any excuse to reject the whole new configuration at sight of any flaw…. Sandburg may not have known what he was doing, it may never have entered his mind that there was anything significant to do with the structure of the verse itself, but the best of him was touched with fire.

Carl Sandburg petered out as a poet ten years ago. I imagine he wanted it to be that way. His poems themselves said what they had to say, piling up, then just went out, like a light. He had no answers, he didn't seek any. Without any attempt at the solace which the limitations of art (as with a Baudelaire) might bring, the formlessness of his literary figures was the very formlessness of the materials with which he worked. That was his truth. That was what he wanted truthfully to make plain, that was his compulsion. That form he could accept but at a terrible cost: failure deliberately invited, a gradual inevitable slackening off to ultimate defeat.

"Chicago," his first brilliantly successful poem, should have been his last. Between the writing of that and "Number Man" (for the ghost of Johann Sebastian Bach), one of his latest, occurs the mass of his work. It is that bulk that makes up the book with which we are dealing, pushing it on our attention. The devotion he has spent on it, the painstaking and voluminous notes he has gathered, the indignation it has caused him—tripped him up. He refused to lie, or was incapable of taking his eyes away from what he saw. Nor could he be neat, or choosy, or selective about it. It overwhelmed him. He couldn't get over it. He let it dictate its own terms, he was willing to go under with it. He must have looked occasionally at some pleasant guys and the way they could train the words to stand on tubs and jump through hoops. He kept wandering off behind the scenes to talk with the hands who set up the props. (pp. 273-74)

For twenty years he kept this up with diminishing force, book after book, Chicago Poems, 1916, Cornhuskers, 1918, Smoke and Steel, 1920,...

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Richard H. Crowder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Honey and Salt over two hundred eighty-five color references occur, either by overt naming or by suggestion (in sixty-five pages of the Complete Poems)….

[Sandburg] had a vivid sense of color which he relied on all his life. His first book, Chicago Poems (1916), although not quite so "colorful" as Honey and Salt, nevertheless made use of hue and shade over two hundred fifty times. In this first book reds are prominent, for there is a great deal of brawling and heartiness as well as a sense of social injustice here (red being a color of violence)….

Forty-seven years later, his life drawing to a close, Sandburg is still painting his images in varied and brilliant, often dazzling colors. (p. 94)

The first poem of Chicago Poems records details of a brawny metropolis; the last poem in Honey and Salt, over seven hundred fifty pages later, celebrates the evolutionary rise and triumph of the Family of Man. Between are hundreds of poems, long and short, made of particulars touched. smelled, tasted, heard, and above all seen, that add up to a holistic picture of life itself. This impressionistic collection emphasizes immediate objects and action without analytical attention or intellectual speculation. It reminds one of the painters of the last third of the nineteenth century (Monet, for example) whose short brush strokes of bright colors in close proximity put the burden of mixing on the mind and psychological reaction of the beholder. Honey and Salt's seventy-six poems focus on love and alienation (and evanescence), compassion and indifference, identity and the impersonality of number, but Sandburg's steady theme is empirical: the vanity of trying to attain abstract definitions of the big concepts. Day-by-day living and observing yield what answers are available. No one poem settles...

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Herbert Mitgang

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sandburg's life and times can be found in his poetry, biography and history. He struck out, most notably, in his one novel, Remembrance Rock. Though parts of it have an epic quality, it was written during and after the Second World War, and suffered from patriotism and giantism.

Where does Sandburg stand in American letters? Among the establishment literary personages, about where they place John Steinbeck, which is not very high. Yet readers, young and old, keep discovering and rediscovering both of them. I remember hearing Steinbeck, who had already received his Nobel Prize in Literature, say at Sandburg's 85th birthday party: "All of us could have learned from you and thank God some of us have."

His verse helped to free poetry from the old strictures at the same time that artists and sculptors and novelists were breaking their lines. He opened up new regions of the country to literature; and he dignified the most ordinary people and subjects. He was aware of the poetry of many countries. Ezra Pound wanted to turn him into an Imagist, but he refused to be put into that or any other mold. He admired the Japanese Haiku, and experimented with that form in "Fog" and other poems. But like another newspaperman-poet, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg was writing of the open road and songs of himself….

Sandburg was an original who broke out of the narrow life of the Middle West, along the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy tracks, where his poor Swedish immigrant father had swung a hammer and sledge at the railway blacksmith shop. He also broke out of the narrow column-rule measure of journalism into the wider fields of creative writing. Long ago Sandburg heard the night whistles of the CB&Q, summoning him on the road to Chicago and then across the America that he put into many idealistic words. (p. 26)

Herbert Mitgang, "Carl Sandburg," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 178, No. 2, January 14, 1978, pp. 24-6.

Daniel Hoffman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nobody in America could have written [the lines of The People, Yes] but Carl Sandburg. They have the thumbprint of his personality, his ear for a good yarn, his sense of the revealing detail, his empathy with folk wisdom, his unique ability to transform the raw materials of common speech into a lyricism with a swing and rhythm recognizably his own. Other poets may from time to time touch on his materials, but their touch is inevitably different from Sandburg's. (p. 392)

The People, Yes [displays] Sandburg's zest for language—the language, as he called it, of "the people," the seemingly endless scroll on which he recorded their talk, their sayings, their self-contradictory wisdom,...

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Derek Stanford

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Most of us non-Americans probably think of Carl Sandburg … as a Mid-West Walt Whitman writing poems which move to the steady puff puff of a long cow-catcher prairie express. The train is bound for Democratic Progress; and the poet, aboard the observation car, announces to 'the People' all the delights—and horrors—the passengers must pass through as they make their way to Utopia. A worthy somewhat dated itinerary though much preferable to Aragon's USSR/USSR and other childish obeisances.

But there were aspects of Sandburg which most of us British readers did not know—the amatory Imagist, for example…. Breathing Tokens contains one hundred and twenty-five poems, all but three appearing in print for the first time…. [It is a] collection full of attractive surprises. There is nothing like a posthumous volume for helping us to re-assess our picture of a poet. (p. 34)

Derek Stanford, "The Scholar-Poet" (© copyright Derek Stanford 1979; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 25, No. 2, November, 1979, pp. 33-5.∗