'Look out how you use proud words'
. . . in the end, always the people! just the people! . . . the rock bottom of the invincible and everlasting people.m -- Thomas Wolfe, 1929
When critics list the important poets of the 20th century, Carl Sandburg is usually ignored in favor of Eliot, Stevens, Yeats, Pound, Frost, Williams. To those living on the heady front lines of modern verse, Sandburg might seem old hat -- a sandy-haired minstrel poet of the Midwest who wrote sloppy, plodding poems about cornfields and fog.
But Sandburg is a poet I refer to again and again. In a time of linguistic overload and Pac-Man philosophies, Sandburg's down-to-earth sensibility keeps me honest. His words are not light puffs of clever air. Rather, they carry the solid, gritty sound of shovel striking bedrock. Humanity, common sense, and folk wisdom would always be more vital to him than intellectual or aesthetic virtuosity, as in such a poem as "Primer Lesson":
Look out how you use proud words. When you let proud words go it is not easy to call them back. They wear long boots, hard boots; they walk off proud; they can't hear you calling -- Look out how you use proud words.m
I also return to Sandburg because I feel I know him as a friend. Almost as a member of the family. Surely as someone whose loving presence is bolstering and comforting at the same time:
A father sees a son nearing manhood. What shall he tell that son? "Life is hard; be steel; be a rock.:
And this might stand him for the storms and serve him for humdrum and monotony and guide him amid sudden betrayals and tighten him for slack moments. "Life is a soft loam' be gentle; go easy." And this too might serve him. Brutes have been gentled where lashes failed. The growth of a frail flower in a path up has sometimes shattered and split a rock.m
Sandburg's intention was to give back to the people the good he saw in them. And the good he saw was powerful. Unlike the early Eliot, his "men" were not "hollow." Like Whiteman, he wanted his poetry to exalt, to be efficacious -- to seize and shake people beyond mere "aesthetic experience."
Honesty, integrity, sacrifice, love: A giant sense of these forces exists at the core of Sandburg's view of life. He doesn't dream these forces up but draws them out of the ironworkers, miners, artisans, farmers, and small business men who were building a world on the grasslands, plains, and prairies of the American Midwest.
In this sense, Sandburg challenges readers' own moral awareness. He wakes us -- demands that we recognize the efforts of humanity down the years to build bridges, invent languages, sing songs, make peace, explore, draw, learn . . . to go forward. When we say "I love you" to someone, when we leave home for the first time, when we get married, when we have children -- Sandburg wants us to recognize all the people who have done this before. The recognition of the deep-rooted traditions of mankind brings to Sandburg's work a firmness and an uprightness that ask to be tested. He says that ordinary decency is a profound quality, and dares us to deny it. It doesn't matter, he would say, how educated one is, how creative, how "free," how wealthy -- if one can't be a brother or a sister to one's fellow man.
Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Ill., in 1878, the son of Swedish immigrants. Later he would profess that the contrast of Old World parents in a New World setting was crucial in developing his unique American vision and voice. Also crucial was the plain living he did as a young man, when he worked as a shoeshine boy in a barbershop, drove a milk truck for a time, and even spent a year as a hobo, wandering through the endless wheat fields of Kansas, 1898.
In 1903, after he graduated from a small college, Sandburg moved to Chicago and, while working on the staff of the Chicago Daily News, helped to start the "Chicago Renaissance" school of literature -- a school including Vachel Lindsay, Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, and others who were trying to establish an indigenous American writing. All during these years he was listening, listening -- picking up on the vast storehouses of lingo and folk tales that would spill out prolifically in his later work.
In 1916, Carl published the famous "Chicago Poems." He was 36 and like Whiteman before "Leaves of Grass," unknown. But the bold lines that proclaimed Chicago . . . Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Na- tion's Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders . . .m
. . . would make him famous. Here, many critics said, is a sound we haven't heard since Whiteman.
If there were doubts about such a comparison, Sandburg dispelled many of them in 1936 when he wrote his epic "The People, Yes." In this massive tribute to the human spirit, Sandburg's voce rings out right in the middle of the blackest night of the depression years with a fervency that is just as stirring today when again many people have been going through hard tmes:
The people will live on. The learning and blundering people will live on. They will be tricked and sold and again sold. And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds, The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback, You can't laugh off their ability to take it. The mammoth rests between his cyclonic dramas.m
"Poetry is a series of explanations about life, fading off into horizons too swift for explanation," Sandburg wrote. His genius was the ability to pluck out of those horizons everyday things and people, and make them over into cultural archetypes. Symbols such as grass, a copper telephone wire, a harvest moon, a red headed girl,m took on universal meanings in Sandburg's affectionate eye.
In the long run, Sandburg will probably never weigh in with the likes of Eliot, Yeats, or, for that matter, Whiteman. But he does occupy a very special place in American poetry. One hopes Sandburg isn't forgotten, for each of us (you and I) can see something of ourselves in him. What is seen is what we share with one another -- a noble common ground that is lacking in much modern verse. Sandburg could fnd nobility in "the little, two-legged joker, Man," for the poet was esentially unselfed -- one of that breed of artists not in it for literary gratification, but for what is felt deep in the bones. Such artists speak because they can feel those voices that need to speak.