Carl Sandburg
Matthias Regan
(Charles H. Kerr)
The Poem "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg is a bit schizophrenic. And, from everything we read, Sandburg was probably a little schizophrenic, too.

In that poem there is jingoism ("Come and show me another city / with lifted head singing") mixed with horror ("On the / faces of women and children I have seen the marks / of wanton hunger") tempered with pan-utopian hero-worship ("Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog / Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat") blended with cunning ("coarse and strong and cunning.")

All these are there, with clichés ("a tall bold slugger"), truly bad poetry ("dust all over / his mouth, laughing with / white teeth") and pure nonsense ("magnetic curses.") Even the most famous image of them all --- "City of the Big Shoulders" --- is a muddle. How does a city have "big shoulders?" Are these shoulders downtown, in the suburbs, or on the plains? How big is "big?"

"Chicago" is an old favorite, and it lives on. The emotional splits are perhaps what endears it to the common reader, but it isn't worth a hill of beans as poetry. Nor is most of Sandburg's output. This from "Lost,"

    All night long on the lake
    Where fog trails and mist creeps,
    The whistle of a boat
    Calls and cries unendingly,
    Like some lost child
    In tears and trouble
    Hunting the harbor's breast
    And the harbor's eyes.

Those beastly mixed images (the harbor's "breasts" and "eyes") will remind cynics of the poetics of Sandburg's peer, Joyce Kilmer:

    I think that I shall never see
    A poem lovely as a tree.

    A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
    Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;

    A tree that looks at God all day,
    And lifts her leafy arms to pray...

§     §     §

Some of Sandburg's early output is so bad that it curls the short hairs:

    I am the nigger.
    Singer of songs,
    Dancer. . .
    Softer than fluff of cotton...
    Harder than dark earth...
    Smiling the slumber dreams of old jungles,
    Crazy as the sun and dew and dripping, heaving life.

"Chicago" was written around 1916, just as Sandburg was beginning to split in two. One part of him could write poetry that was of the saccharine feel-good variety:

    Dreams, only dreams in the dusk,
    Only the old remembered pictures
    Of lost days when the day's loss
    Wrote in tears the heart's loss.

    Tears and loss and broken dreams
    May find your heart at dusk.

But often when we turn over the rocks of sentiment, we find the worms of vengeance. In Sandburg's case, it would be the editorials and articles in this book, written for the International Socialist Review.

He published his writings under a variety of names. As "Jack Phillips" he was free to write about John D. Rockefeller,

    You knew about the hire of murders. Come across. This is where you don't get away with soft talk or a bum memory or a slack wit. Try to come clean for once. This is the way I work when I'm trying to unscrew the lips of a conniving conspiring participant in a dirty job of killing people.

Or this crude obituary:

    Death came and seized Harrison Gray Otis --- slave-driver and advocate of slavery --- dictatorial and foul-mouthed champion of industrial kaiserism and czarism --- Death came at last and took Harrison Gray Otis with the same peculiar silent certainty that it takes a wop or a hinky or a rag-head.

§     §     §

The good guys for Sandburg were Eugene V. Debs, William Haywood, and the Wobblies (the I. W. W.) Evil was represented by Rockefeller, Hearst, Marshall Field, J. P. Morgan, Cyrus McCormick, Rev. Billy Sunday, Charles Schwab --- not the discount stock broker of today but the older, the "big Bethlehem steel gazook" --- and the Chicago businessman who had made the city the "Hog Butcher for the World," A. Watson Armour.

And then there was Henry Ford. There is some hesitation in these writings because Ford was opposed --- as was the poet --- to the United States declaring war against Germany in 1915 or 1916. "Henry says if we take the Profits out of war munitions there will be no more hollering for war," Sandburg wrote. He was vociferously opposed to it too, but by 1917 he knew that anti-war rhetoric could get him sent off to jail so he let it drop.

The best of Sandburg's poems contain a certain beguiling acceptance ("they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes ... Come and show me another city with lifted head singing.") But in his prose, there is no forgiveness. This is the final part of his obituary for the owner of the Times:

    He bought newspapers and politicians --- Harrison Gray Otis did --- but he couldn't buy off Death ... He badgered, bulldozed and threw nameless shudders of fear into the business men of Los Angeles and Southern California, but when Death came he had no gesture or threat that was effective.

About Sandburg's later years, a scholar wrote,

    During the crucial, watershed years surrounding World War I ... this other Sandburg was a profoundly different writer from the Sandburg lionized at mid-century. [He] believed that America was a faithless monster of a country. From his writing could be drawn no pieties about success through hard work, no civics lesson about the American way of life. He saw no possibility that the conditions in which most Americans then lived could be bettered by liberal reforms such as he would later champion as a New Dealer and Stevenson and Kennedy Democrat.

    He held out only one hope for the country and its ordinary people. If the United States collapsed, the other Sandburg believed at that time, then there would be hope. Massive direct action by workers, class conflict in the form of strikes and crippling general strikes, and, finally, revolution to overthrow capitalism was the way to change the lot of the ordinary people.

--- Lolita Lark
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