Skip to main content

Backgrounds of Sorrow

ISSUE:  Winter 1927

Selected Poems of Carl Sandburg. Edited by Rebecca West. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00.

The uncritical popular idea of Carl Sandburg is that of a poet who is raw, crude, brutal, an anarchist of rhyme and rhythm, a trampler on all the finer sensibilities which civilization has built up in letters, a despiser of Keats and Tennyson, a man ignorant of Plato and Kant, Marcus Aurelius and Buddha. The idea is of course wrong, but it was sufficiently important to lead Mr. Louis Unter-meyer, in 1919, to begin his chapter on Sandburg in “The New Era in American Poetry” by saying that he would admit the worst thing that most of Sandburg’s critics have charged against him—his brutality, and that in such a poem as “Chicago,” Sandburg’s “lifted coarseness,” his “almost animal exultation” is nonetheless an “exaltation.” The publication of the “Selected Poems of Carl Sandburg” with an introduction by Rebecca West offers opportunity to survey the poet’s development as a whole. The interesting fact appears that the note of brutality which offended many gentle readers of his earlier work, really sinks into a subordinate place in his production in its entirety, and that the total impression gained from Miss West’s selections is one of a brooding and mystic gentleness. The poet who shouted over the “Hog Butcher for the World,” who denounced revivalists as contemporary bunkshooters, is really our greatest living mystic; and when this is understood, I think one gets closer to the heart of the poet’s mystery. It is true that Miss West’s admirable selection does not represent the whole of Sandburg. She has omitted most of the poems of socialism, or at any rate of sociology, poems in which, as she says, “a coarsely intruding line” turns the artist from poetry to propaganda. The late Amy Lowell brought the same indictment against Carl in an essay which still remains the finest introduction to his work. Speaking of “Dynamiter,” which pictures a bomb-thrower at supper, telling stories of his wife and children, “a lover of all free, reckless laughter everywhere,” Miss Lowell very properly wrote:

“That a man loves children, particularly his own is a good and beautiful thing. But to use that fact as a dazzling screen to obscure the horror of his trade of blowing other men, who possibly also love their children, into atoms, because of a difference in opinions, may fairly be stated as faulty vision on the part of the poet.”

Carl, who toils endlessly at his art, has seen this fault and corrected it, and in the later volumes, especially “Smoke and Steel” (1920) and “Slabs of the Sunburnt West” (1922), the note of ferocious attack is mainly absent.

Miss Lowell did not see so deeply, however, when she attributed Sandburg’s creed that “all cruelty is man-made,” as she put it, to an absence of biological training at Lombard College. On the contrary Sandburg’s profoundest belief about the world is that the universe is mainly cruel and capricious, that meaning is given it only by the lives of men —pitiful and noble lives which are continually being thwarted by death or disease or the facts of the social order. He writes in his latest volume:

“The strong men keep coming on They go down shot, hanged, sick, broken. They live on fighting, singing, lucky as plungers. The strong mothers pulling them on. . . The strong mothers pulling them from a dark sea,

a great prairie, a long mountain. Call hallelujah, call amen, call deep thanks. The strong men keep coming on.” “Civilizations,” he says in “At the Gates of Tombs,” “are set up and knocked down the same as pins in a bowling alley,” and the only answer he can find to the riddle is the silence of the mystic:

“And since at the gates of tombs, silence is a gift, be silent about it, yes, be silent—forget it.”

It is against these backgrounds of sorrow that the human tragedy is played—a tragedy that is not written according to classical rules of decorum, poetic justice, and no deaths on the stage, but a capricious tragedy, full of comic relief, and a wild, lawless, irregular beauty.

Miss West writes a perversely brilliant introduction to her anthology, in which she gives an impressionistic picture of the Middle West as something resembling Russia, something resembling the Five Towns, and something resembling hell. The exactness of her information may be measured by the fact that she attributes the Loeb-Leopold atrocity to anti-Semitism, and that “every child in the street” in Chicago “looks forward, as to a consummation of personal self-satisfaction, to the day, which in point of fact is inevitably approaching, when Chicago will be the capital of the United States.” The amount of misinformation which one can gather from visiting Englishmen in this country, is appalling! On the basis of her analysis (which, it is only fair to state, has many true things to say as well as many false ones), Miss West decides that Sandburg is, like Robert Burns, a national poet, because he writes “of the real America, which one might describe to the present-day, over-prosperous America, in the words of one of its own advertisements, as ‘the Venus beneath your fat.’ “

This is clever, but is it true? Doubtless there is good argument for the position that Carl is an American poet; but to say that he is the national poet, as Burns is the national poet of Scotland, is to confuse all literary values. Something of course depends on the kind of meaning one wishes to read into the adjective, “American.” One may (with Miss West) dismiss at once the over-prosperous America of the Rotary club, the business urge, the automobile, the country club, and the movie-house as big as a Pantheon. For that America Mr. Edgar Guest is the national poet; just as Longfellow is a national poet, and Whitman is not. But is Sandburg the discoverer of the American Aphrodite? I doubt it very much. For one thing, the average American believes in personal immortality, and I do not recall a single poem in which Sandburg expresses the slightest interest in this doctrine. For another, a persistent optimism is a part of the American creed, and Carl is not an optimist. For a third, we believe in progress, even the youngest of us, but for Sandburg, Ashurnatsirpal III, who recorded his victories some 4000 years before Christ on a Babylonian tablet, and who, as Carl represents him, boasts proudly that

“When i got through with it

There wasn’t much left of the town of Tela,”

is the contemporary of the generals of the World War, whose activities the poet acidly described in a blasting piece of propaganda called “Killers,” which Miss West, I think wrongly, omits from her group of selections.* For a fourth, our curious belief that mechanical invention and the manipulation of machinery are the whole duty of man, finds little sympathy in Sandburg, who is more concerned with the men behind the machines than he is with their product. For the documentation of my statement I must refer the reader to poems like “The Mayor of Gary,” “Manual System,” “Working Girls,” “Buttons,” and “Limited.” I quote the last-named:

“I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack

trains of the nation. Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air

go fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand


♦Sanburg has written two poems with this title. The first appeared in Chicago Poems, and is the one to which I refer. The second, and inferior one, is in Smoke and Steel, and is included in the present collection.

(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men and women laughing in the diners and sleepers shall pass to ashes.)

I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he answers: ‘Omaha.’”

Most Americans do not meditate on the cemetery when they are really going to Nebraska. And lastly, our profound belief in remedial legislation, social curatives, and agency work (does not every Ajnerican city possess its community chest?) receives from Sandburg only derisive scorn and pitying wonder.

What is sound in Miss West’s contention is that Sandburg expresses the monumental bigness and fecundity of the central states (dimensions so huge that mere familiarity has led us to be ignorant of them), to which the poet has largely devoted “Slabs of the Sunburnt West” and “Corn-huskers.” One thinks immediately of Whitman. But the difference between the two poets is more important for an understanding of Sandburg than their superficial resemblances. Whitman represents a vast affirmation of life, but Sandburg, though in some moods he is a yes-sayer, is obsessed with the thought of death. A significantly large proportion of his poems deals with the tomb. He speculates about the three-year-old daughter of a stockyards hunky “in a white coffin that cost him a week’s wages;” he writes a poem called “Graves;” he pictures death as a cosmic junk man; he remembers that Huntington, to whom ten thousand men said: “Yes, sir,” and Blithery, who was one of the ten thousand, both “sleep in houses six feet long;” he writes one of his loveliest pieces about Abraham Lincoln, Grant, Pocahontas, “any streetful of people,” as they sleep “in the dust, in the cool tombs.” He says:

“If i should pass the tomb of Jonah I would stop there and sit for awhile; Because I was swallowed one time deep in the dark And came out alive after all,”

and identifies himself in turn with the dead Nero, dead Sindbad, Nebuchadnezzar, Jack Cade, John Brown, and Jesse James. He loiters in Trinity churchyard where the

“stenogs, bundle boys, scrubwomen, sit on the tombstones, and walk on the grass of graves, speaking of war and weather, of babies, wages and love,”

and concludes that

”. . . easy is the sleep of Alexander Hamilton. . . . easy is the sleep of Robert Fulton. . . . easy are the great governments and the great steamboats.”

Life is the great poet, pouring out men like cups of coffee.

“Civilizations, all the work of the artists, inventors, dreamers of work and genius, go to the dumps one by one.”

This is not the note of Whitman, it is not the note of America, it is the note of the Scandinavian mystic, the race which gave us the deep irony, the pregnant silences of the sagas.

For as Sandburg, because he sets so high a value on men, is continually brought to the thought of death, so, like other mystics, he prizes silence above noise, introspection above activity. He writes, I know, of the jazzmen in a poem so expressive in mood and vocabulary that it has been equalled only by the negro poet, Langston Hughes, in his “The Weary Blues.” Sandburg’s production has values which will escape the careless reader by reason of its apparently atrocious vocabulary:

“Drum on your drums, batter on your banjoes, sob on the long cool winding saxophones. Go to it, O jazzmen.

“Sling your knuckles on the bottoms of the happy tin pans, let your trombones ooze, and go husha-husha-hush with the slippery sand-paper.

“Moan like an autumn wind high in the lonesome tree-tops, moan soft like you wanted somebody terrible, cry like a racing car slipping away from a motor-cycle cop, bang-bang! you jazzmen, bang all together drums, traps, banjoes, horns, tin cans—make two people fight on the top of a stairway and scratch each other’s eyes in a clinch tumbling down the stairs.

“Can the rough stuff. . . now a Mississippi steamboat pushes up the night river with a hoo-hoo-hoo-oo . , . and the green lanterns calling to the high soft stars. . . a red moon rides on the humps of the low river hills. . . go to it, O jazzmen.”

This is superb workmanship; the fact that it will be read by most people either as a glorification of mere noise or as a piece of grotesque satire, indicates how little they know Sandburg. But the sensitive reader if he is alert, in this poem, as in the artist’s other celebrations of modern life, detects always the note of pitying reserve. The jazz orchestra is so loud because it booms and crashes its way through the silence of an enigmatic universe; and man, afraid to listen to Nothing, makes all the noise he can just as children do in a dark place. It is unintelligent, Sandburg thinks, for the finer values escape; but it is pitifully human. The poet himself values silence more than speech. “All I can give you,” he writes, “is broken-face gargoyles,” which is a Sandburgian recognition of the thoughts that “break through language and escape,” of Browning’s famous line; and the next selection in Miss West’s anthology is significantly entitled, “Aprons of Silence.” One of his loveliest images, “Fog”— is it not the enigma of life itself?

“The fog comes on little cat feet.

“It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.”

And this saga-like irony reappears in an early poem, “A Fence:”

“Now the stone house on the lake front is finished and the workmen are beginning the fence.

The palings are made of iron bars with steel points that can stab the life out of any man who falls on them.

As a fence, it is a masterpiece, and will shut off the rabble and all vagabonds and hungry men and all wandering children looking for a place to play.

Passing through the bars and over the steel points will go nothing except Death and the Rain and Tomorrow.”

Possibly this poem e

xhibits the confusion of values which Miss Lowell noted in “Chicago Poems,” but it is highly typical, and I submit to Miss West that it is not good American to write that nothing will go through the fence “except Death and the Rain and Tomorrow.” We think we build stouter fences than that. This idea comes from farther north, from an earlier time, than anything the jazz age knows.

I have begun with Sandburg’s central thought rather than with his technique as a poet because I think he is still generally misunderstood as a thinker, especially by those who care not at all for his methods. He has not of course failed to develop. “Chicago Poems” represents a note of rebellion which almost disappears from later volumes. The fact that he is no longer merely the poet of urban life, but that he has gone more and more to the prairies, to the sunburnt west, is significant of this “gentling” process. From his early work to his latest runs a progress from rebellion through scepticism to resignation. Like Margaret Fuller he accepts the universe.

Doubtless there are many reasons for the change. Like all artists of a pronouncedly individual style, he has been caught in a net of his own weaving; he has been compelled always to write like Carl Sandburg—i. e., like “Hog Butcher of the World,” just as Mark Twain had always to be funny. And, like Clemens, Sandburg has had to adopt a new medium in order to break out of this vicious circle; the medium, in his case, of prose. He has taken to writing whimsical tales for children, made up, as his favorite audience would say.

“out of his own head,” and populated by such astonishing people as Gimme-the-Axe and Please-Gimme. I am not (despite the poetic charm of such a piece as the story of the girl and the boy who rode their white horses into the ocean) a great admirer of these tales. They seem to me forced and artificial, and I do not see in Carl a modern Hans Christian Andersen, despite his whimsy and his sincere desire to create a children’s mythology. It is not until his “Lincoln” that he seems to me to have mastered something like a prose style rich and rhythmic like his poetry, and even here he is sometimes at the mercy of syntax and grammar.

But the change to the new Sandburg is to be found in his poems as well. The later volumes are richer in fantasy, in lyricism, in a satisfaction with beauty for its own sake, than is the case with “Chicago Poems.” His extraordinary picture-making power has freer play and produces more beautiful images when he gets away from his sociological obsessions. I do not think that “there is something terrible” in the sight of a hurdy-gurdy, a gypsy man and woman, and a monkey in front of an empty house, as Carl does in “Eleventh Avenue Racket,” a poem which seems to me the most maudlin thing he ever wrote; and when I compare this performance with the opening of “Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind,” with its striking motto, “The past is a bucket of ashes,” I appeal from Philip drunk to Philip sober:

“The woman called To-morrow sits with a hairpin in her teeth and takes her time

and does her hair the way she wants it and fastens at last the last braid and coil and puts the hairpin where it belongs and turns and drawls: Well, what of it? My grandmother, Yesterday, is gone. What of it? Let the dead be dead.”

“Those that observe their similitudes, in case they be such as are but rarely observed by others,” said Thomas Hobbes, “are sayd to have a Good Wit; by which, in this occasion, is meant a Good Fancy.” Sandburg is strikingly gifted with this “Good Fancy,” and the poem to its close is moving and beautiful:

“The doors were cedar

and the panels strips of gold

and the girls were golden girls

and the panels read and the girls chanted:

We are the greatest city,

the greatest nation:

nothing like us ever was. The doors are twisted on broken hinges. Sheets of rain swished through on the wind

where the golden girls ran and the panels read:

We are the greatest city,

the greatest nation:

nothing like us ever was.”

“The feet of the rats

scribble on the door sills;

the heiroglyphs of the rat footprints

chatter the pedigrees of the rats

and babble of the blood

and gabble of the breed

of the grandfathers and the great-grandfathers of the rats

“And the wind shifts

and the dust on a door sill shifts

and even the writing of the rat footprints

tells us nothing, nothing at all

about the greatest city, the greatest nation

where the strong men listened

and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.”

The poem represents, I say, Sandburg’s extraordinary picture-making power, which is released in him when he gets away from urban life into the vast spaces where he can contemplate the stars: “The weavers of shadows weave at sunset;

the young black-eyed women run, run, run to the night star homes; the old women sit weaving for the night rain gods, the night luck gods,”

he writes; and it is as though nobody had ever described the coming of night before.

The central difficulty of Sandburg for many people is not his thought, but his diction. They say either that they do not like it, or that they do not understand it. Perhaps there is nothing to be said to either objector. It is useless to retort that Sandburg represents nothing abnormal in poetry; that verse is perpetually renewing itself in his way—the way of breaking down old poetic conventions. It is even idle to remark that the same objections have been urged against Francois Villon and Wordsworth and Abraham Cowley and Victor Hugo, all of whom, according to their contemporaries or successors, were ruining the art of poetry. It is too late to apologize for that which requires no apology. And I shall simply flatly assert that if anyone who is not previously prejudiced, will examine the volumes of Carl Sandburg, he will find in them an extraordinary freshness and variety of diction, a command over words ranging from the veriest slang to the stateliest phrase moulded by the lips of man, which mark the poet as one of the lords of language. He is as fresh and original in the matter of words as Shakespeare. As for the sources of his diction, provided the poet secure his effect, I do not see that they matter, for Carl is not writing for eternity, he is writing for himself and for us. Perhaps I might add, however, that to my taste Sandburg is seldom wilfully grotesque—his “uncouthness” springs rather from despair and from humour; he feels keenly that ideas are frail, values are fragile, language is inadequate, and he sometimes becomes impatient with words (as he always, and properly, is with mere conventions), seizes on the handiest expression, and throws it into his poem. Miss Lowell complained, not of his diction, but of his grammar and syntax, and I think there is occasional ground for complaint; but take him all in all, I see no need for explanation or apologetic defense.

Miss West’s anthology, then, permits us to see Sandburg as a whole. Certain defects necessarily appear. There are certain themes which recur to the point of monotony. The trick of contrasting the living with the dead is one of these. Another is the sophomoric habit of contrasting the rich and the poor to the advantage of the poor. A third is the trick of confronting the past with the present. In general it may be said, that, given any theme dealing with the proletariat, one may predict with fair accuracy and without reading the poem, what Sandburg is going to say. Sometimes he is too concerned for maintaining his individual style. Sometimes he merely poses. He is overly pessimistic about his idea that art itself is not eternal, that everything goes, whereas the very poems in which he sets forth his doctrine are made possible only because mankind remembers at least a portion of its heroes, and recovers new ones from Babylon and Egypt with delight. But when all is said, I think Carl Sandburg remains the most richly endowed of all our living poets, and the most unpredictable. He has not like Masters or Frost settled into the mere imitation of himself; he is still developing, apparently without diminution of his poetic vigor.

If i were asked to pick out the poems which seem to me most characteristic of Sandburg—not necessarily his finest poems, nor his own favorites—I think I should select three. They would include “Prairie,” which represents his thought of what Miss West calls “a vast continent which by the majesty of its plains and its waters and its mountains, calls forth a response of power in the men who behold it.” I should include the poem on the playthings of the wind which I have already quoted for its picture-making quality. And I should add “The Sins of Kalamazoo,” in which Carl’s interpretation of human existence at its average level is set forth at the average level of his achievement, a poem which contains most of his virtues and most of his defects. The first half of the poem is in dull, flat prose, for he is describing a dull, flat subject (“the people who sin the sins of Kalamazoo are neither scarlet nor crimson.”), but it mounts to the silence of the stars in a mixture of sentimentality and sincerity which no other poet has quite attained:

“Best of all

I have loved the red gold smoke of your sunsets; I have loved a moon with a ring around it Floating over your public square;

I have loved the white dawn frost of your early winter silver And purple over your railroad tracks and lumber yards.

“The wishing heart of you I loved, Kalamazoo. I sang bye-lo, bye-lo to your dreams. I sang bye-lo to your hopes and songs. I wished to God there were hound dogs of bronze on your

public squares, Hound dogs with bronze paws looking to a long horizon with a shivering silver-angel, a creeping mystic what-is-it.”

Howard Mumford Jones


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading