Carl Sandburg



Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,

Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

– – –

Carl Sandburg is one of my favorite poets, and if ever I were pressed to answer definitively who my absolute favorite poet is, I’d probably go with Carl here, although that answer is debatable. While it may be tough to give such a finite answer on that question, it’s clear that Sandburg has, stylistically at least, inspired me more than any other poet. This poem alone (the first poem of his first collection, by the way) has been a singluar inspiration to me; you need only look at the fifth line to see evidence of this.

His words rest and work on the page in no clear style; they run the gamut from single-word lines to breathless prose-like stanzas than come from an even older source, Walt Whitman. The idea is that Mr. Sandburg gives his words enough time and space to work their magic as they need. While this may seem a simple choice of style, to me it reflects Sandburg’s (and Whitman’s, for that matter–but we’ll get to him another week) deeper nature, and the overall aim of his poetry. While so many poets are shrugged off as elitists (oftentimes rightly so), Sandburg is one of the last populist poets, a perpetually dying but not dead breed. He is a middle-class poet, a democratic poet; and if we buy into a certain idea of America as a scrappy, give-’em-hell, hard-working country, well, then Carl Sandburg is our poet laureate, once and always. Take Chicago here. To Sandburg Chicago is the archetypal American city, a Midwestern city built on back-breaking, nasty work. Slaughterer, maker, builder, transporter, thresher. But the Chicagoans seem happy with this work, laughing “under the terrible burden of destiny”; they are satisfied to work every day to the best of their abilities. Because to work is to be alive and be American, and that can’t be taken away. Sandburg’s poetry is filled with proud people working and living in scenes of adversity. Your average poet witnesses a scene and makes it introspective; the poet infers something about himself/herself. As a populist Sandburg turns these scenes not inward but outward. Sandburg sees in the worker in Chicago not something of himself but something of America: “under his ribs the heart of the people.” This worker is emblematic of a whole nation. The same can be seen in his biography of Lincoln; that president’s success was a direct result of his utter Americanness.

Back to his words on the page. He treats language in a democratic fashion. He is unattached to any preconcieved idea of how a poem should run, and he is willing to write in a way that gives each word what it needs to work, as opposed to subjecting his words to arbitrary formalities like rhyme and meter. He writes with an infectious exuberance, a call-to-arms tone. He is fond of adjectives, words of emphasis, words that elevate an noun in stature–and he issues them like punches, little jabs all in a row. He is also fond of repetition as a device to heighten the connection to a poem; he uses some form of “laugh” 8 times in the last half of the poem. An exploration of the rest of his work reveals great usage of another word: “we.” All good Big Lebowski fans recall The Dude’s (quite the populist himself) speech on the “Royal We”, many people speaking through one; here Carl Sandburg gives us something similar, but decidedly less pompous: simply, “We.” As in, of course, “We the people.”

Emily Dickinson
John Berryman

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