Thursday, December 5, 2013

Carl Sandburg: Poor Man's Whitman

Most popular artists suffer some sort of extended backlash shortly after their deaths. There is an initial burst of recognition, to be sure, especially if they've been missing from the cultural scene for awhile before passing away. Communal guilt at the neglect shown in the declining years, perhaps, makes the country rush to the wake of the freshly deceased. Each surviving artist, critic, and various bastard progeny of the great one who is now gone seems eager to show where they fit in the grand civic family tree (usually with an eye on what's in the will). But then, once all the bones have been picked, and after each of the squabbling children have claimed their scrap of spotlight for inheritance, the inevitable backlash begins: the great one is now more of a burden than a help: the shadow is too long, too menacing. We must, after all, make room for ourselves.

Such has been the case, to a large degree, with Carl Sandburg. Wildly popularly in his own day, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, taught to at least two generations of school children in his own lifetime (with even schools named after him), he was rather quickly brushed under the carpet of poetic concerns shortly after his death in 1967. Born in 1972, my one and only exposure to him in school was a miniature from Chicago Poems, "Fog." I was in fifth grade, and "Fog" was one of five options for memorization and recitation. I chose it for one practical reason: it was shorter and easier to memorize than Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." And that was the last time I heard Sandburg mentioned during the rest of my education: the backlash was almost immediate and total.

His legacy now seems muted, and the caricature goes that he was a more popular, poor man's Whitman. But even caricatures can be right, if misunderstood, just as beautiful truths can be told, unwittingly, by gossips. Sandburg was the popular, poor man's Whitman--which is exactly what Whitman had hoped to be.

Walt Whitman's career and critical legacy are every bit as contradictory as his poetry admitted to--every bit as confused as America itself looks on any given day. He had hoped to write a poetry for the masses, quoted by common folk of his own nation--standing against aristocratic and academic tendencies. It is therefore a great irony of history that he was in many ways first truly celebrated by the nation whose verse he so emphatically rejected--Great Britain. Rosetti's bowdlerized edition of his poems (suppressing "Song of Myself", "Children of Adam" and many other sexually symbolic poems) helped to make him a sensation in the UK. Further, it has largely been American academia that has championed and studied him--recognizing him as the great American Bard. As a consequence, Whitman's aspirations--and even some of his imagined symbols--came to fruition more in Sandburg than in his own work.

The place of music as inspiration was of central importance to both men. This is more than a passing issue: music is, and always has been, central to the American Poetic. Whitman sought the sweep and epic grandeur of the opera, Dickinson's reflections and meter owe direct debt to Protestant hymnody, and Sandburg found folk song essential to both his inspiration and presentation. Just as Whitman ignored the structures of French Grande Opera, preferring a poetic structure of his own that gave a similar aesthetic, Sandburg realized that poetry and song, while related, could not be considered synonymous. He understood, perhaps intuitively, that the drab, lifeless poetry of lyric sheets, masquerading as verse, would be inadequate ( and who, upon reading the words alone, has ever found the lyrics to "Eleanor Rigby" or a blues to be effective without the music?) Too many songwriters, in an attempt to present their material as poetry, have misunderstood the true relationship between song lyrics and independent verse--and few (most notably Langston Hughes) have been able to integrate such lyric structures into their verse effectively. Sandburg knew this pitfall, though--and used Whitman's formal breakthroughs, rather than song lyric form, as the foundation for his structure.

He differed from Whitman in some significant areas of technique, however. First, his use of language was far more humble--and therefore broke meaning down into stronger blocks, as James Russell Lowell had suggested over a half a century prior to the publication of Chicago Poems in his lecture on "The Function of the Poet." It's with Sandburg that we can really begin reveling in slang, multiple meanings, and constant implications of tone of voice. As early as Chicago Poems (1916), he seems to anticipate an era when everything would be recorded.

More than this, Sandburg was a prototype of the singer/songwriter. While rarely writing his own songs, he learned to catch audiences' ear by strumming a guitar and singing some folk songs along with his verse. This habit resulted in some important work in what is now considered ethno-musicology. Sandburg's results, published in books like The American Songbag, are still studied. In short, the popular poet-bard envisioned by Walt Whitman began to actually take form with Sandburg--in a trajectory of musical-poetic that extends through artists as diverse as the Guthries, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder (to name but a handful of important artists), to our present day.

Sandburg is no mere missing link, however. His verse is permanently important--and perhaps we can finally appreciate him when we recognize that the only appropriate successor to Whitman would have to have been, precisely, a poor man's Whitman. Only in Sandburg's manner could it have been accomplished: only by more humbled, abased, less superficially nuanced verse could these goals have been achieved.

Just as Eddie Vedder's poetic can be obscured, for seeming too thin (it is only when looking at a vast context that we recognize his shouting "This is not for you" as a brilliant poetic statement), so Sandburg's can be easily overlooked if we care more about dazzling vocabulary or extended, content-obscuring technique than we do about the power of utterance or meaning. His extended forms show an almost incredible strength of architecture: perhaps even surpassing Whitman's models in effectiveness.

A compact example of his brilliance is to be found in "Shirt" from 1920's Smoke and Steel (recorded by me here):


My shirt is a token and a symbol,
more than a cover for sun and rain,
my shirt is a signal,
and a teller of souls.

I can take off my shirt and tear it,
and so make a ripping razzly noise,
and the people will say,
"Look at him tear his shirt."

I can keep my shirt on.
I can stick around and sing like a little bird
and look 'em all in the eye and never be fazed.
       I can keep my shirt on.

In this short bombshell of a poem, Sandburg crams a tremendous amount of cultural information. The concept of a shirt being a statement of the soul has a very important provenance in North America, highlighted by the devotion still given to the tilma of St Juan Diego, a "shirt" which still hangs, bearing the image of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, in Mexico. For the Aztecs, this was true: the tilma was a statement of who one was.

Moving from this, in the second stanza, Sandburg references the ancient and biblical practice of the rending of a garment in anger, protest, or mourning. He speculates, with implied bitterness, as to the public reaction.

Finally, he references American slang of his day--men took their shirts off to fight. "Keep your shirt on" was a common put-down, something analogous to today's command to "chill out." Sandburg's poem ends with this moment of tension: there is some reason he's been pressed; some reason he might want to rend his garment, or fight. Yet he will remain in control of his emotions, and his shirt will remain unstained and in place.

Sandburg's poetry is crammed with this sort of technique, often making the humblest lines the most powerful (easily missed and mistakenly considered "flat" by those who read him superficially). Certainly he made his mistakes, especially in a political sense. His active endorsement of Communism not only troubled his legacy among a significant portion of the population, but also marred some of his otherwise most impressive poems. Having said this, it would be a colossal mistake to banish his verse over political quarrels--even serious ones. As Langston Hughes was to point out, "Politics can be the graveyard of the poet. And only poetry can be his resurrection." Sandburg, whatever his political ideas, certainly redeemed his art enough times to warrant our approaching him as a poet, beyond politics (and anyhow, I don't doubt that if we study Sandburg's politics and poetics deeply enough, we might find something interesting--some little incongruity of his thought that adds to our understanding of both).

All backlashes against great artists eventually end, we hope, as sober reassessment ought to take the place of fashion. Sandburg has been in a bit of a desert, critically, for a couple of generations now. But considering the importance his art bears, how he served not only as the fruition of Whitman's ideals, but the precursor to current expressions of the American Poetic, perhaps it is time we acknowledged him as the indispensable poet he truly was.

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