American PoetryThe Works of Poet Carl Sandburg and His Effect on American Poetry
The beloved poet, Carl Sandburg, changed the course of American poetry.
He was a poet, novelist, journalist, and songwriter, yet the influence of his
works have not always been acknowledged. Carl Sandburg’s evocations of American
urban and rural life, compassion for people, and his love of nature, through his
works have made an enormous contribution to the American literary scene.
Carl Sandburg was born on January 6, 1878 to illiterate parents of
Swedish decent in Galesburg, Illinois. Much of Sandburg’s literary works are a
result of his life time observations. He, more generously than many of his
fellow authors, left a detailed account of his wanderings, his numerous jobs,
his early struggles, and his successes in life. His own life fascinated
him.(Rogers 19) Therefore, he felt he wanted to share his fascination with the
people he enjoyed writing about.
Carl Sandburg is so greatly remembered because his writing was
considerably different from the writing of his contemporaries. He let his mind
travel, and be free. His works included the use of free verse, colloquialisms,
an original type of rhythm, and oddly structured, prosaic poetry that emphasized
key phrases and images.(clc 35, 338) Sandburg was the first of a long line of
poets and authors to use the words and phrases that he created in his poetry.
Sandburg’s style of writing is what changed the course of American
poetry. Before Sandburg, most poetry and other literary works were considerably
similar, along with dull and boring. He carried poetry to “new horizons.” He,
many times, wrote of reality, which was not always what people wanted to read,
but it was reality and it had to be dealt with. This is how his writing became
so known, because he dealt with what was real in our fantasy world.
Sandburg was not afraid to express his true feelings and thought on
people, society, nature, and life in general. One of his finest poetic
achievements is a poem called The People, Yes. It is a poem about people in
life, and everything life entails. The images in it range from a white man and
an Indian man arguing over who knows more, to why children put beans in their
ears when told not to. The People, Yes covers everyday dilemmas encountered by
the common man, but have not been expressed, and it is mandated by none other
than Carl Sandburg, the great American poet.
“The people is a myth, an abstraction.
And what myth would you put in place of the people?
And what abstraction would you exchange for this one?
And when has creative man not toiled deep in myth?
And who fights for a bellyful only and where is any nameworth
remembering for anything else than the human abstraction
woven through it with in visible things?
“Precisely who and what is the people?”
Sandburg was what some might call obsessed with people, but in a
positive way. He was amazed, and at the same time also disgusted with, all the
diverse types of people who live in our society. The quote above is from his
poem, The People, Yes. The poem’s expressions of love, hatred, happiness, and
sorrow is based upon the questions in life that are answered by the people. Why
are people such a puzzle? Why don’t the rich and the poor get along? Is there
a way to describe and figure people out?…who knows? The answer is no one, not
even Carl Sandburg, but he was the man who was able to express these thoughts in
a poetic form, because he was so greatly interested with the people and their
ways of life.
When Sandburg’s poems were made public, people had many different views
on his writing. Some people really enjoyed it, others hated it, and others felt
as if it was decent writing that you could read with a dispassionate feeling.
His poems, mainly The People, Yes, were rejected just as much as they was
William Rose Benet, a critic, states “of Sandburg’s writing…it has
not enough cohesion. It has not enough structure….it does not think through,
as does the modern radical economist, the situation in which modern civilization
finds itself. Sandburg is too interested in the half-tones of humanity, the
highlights of humor, the terse queerness. He is interested in atmosphere….The
new sapience, it seems to me, is what Sandburg fails to show.”(clc 35,347) Now,
on the other hand Amy Lowell, another critic, has a complete opposite view on
the poem’s by Carl Sandburg. “The seeing eye- Mr. Sandburg has it to a
superlative degree, and wedded to it, an imaginative utterance which owes
nothing whatever to literature or tradition. It is a fascinating and baffling
study this of examining how Mr. Sandburg does it….It is, more than anything
else, the sharp, surprising rightness of his descriptions which gives Mr.
Sandburg his high position in the poetry of today.”(clc 35,341)
These critics views are on the extreme opposite sides of the scale.
Benet feels Sandburg’s poetry is uncohesive, unstructured, and just not sapient.
While Lowell feels his poetry is imaginative and fascinating, along with
baffling. If Sandburg were alive to read the analysis of his poetry by the
critics, he probably would have writing a poem about it. It would have
fascinated him, how two people could have such opposite views. In The People,
Yes, a large percentage of the poem is based on the different views and values
of people in our society.
Chicago is another one of Carl Sandburg’s well known poem’s, it is part
of the first volume of his poetry called Chicago Poems. Chicago Poems was
Sandburg’s first book, it was published in 1916. A prominent theme in Chicago
poems is the longing of ordinary people for the beauty and happiness they have
never known. This clutching at dreams was not a creation of Sandburg’s fantasy,
but a social phenomenon which he accurately observed.(clc 10, 447) He expressed
this city-like atmosphere with energy and excitement. Sandburg was praised as
one of the most energetic and original new poets of the time.(adventures 752)
The poem’s energy came from the excitement felt in the city of Chicago.
“And having answered so I turned 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.”
The admiration of his beloved city is reflected in this portion of the
poem. Yet the poem also expresses a sense of brutality and hatred of which
Sandburg, the realist, depicts in this passage:
“And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have
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
The poems, The People, Yes and Chicago are perfect examples of the
difference between Carl Sandburg and other poets who lived during his time. He
based his work on reality, unlike others. And his originality was the basis of
a new beginning of poets who would follow in his footsteps and write literary
works regarding reality not fantasy, as brutal as it may be.
Although his works are different from many other poets, Carl Sandburg is
many times compared to Walt Whitman. Many people believe that Sandburg wrote
his poems to imitate and reflect the works of Whitman. Whitman, like Sandburg,
attempted to create a new writing style, he ” threw every English tradition out
of the window in an endeavor to create a tradition that should belong to the
United States.”(clc 35 346) Both Sandburg and Whitman developed their own style
of writing that was followed by other poets and literary writers who admired
them and their works.
Many critics feel that there are more differences than similarities in
the works of Whitman and Sandburg. Mainly their divergences lie in the poet’s
attitude toward’s death. Whitman welcomes death, while Sandburg has a passion
for life. To Sandburg- death is life’s end, not it’s fulfillment. Death is
central to Whitman’s work, while Sandburg’s vision of life does not include
tragedy.(clc 15 469)
Sandburg is, like Whitman, called the Lincoln of poetry. “At a time
when we are tempted to betray ourselves, tempted into irrationality, into
superficiality, into cynicism, he celebrates what is best in us and recalls us
to our heritage and to our humanity.”(clc 35 353) Abraham Lincoln, when life
was harsh and irrational made the best of it, just as Sandburg does in his
There became a time in Sandburg’s life when he no longer had a desire to
write poems. He therefore developed a love for prose, and wrote about Abraham
Lincoln, a man of whom he was compared to. By the time he had written an
interesting biography on the life of Abraham Lincoln it had turned out to be six
volumes.(Rogers 172) There is so much of poetry and imagination, so much of
tradition mingled with fact, that some may doubt whether it be biography at
all.(clc 35 344)
Although Sandburg had shied away from poetry, it lingered on in the
biographies of Abraham Lincoln. The documentations that Sandburg composed
included much rhythm, poetry and imagination along with the facts needed to
create a biography. Sandburg recognized the life and atmosphere surrounding
Lincoln and put it all into poetic words, just as he did in The People, Yes and
Chicago. He spoke of reality during the time of Lincoln, his life, and war, but
in a manner that was enjoyed by the reader. From Sandburg’s pages one sees
Lincoln as never before, in his homely, rough, pioneer society; and from the
poet’s pictures one feels that he is seeing the real Lincoln, not all in details,
perhaps, but at least in the main features of his life. (clc 35 344)
Even before Sandburg wrote the biography of Lincoln, he had always been
interested in him. In The People, Yes, Sandburg actually mentions thoughts
based on Lincoln.
“As labor is the common burden of our race,
so the effort of some to shift
their share of the burden
onto the shoulders of others
is the great durable curse of the race.”
What is so interesting about the works of Carl Sandburg is how they are
all so strongly connected to each other. All of his poem’s include an analysis
on the common man in the commonplace. His study of people is out of his complex
interest in them. “Mr. Sandburg loves people, I should say the ‘people.’ But I
believe it is more than that. I think he has a real love for human
beings….For Mr. Sandburg has a remarkable originality.”(clc 35 340)
Carl Sandburg’s originality came from his desire for venture and
variation. He, therefore lead the long line of becoming poets to feel free to
express themselves, no matter what anyone thinks. Many of Sandburg’s works were
either unacceptable or went unacknowledged for a long time. Yet he