Prayers for the People - Carl Sandburg's Poetry and Songs


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By Kathryn N. Benzel As we scan the Nebraska landscape, we see the wind-blasted Sandhills, the nearly drained rivers, the bent cottonwoods and abandoned homesteads. And we see the corn breathing new life, the hills nestling comfortably among each other and the brilliant sun-drenched horizon. Here in Nebraska the geological contradictions are immense; the climate is extreme; but the land is ours. This prairie land and Nebraska teaches us the essence of democracy. The lands, the climate, the sheer distance from one place to another are all equalizers. If a storm hits, it hits all of us no matter who we are. The sun rests on the horizon for all of us to see. On the prairie we learn without anyone teaching us that we are all equal on this land. Carl Sandburg's 1918 collection of poetry titled Cornhuskers depicts this democracy in the prairie culture with all its beauty and harshness, and the hard working folks of the land. And his poetic vision of the heartland becomes a symbol of an American collective voice and anthem. Sandburg’s startling portraits of Americans — their diverse languages and different geographies — speak to us of a heritage of integrity and resilience, of hard work and joyful play, of spiritual and practical life. These prairie poems, long neglected in favor of Sandburg's Chicago Poems and his biography of Abraham Lincoln, relate the human spirit of American culture and national identity. Sandburg’s extraordinary number of poems about the American heartland — the prairie, the Great Plains and its people — present a transcendent peace when contrasted with the clamor and confusion of urban life in the earlier Chicago Poems. Together with Smoke and Steel (1920), Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922) and The People, Yes (1936), these poetic works present Sandburg’s lifework with people. Over the past 50 years readers and critics have lost interest in Carl Sandburg. Perhaps his early connections with the Social Democratic Party are too revolutionary. Or his irascible character is too abrasive — saying exactly what he means without pleasantries. Or his poetry seems just too simple. One might say, however, that all these characteristics embody the essence of the American democratic culture. The nation was built on revolution; America’s language is straightforward. And its literature embodies the mystical connection between people and their land. His portraits of hardy American workers, his direct use of colloquial speech, his respect for the landscape and his belief in the power of the people — these are all qualities of American democracy. Through­out his long career, Sandburg focused on this collective American voice and his lecture-recitals generated pride, encouraged responsibility and celebrated diversity at the center of this people-oriented value system. Beginning in 1904 with In Reckless Ecstasy and ending in 1967 with his death, Sandburg wrote about the lives and living of plain people, and wrote from real experience and deeply felt sympathies. Born in Galesburg, Ill., in 1878 to Swedish immigrant parents, Sand­burg was brought up in poverty conditions. His father, a blacksmith for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad, worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, and earned 14 cents an hour, little more than $2.00 a day. His parents led frugal lives, taking care of their six children as best they could afford. Sandburg left school at age 13 to help support his family working various jobs—milk delivery, shoe shine, ice cutter, newspaper delivery, dishwashing, whatever jobs were available; and sometimes he had three jobs at the same time. Sandburg’s determined work ethic informs not only his own lifestyle but also his writing style. Reporting news for various Chicago newspapers honed his observation skills; researching Abraham Lin­coln’s life nourished his curiosity; corresponding with other writers reinforced his poetic sensibilities; writing daily cultivated his uniquely American voice. All these activities, going on simultaneously, prepared him to imagine the diversity in American culture. Sandburg was a free soul, playing as hard as he worked. As he recounts in Always the Young Strangers, the first volume of his autobiography, he loved baseball, swimming in the waterhole (one time arrested for trespassing), playing pranks on neighborhood friends. And he always seemed to have time to wander about the countryside, developing a wanderlust that had hold of him throughout his life. When he was 18, in 1897, he took off to find his way in the world, the quintessential rite of passage. Hopping a westbound train, he hoboed all the way to Colorado, stopping along the way to earn money. On the way back through Nebraska, he stopped in McCook and the constable told him "We don’t want the likes of you in this town." He went on to Oxford where they let him wash up and served him breakfast. He had several meals of corn as he stopped at various hobo jungles on his way across Nebraska. In Nebraska City he chopped wood and picked apples for a man who felt sorry for him in his worn-out clothes and gave him a fine new suit. And he stopped in Omaha because he liked the musical sound of "O-mah-haw"; there he worked as a dishwasher in the Hotel Mercer and slept in a back hallway. Hotel Mercer went bankrupt before it could pay Sandburg his two weeks’ wages. (Always the Young Strangers, pp. 397–400) Throughout his early life Sandburg opted for the coal car ride rather than paying the "inside" fare. Most often he could not afford a ticket; but just as often he longed for the freedom of the “free” ride. Later in 1904 riding the rails through Pennsylvania in the "extreme of Bohemianism," Sand­burg "was captured by railroad police and sent to the Allegheny Co. jail" (Sandburg letter quoted in Nivens, p. 81). His poem "’Boes" tells of this adventure and demonstrates his use of real experience in his poetic comments about peoples’ lives. ’Boes
I waited for a freight train to pass. Cattle cars with steers butting their horns against the bars went by. And half a dozen hoboes stood on bumpers between the cars. Well, the cattle are respectable, I thought. Every steer has its transportation paid for by the farmer sending it to the market, While the hoboes are law-breakers in riding a railroad train without a ticket. It reminded me of ten days I spend in the Allegheny County jail in Pittsburgh. I got ten days even though I was a veteran of the Spanish-American war. Cooped in the same cell with me were an old man, a bricklayer and a booze-fighter. But it just happened he, too, was a veteran soldier, and he had fought to preserve the Union and free the niggers. We were three in all, the other being a Lithuanian who got drunk on payday at the steel works and got to fighting a policeman. All the clothes he had was a shirt, pants and shoes—somebody got his hat and coat and what money he had left over when he got drunk.
These early travails and travels not only gave Sandburg confidence but also became the heart for his portraits of people and places. "I was meeting fellow travelers and fellow Americans. What they were doing to my heart and mind, my personality, I couldn’t say then nor later and be certain. …I was getting to be a better storyteller" (Always the Young Strangers, p. 391). And what Sandburg really learned was that “deep in my heart now I had hope as never before” (Always the Young Strangers, p. 400). The hope that Sandburg discovered in his youth remained with him always, through jobless times, with family losses, through self-doubt and denial, through the ups and downs of literary recognition. Importantly, this hope centers his writing and realizes an American attitude of forbearance and perseverance at the heart of its national identity. In speaking of plain people in Corn­huskers (e.g., "Illinois Farmer," "Washerwoman," "Mammy Hums," "Old Timers"), Sandburg brings to life their everyday trials and tribulations, always with an underlying hope — "with tears for the tragic, love for the beautiful, laughter at folly, and silent, reverent contemplation of the common and everyday mysteries" (Incidentals, p. 7). Sandburg’s many adventures included military service where he served with the Sixth Illinois Infantry Regiment in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War (a very brief term of service). Then, in 1899, with his veteran status, he was admitted to Lombard College (now Knox College) even though he never finished high school. He took only the courses he wanted, and he left college without a degree in 1902 (obviously incomplete service). Also during this time he sold Underwood & Underwood stereoscopic photographs all over the Illinois countryside, and later on the east coast. In these early years, these sources of income allowed him to set his own schedule and to write his poetry. He always strove to maintain that freedom and flexibility for his writing. Sandburg’s own bill of rights symbolizes his way of living: be lazy, take chances, pursue happiness, dream, be outdoors, fail, and love (Incidentals). Sandburg’s newspaper reporting and advertising helped his work for the Social Democratic Party in Wisconsin 1909–11. He campaigned for Emil Seidel, the Social Democrat who won the mayoral race in 1901. Sandburg was rewarded with Seidel’s appointing him private secretary. Subsequently, Sandburg became editor of the Social-Democratic Herald and also wrote regular columns for the newspaper. Again, he gives plain people their own voices. In one column, he advocated stiff inheritance taxes to prevent further development of the privileged. In another, he suggested that if all workers refused to produce tools and weapons of wars, there would be no more wars (cited in Callahan, p. 52). Also, Paula Sandburg (Steichen), his new wife, partnered with Sandburg and campaigned for the Social Democratic party by meeting and lecturing with women’s groups. Sandburg’s work with the Social Democratic Party influenced his love of common people and established his sense of personal responsibility to be their spokesperson. His "Labor Day Talk" in 1910, later published in the Social-Democratic Herald, is a call to action for laborers to step up to their equal rights: "Prosperity, luxury and magnificence for the few and death, hell, disease, misery and degradation for the many. …We have learned that labor will have to fight its own battles. From now on we trust OURSELVES" (quoted in Nivens, p. 218). Sandburg maintained this strong commitment to the unspoken and unspeakable people throughout his life, but this attitude began in his youth. When he commemorates his father in the epilogue of Always the Young Strangers, titled "Sunset Prairies," he is honoring all common people. He says of his father:
No glory of any kind ever came to him. I am quite sure his name was never printed till he died. …Yet there is an affirmative view that can be taken of his life. …Only by comparison with the strutting fools and sinister schemers in high places, victims of nameless thirsts that will never be quenched, strumpets of fame and fortune, can I look on the days and deeds of August Sandburg and say he was somebody rather than nobody. (Always the Young Strangers, pp. 430–432)
Sandburg’s early adventurous life connecting with common people laid the foundation for his poetry, “his Americanization” as he called it. Throughout his whole life he lived among common people, talked with them, argued with them, sang with them, worked with them; he spoke up for them in political campaigns, reported their lives in his newspaper articles, wrote them letters of support for their poetry, and entertained them with his lecture-recitals. He gave voice to those people who could not speak — the poor, the illiterate, the immigrants, the farmers, the urban workers, the children and women. He always looked to the American people for his inspiration and his words. His poetic voice was not far from his real voice; his use of vernacular instead of academic "jabber"; his sometimes long-winded story-telling; his keen observations of surrounding nature; his admiration of straightforward, honest language; his love of humanity in spite of its flaws. In Sandburg’s first publication, In Reckless Ecstasy, he sets out a methodology that he continues throughout his career: "I try to express myself sensibly, but if that fails, I will use reckless ecstasy" (In Reckless Ecstasy, p. 10). His first major collection of poems, Chicago Poems (1916), was perceived by many critics to be exactly that—reckless. In these poems he presents a brash, proud proletarian, full of joy amidst the distress of life. The book includes the famous poems "Chicago" and "Fog." In the "City of Big Shoulders," every aspect of urban living and working is realized in both Sandburg’s long-line verse and minimal imagist poetry. For instance, this poem convinces us that even the drudgery work was important. Muckers
Twenty men stand watching the muckers. Stabbing the sides of the ditch Where clay gleams yellow, Driving blades of their shovels Deeper and deeper for the new gas mains, Wiping sweat off their faces With red bandanas. The muckers work on … pausing … to pull Their boots out of suckholes where they slosh. Of the twenty looking Ten murmur, "O, it’s a hell of a job," Ten others, "Jesus, I wish I had the job." (Collected Poems, p. 10)
His second collection, Cornhuskers (1918), reflects on a larger scope of American life than the Chicago urban setting. This collection, beginning with "Prairie" and moving across the Midwest and Great Plains, relates the American dream as a lifestyle that brings together the people as a force, representing Thomas Jefferson’s utopian dream of self-government by the people. "The cement of this union is in the heart-blood of every American" (Light and Liberty, p. 80). Sandburg keeps this "heart-blood" pumping through his loving portraits of people and his pulsing poetics, and this collection holds the truth of Sandburg’s humanity: "I was born on the prairie and the milk of its wheat, the red of its clover, the eyes of its women, gave me a song and a slogan." This quotation from "Prairie" is often cited for its simple beauty of the prairie land, but it also suggests more than a simple view of the landscape. Some spirit of the land penetrates its people, giving them a life force.
The prairie sings to me in the forenoon and I know in the might I rest easy in the prairie arms, on the prairie heart. … After the sunburn of the day handling a pitchfork at the hayrack, after the eggs and biscuit and coffee, the pearl-gray haystacks in the gloaming are cool prayers to the harvest lands.
Sandburg often personifies his vivid nature imagery of the prairie, creating a unity of earth and sky, of body and soul, of universe and people. As "Falltime" demonstrates the seasonal changes, we move from a ripe oat straw (cf. Walt Whitman’s blades of grass), to the moon, to shimmering blue flowers, to ripe red tomatoes — all depicting the bounty of autumn. But he doesn’t stop with that romanticized vision of fruitfulness; rather he poses questions about the next step. This poem already predicts The People, Yes with all people marching forward with their faith — "And some new beginning on the way?" This is the prelude to final questions in The People, Yes — "Where to? What next?" Falltime
Gold of a ripe oat straw, gold of a southwest moon, Canada thistle blue and glimmering larkspur blue, Tomatoes shining in the October sun with red hearts, Shining five and six in a row on a wooden fence, Why do you keep wishes on your faces all day long? Wishes like women with half-forgotten lovers going to new cities? What is there for you in the birds, the birds, the birds, crying down on the north wind in September, acres of birds spotting the air going south? Is there something finished? And some new beginning on the way? (Collected Poems, p. 88)
Another poem, "Sunset from Omaha Hotel Window," also looks beyond the bustling streets to the land’s generative powers: its blue hills, red suns, and the stars in America’s heartland. The night sky above Omaha circles "in a dome over Nebraska," and this dome covers the entire world. Of particular note in this collection is the last poem, "The Four Brothers; Notes for War Songs, November 1917." First published in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine, he speaks of war as never-ending, always spending lives with no return. Again peoples’ lives are valued for their struggling in unpredictable circumstances.
There is a hammering, drumming hell to come, The killing gangs are on the way. … The red tubes will run, And the great price be paid, And the homes empty, And the wives wishing, And the mothers wishing. There is only one way now, only the way of the red tubes and the great price. … The death-yells of it all, the torn throats of men in ditches calling for water, the shadows and the hacking lungs in dugouts, the steel paws that clutch and squeeze a scarlet drain day by day—the storm of it is hell. But look! child! the storm is blowing for a clean air… Under the chimneys of the wintertime the children of the world shall sing new songs. Among the rocking restless cradles the mothers of the world shall sing new sleepy-time songs. (Collected Poems, p. 146–147)
These last lines in Cornhuskers, concluding with the children of the world singing new songs, is another preparation for the marching people in The People, Yes. Probably Sandburg’s most popular single book, this epic poem recognizes his interest in common people’s speech and expressions as a defining characteristic of his poetry. His dedication is magnanimous, "…to Contributors Dead and Living," all those who inspired his writing. The expanse of The People, Yes is a litany of languages — "several stories and psalms… memoranda… sayings and yarns… jig time and tap dancing… street crowds, work gangs, sidewalk clamor… inviolable starts." As Sandburg takes the American people through their paces during the Depression — in their homes, in the fields, in the cities, across the nation — one hears the echo of Whitman’s "I Hear American Singing," celebrating common workers, in their "melodious" singing. Both writers shared an appreciation for the rhythms of the urban life and admired common laborers, celebrated the landscape’s power to both discourage and motivate people’s dreams. However, Whitman’s idealism differs from Sandburg’s lived experience. Sandburg’s poetic people do not stop for the weather or a poet or politics or war. Their hope grounded, their present moment moves them forward to tomorrow. Nebraska’s star-studded dome moves into tomorrow—carries the people forward to the next day and the one after. To his publisher Alfred Harcourt, he said, Cornhuskers "will be a real and honest singing book" (Letters, p. 129). Sandburg’s final image in The People, Yes synthesizes his vision of America. Real lives are affirmed in the refrain — "the people, march, the people, yes" — representing people’s ongoing lives, their progress. One actually hears the mass movement of Sandburg’s people as they wholeheartedly, in spite of difficulty, march forward toward their American dream.
In darkness with a great bundle of grief, the people march. In the night, overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people march. 'Where to? What next?' (Collected Poems, p. 617)
This spirit and rhythm of American people runs throughout Sandburg’s work and is seen in his compilation of American folk songs, The American Songbag. This work symbolizes his way of thinking about poetry and people. As early as 1896 he started informally gathering the traditional songs that he felt were the soul of American culture. When he traveled across the country as a hobo, a newspaper reporter, an advertiser, a platform entertainer, a poet, a salesman and a songster, he collected songs from wherever and whomever. He kept notes for songs on small scraps of paper stuffed into his pockets; people told him stories about songs from their childhood; they sent him about lyrics “that my grandfather used to sing”; he searched the popular song broadsides and songbooks that published lyrics and harmonies. But most importantly he listened to old-time performers who played the songs because they loved the music that told their stories. From all this information he collected nearly 300 songs with his own commentary into The American Songbag in 1927. In the Introduction to the Songbag he says,
The American Songbag comes from the hearts and voices of thousands of men and women. They made new songs, they changed old songs, they carried songs from place to place, they resurrected and kept alive dying and forgotten songs. (xiii)
These voices are collected in all of Sandburg’s writing — poems, lectures, his daily conversations, his singing, his American voices singing their lives: "John Henry," "Sweet Betsy from Pike," "Erie Canal," "Sam Hall," "O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie." Though Sandburg celebrated and glorified the communal character of Americans, he does not neglect the complexities of American culture. His still significant biography of Abraham Lincoln (finally reaching six volumes) portrays the paradox inherent in American democracy — the one and the many. For Sandburg, Lincoln becomes emblematic of the necessary negotiation of this contradiction and builds on its resultant energy to create new paths to defining the American character. The Lincoln connection reaches deep into Sandburg’s psyche. As a boy, Sandburg saw daily the bronze plaque at Lombard College that commemorated the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate. He read Lincoln’s words over and over “in all weathers of the year” (Always the Young Strangers, p. 242). His biography of Lincoln brings to life the underlying paradox in American culture and celebrates the people’s faith prevailing over this uncertainty. Sandburg says of Lincoln "he was Humanity" (Always the Young Strangers, p. 371) and just as Lincoln’s humanity connects all Americans — "any streetful of people" — so Sandburg continued exploring the price and prize of democracy in "any streetful of people." If we are to see Carl Sandburg’s place in prairie culture, we need to look backward and forward from his point in time, and we need to understand his own personal and collective communities — obviously we don’t have enough space or time here and now. But what we can address here, and where we need to start, are Sandburg’s ideological predecessors — both those outstanding figures (Jefferson, Lincoln) that he mentions and those common people hidden in his poetry ("Anna Imroth," "Jack," "Fish Crier," "Adelaide Crapsey," "The Junk Man," "Two Neighbors," "A Million Young Workmen, 1915"). In recovering Sandburg as poet, we also recover ideals of American history forgotten or laid aside, both those famous folks and in the neglected people. That is why Sandburg wrote — so that American people and history would not be forgotten; so that he would inspire the people to make history happen. In 1961 Carl Sandburg sent an inscribed copy of his novel, Remembrance Rock (1948), to President John F. Kennedy. In the enclosed letter to Kennedy, he summarized his book as the "rise and movement of the American Dream" and commends Kennedy on keeping the American dream alive. He predicts that Kennedy’s speech will become one of America’s classics (Letters, p. 537). The President’s Inaugural Address, Jan. 20, 1961, calls Americans, as Jefferson and Lincoln did before, to consecrate America’s hope
We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. … And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
Sandburg’s admiration of this speech has a longer history than 1960’s America. Kennedy’s speech embodies American founder Thomas Jefferson’s ideals of American virtue: "It is part of the American character to consider nothing as desperate, to surmount every difficulty by resolution and contrivance" (Light and Liberty [letter to Martha Jefferson, wife], March 28, 1787, p. 11). Jefferson says in a letter to a friend, Phillip Mazzei, April 24, 1796:
We are likely to preserve the liberty we have obtained only by unremitting labors and perils. But we shall preserve it; and our mass of weight and wealth on the good side is so great, as to leave no danger that force will ever be attempted against us. I will not believe our labors are lost. I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance. (Light and Liberty, p. 82)
Lincoln reiterates the strength of Jefferson’s hope. His message to Congress on December 1, 1862, speaks also of the "heart-blood."
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.
These predecessors provide a link to history past and to the future that Kennedy predicts. Important to Sandburg’s admiration of Kennedy’s speech is his own ideology that continues Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s ideals — a belief in the power of the people. In his letter to Kennedy, Sandburg draws attention to a particular passage in Remem­brance Rock because it embodies “the consecration of spirit” that Kennedy calls upon. Sandburg’s fictional character, Supreme Court Justice Windom, addresses the American public during World War II:
Long before this time of ours America saw the faces of her men and women torn and shaken in turmoil, chaos and storm. In each major crisis you could have seen despair written on the faces of the foremost strugglers. Yet there always arose enough of reserves of strength, balances of sanity, portions of wisdom, to carry the nation through to a fresh start with an ever-renewing vitality. (p. 21)
Like the "heart-blood" that continually pulses, Sandburg’s poems bring back to the American people the essential spirit of their lives. Especially the prairie poems in Corn­huskers recount and revive the inspiration and source of American progress and pride. There is a reason the prairie is called the "heartland." All of the American ideals coalesce in an energy that comes from the hearts of people working and living simply among each other on the land. I Am the People, the Mob
I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass. Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me? I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and clothes. I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns. They die. And then I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns. I am the seed ground. I am the prairie that will stand for much plowing. Terrible storms pass over me. I forget. The best of me is sucked out and wasted. I forget. Everything but Death comes to me and makes me work and give up what I have. And I forget. Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. Then — I forget. When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool — then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: “The People,” with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision. The mob — the crowd — the mass — will arrive then. (Complete Poems, p. 71)
Works Cited Callahan, North, Carl Sandburg: his life and works (University Part Park, OA: Pennsylvania Sate University Press, 1991). Jefferson, Thomas, Light and Liberty: Reflection in the Pursuit of Happiness, Ed. Eric. S. Peterson (New York: Modern Library, 2005). Mitgang, Herbert, The Letters of Carl Sandburg (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1968). Niven, Penelope, Carl Sandburg: a biography (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991). Sandburg, Carl, Always the Young Strangers (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1953). Sandburg, The American Songbag (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1955). Sandburg, Complete Poems (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1950). Sandburg, Incidentals (Galesburg, Ill.: Asgard Press, 1907). Sandburg, In Reckless Ecstasy, (Galesburg, Ill.: Asgard Press, 1904). Sandburg, Remembrance Rock (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1948).

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