Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Carl Sandburg's Unnatural Relations

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Carl Sandburg's Unnatural Relations

Article excerpt

Carl Sandburg, Bernard Duffey has remarked, "is something of an institution" (295). Indeed, by the time of his death, Sandburg had reached the level of cultural icon--so much so that a list of his activities and honors tells a story of American cultural history, 1940-1969. It's not just his two Pulitzer Prizes (one in 1940 for Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, the other in 1950 for Complete Poems) and numerous honorary degrees. There's a picture of his reading to Congress with Sam Rayburn and Richard Nixon looking on, and another of him looking on while Elizabeth Taylor reads what presumably is his contribution to the script of The Greatest Story Ever Told. He lectured throughout the Midwest while he was a young man, and on the radio when he got older; on TV, he read while Gene Kelly tap danced; Playboy paid him $3600 for six poems and a parable. Gold medals came from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Poetry Society of America, and the King of Sweden. After he moved to North Carolina, the state declared a Carl Sandburg Day; when he returned to Illinois, he was named Poet Laureate of that state. There are at least four Carl Sandburg junior high schools in the U. S. His North Carolina home is officially designated a National Historic Site.

So brilliant has been Sandburg's public persona that few have been able to read his poems except by its rather distorting illumination. Sympathetic critics display a striking propensity to refer to their subject as "Carl"(1) and often spend as much time saying what a fine, generous man Sandburg was as talking about his poetry. Although Sandburg's detractors are more formal, they are similarly inclined to talk about such extrapoetic issues as his banjo playing. Even when critics focus on the poetry, they have tended to view Sandburg's career as a whole and, generally, to explain what went wrong. An often made point, for example, can be summed up by Louis Rubin's comment that the trouble started when "Sandburg began to believe his press notices" (185), and, like Wordsworth, declined because he felt compelled to utter the platitudes appropriate for a public poet. However, Daniel Hoffman, stating the case in a more positive light (that Sandburg was a true populist poet, who really spoke to the people, unlike such self-acknowledged elitists as Pound and Eliot), praises Sandburg for essentially the same reason.

More central to this paper is William Carlos Williams's influential review of Sandburg's Complete Poems, which locates two persistent flaws in Sandburg's verse. The first is that Sandburg's poetry is "formless," and the second is that Sandburg's career evinced "no development" (350): Such is the prevalence of this view that even those like Hoffman who defend Sandburg acknowledge to a degree the validity of Williams's comments.

However apt Williams's critique, it has unfortunately obscured Sandburg's real achievement. While Sandburg after 1950 might have been almost a self-caricature, when Chicago Poems appeared in 1916, he was widely acknowledged as being in the vanguard of modern poetry. This paper focuses on that dynamic juncture in Sandburg's career, reading the poems apart from the persona. Far from being formless, the poetry of the volume reconstructs the traditions of English form and genre--traditions, it turns out, Sandburg knew quite well.

One problem in weighing Williams's assertion of Sandburg's formlessness is the lack of an operative definition of free verse form. The rules and traditions of metrical poetry are well known, but for free verse there is for the most part only the vague notion that the poems take an organic form; the content and perhaps the poet's personality, so the argument goes, determines the form. Sandburg's poem, "Style" in fact supports such a view. Assuming a hostile interlocutor, the speaker of the poem retorts,

Go on talking.

Only don't take my style away.

It's my face. …

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