Carl Sandburg's poetry came out of the literary movement centered in Chicago around the time of the First World War that sought a direct, usually celebratory, often urban realism in contrast to the genteel sentimentalities of much late Romantic magazine poetry. Out of this movement also came the prose of Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology, and Poetry magazine, but of all these Sandburg's poetry was most quintessentially the poetry of the city and the people. He lived for most of his life in Chicago.
Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, to Swedish immigrant parents, and left school at 13 to pursue a variety of jobs and an itinerant life, including serving as a private in the Spanish-American War. He then attended Lombard College, but left in 1902 without a degree. The following years saw him holding various journalist positions, and working for the socialist causes that would remain an important part of his work. In 1914 Harriet Monroe published a group of Sandburg's poems in Poetry, and their aggressive Whitmanesque celebrations of the city caught the attention of many readers. His first book, Chicago Poems, appeared in 1916, and was followed in 1918 by Cornhuskers, which took the prairie as its general theme. In the best of these poems of direct or evocative celebration - whether of the city or the prairie or in tender, generalized portraits of their inhabitants - the broad sweep of the lyrical free verse is set against a degree of particularized detail. Thus his most frequently anthologized poem, "Chicago," begins:
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.
Such verse had claims to be contemporary for its directness, its rooting of poetry in the modern industrial landscape, its breaking of traditional meter, and generally its affinities to the iconoclasm of Whitman. The poetry's lack of serious intellectual challenge, and Sandburg's platform skills in performing his work, helped to make the poet a popular figure. But despite more than half a dozen subsequent volumes over a long career, his poetry did not develop a great deal beyond these early books. Sandburg also collected and published two admired volumes of folk songs. But as far as poetry was concerned, he became a marginal figure, by 1968 one of the six examples of the fleetingness of poetic fame in Hyatt Waggoner's American Poets from the Puritans to the Present. However, a measure of Sandburg's personal stature, a stature enhanced by his six-volume prose biography of Abraham Lincoln published between 1926 and 1939, is that his Complete Poems won him a second Pulitzer Prize in 1951 (the final part of the Lincoln biography had already been honored in 1940). The long, chanting lines of a poem like "Chicago" has affinities with some Beat poetry of the 1950s, for example Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," and Sandburg is listed in Ginsberg's Kaddish as one of the figures inspiring dreams in the poet of being an "honest revolutionary labor lawyer . . . President, or Senator." In his old age as much of an icon as Frost, three years before he died Sandburg received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson.
The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg (New York, 1970).
Richard Crowder, Carl Sandburg (New York, 1964). Penelope Niven, Carl Sandburg: A Biography (New York, 1991). Philip R. Yannella, The Other Carl Sandburg (Jackson, MS, 1996).
Was this article helpful?