Performance Poetry in Plain Sandburg (Our Forgotten, Patriarchal Carl)

Carl Sandburg wrote the following words at the age of seventy-two, after over eight hundred published poems, numerous non-fiction books, one novel, three Pulitzer prizes, and the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom:

I am still studying verbs and the mystery of how they connect nouns. I am more suspicious of adjectives than at any other time in all my born days. I have forgotten the meaning of twenty or thirty of my poems written thirty or forty years ago. I still favor several simple poems published long ago which continue to have an appeal for simple people. I have written by different methods and in a wide miscellany of moods and have seldom been afraid to travel in lands and seas where I met fresh scenes and new songs. All my life I have been trying to learn to read, to see and hear, and to write. At sixty-five I began my first novel, and the five years lacking a month I took to finish it, I was still traveling, still a seeker. I should like to think that as I go on writing there will be sentences truly alive, with verbs quivering, with nouns giving color and echoes. It could be, in the grace of God, I shall live to be eight-nine, as did Hokusai, and speaking my farewell to earthly scenes, I might paraphrase: "If God had let me live five years longer I should have been a writer." [1]

In front of me sits Sandburg's sole novel, an obscure, one-thousand page tome of fictional wandering through three and a half centuries of American History, entitled Remembrance Rock. Perry Miller, in his 1948 New York Times Book Review stated it is not really a novel, "it is the chant of an antique Bard who fills out the beat with stereotypes and repetitions".

Antique Bard …. stereotypes … repetitions.

Some would say Miller encapsulated the perception of the poet for ages to come. The image of Sandburg we currently carry (if we carry one at all) is more caricature than portrait. Parodied as Americana troubadour, poet laureate, and bucolic Lincoln biographer, the snapshot attenuates the potency of his poems (as if non-fiction and folk music cripple the stark imaginings of the poet).

Today, Sandburg reposes on high, dusty shelves, relegated to the row of lost poets whose provincial urbanity offends our modernist sensibilities. (One wonders if modern readers publicly abrogate the formalism of poets like Frost and the parochialism of Sandburg but secretly enjoy clandestine relationships with both, for few could argue the mastery these wordsmiths commanded over their near-unmalleable work with stubborn words).

Yet, Sandburg, forgotten to history, was "accessible" in his day, whereas poets like Wallace Stevens enjoyed acclaim (then and now) despite a largely inscrutable work. Stevens, the intelligent obscurist, wrote in a letter to Harriet Monroe:

"I have read C. Sandburg's book with sincere pleasure. So much fresh air, fresh feeling, simple thinking, delightful expression: delighted expression does one good." [2]

The oft-quoted quip by Charlie Chaplin to Einstein equally fit Sandburg to Stevens: "People cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because nobody understands you". Sandburg, (whose poetry provoked the well-documented ire and praise of Robert Frost and whose patriarchal reputation is likely subdued in the gargantuan literary shadow of the esteemed Frost) was obviously well ensconced in the minds of his contemporaries and the generation that immediately followed. Recently, while reading Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety, I stumbled across the phrase "She makes the independence of a hog on ice look timid and tentative", leaping to my mind, Sandburg's line in his poem "The Windy City":

Chicago fished from its depths a text: Independent as a hog on ice.

John Steinbeck, Sherwood Anderson, Amy Lowell and H. L. Mencken each praised Sandburg while detractors reviled him for his constant abuse of idiom and for his poems parading as populist propaganda.

Sandburg the Approachable, enjoyed an outpouring of public ardor in his day not merely because his work was tractable but he dared to write effusively of smoke and steel, to see something poetic in the big, hulking, common mass of industrialism. One fan's sentiment reflected the majority of popular opinion, "Your great heart is with us, since I am the people you so deeply respect ... You have given me a new dignity in myself and my work."[3]

When Sandburg was initially discovered by Poetry magazine founder Harriet Monroe, his vers libre spoke the common tongue of the people, his composition, avant garde enough to froth traditionalists. In an interview with Adalai Stevens, Sandburg assented "It's hard to say how I moved into what I wrote that I termed poetry but there's still argument about whether it is poetry or not". When he risked writing characters and settings that reflected the gritty, grubby, ash and clay meanderings of mere mortals and the cities they intimate, his poetry carved a bold path, one that would someday be followed (in spirit, at least) by modern poets such as Sharon Olds whose works rock and reel from the aftershocks of everyday living.

But Sandburg's voice was much more than mere intones of democracy, his literal voice enthralled thousands. As a performance poetry pioneer, Sandburg traversed the country paving a path for future poets by redeeming the art from the obscurity of private pleasure to the enjoyment of mass consumption in a public forum. He illuminated a road that would eventually lead to performance poetry, slam poetry, the spoken word movement and all its various tributaries. Describing a Sandburg reading at the University of Chicago, the journalist Harry Hansen remarked on the "rapt attention" the poet commanded. "Sandburg's auditors", Hansen added, "drift with the rich melody, the singing note, and the cadence with which he reads makes them forget that his verses will not scan by any rule of classic form … Sandburg's frequent public performances -he had no qualms about regularly courting readers and listeners- earned him the status of celebrity".[4]

Given Sandburg's popularity as a man of the people, his industrial ars poetica, (elucidated through his craft), and his public troubadour persona, one wonders: why has Sandburg disappeared? Particularly, in light of today's performance poetry renaissance? Do performance poets like Shane Koyczan, Taylor Mali and Andrea Gibson realize that as they delight audiences with their well-honed and admirable craft, they do so on the shoulders of giants such as our forgotten, patriarchal Carl?

Thanks to a technology boon in his own day (reel-to-reel audio recording) and the digital revolution in our own, you can now experience many of Sandburg's performances (for free) through the wonder of the web. Young spoken word poets should dig deep at the archived well of these recordings. Sandburg's poem "The Windy City", for example, stands as a Homer-esque titan for all spoken word poetry. His cadence, gentle yet rollicking lilt, subtle passion, poetic diction, and craft of the common tongue, word-paint a voluble epic. When Sandburg, haircut askew and pen poised as pick-axe, crafted his dialogue, you get the feeling he did so in overalls, so empathetic his vagabond stories of westward living and industrial expansion.

Archibald MacLeish, delivering an address at the Carl Sandburg Memorial Ceremony in 1967, suggested (using the lines of the old Bard himself) a brief biographical glimpse:

One of the slouching underslung Chicago poets, Having only the savvy God gave him, lacking a gat, lacking brass knucks, Having one lead pencil to spare, wrote: "I am credulous about the destiny of man, and I believe more than I can ever prove of the future of the human race and the important of illusions … "

MacLeish went on to state, "though he sometimes slouched, he was never underslung", and with those words his fellow Chicagoan poet is now proven wrong. Sandburg has been slighted. Earthy, raw, gritty as art colliding with life itself, the venerable poet and his voice in the world wide web wilderness should be resurrected and hallowed as the prophetic incantation it truly is, uniquely revered as a forefather in modern spoken word and performance poetics.

(Do yourself a favor: grab a cup of coffee and lean back to experience Sandburg as he whisks you away to the sidewalks of The Windy City, you won't be disappointed).

[1] From Notes for a Preface, The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg

[2] Letters of Wallace Stevens

[3] Songs of Ourselves, Joan Shelley Rubin, pg. 282

[4] Ibid, pg. 281

[5] From the Introduction, The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg

* requires Spotify

Part of the title in this post is from a line in a Wallace Stevens letter addressed to Harriet Monroe: "Can you, in plain Sandburg, beat it?"

CARL 109129 Sandburg with Lincoln Bronze 1-6-60 by Glenn