Friday, April 19, 2013

The People, Yes -- Sandburg's Common Epic

Excerpt From The People, Yes
--Carl Sandburg

The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.    
     They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,    
     The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,    
     You can't laugh off their capacity to take it.
The mammoth rests between his cyclonic dramas.

The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:    
     "I earn my living.    
     I make enough to get by    
     and it takes all my time.    
     If I had more time    
     I could do more for myself    
     and maybe for others.    
     I could read and study    
     and talk things over    
     and find out about things.    
     It takes time.    
     I wish I had the time."

The people is a tragic and comic two-face: hero and hoodlum: phantom and gorilla twisting to moan with a gargoyle mouth: "They buy me and sell's a game...sometime I'll break loose..."

     Once having marched
Over the margins of animal necessity,
Over the grim line of sheer subsistence    
     Then man came
To the deeper rituals of his bones,
To the lights lighter than any bones,
To the time for thinking things over,
To the dance, the song, the story,
Or the hours given over to dreaming,    
     Once having so marched.

Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prison of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.    
     This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.    
     Yet this reaching is alive yet    
     for lights and keepsakes.    

      The people know the salt of the sea    
      and the strength of the winds    
      lashing the corners of the earth.     
      The people take the earth    
      as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.    
      Who else speaks for the Family of Man?     
     They are in tune and step with constellations of universal law.    
     The people is a polychrome,    
      a spectrum and a prism    
      held in a moving monolith,    
      a console organ of changing themes,    
      a clavilux of color poems    
      wherein the sea offers fog    
      and the fog moves off in rain    
      and the labrador sunset shortens    
      to a nocturne of clear stars    
      serene over the shot spray    
      of northern lights.    

     The steel mill sky is alive.    
     The fire breaks white and zigzag    
     shot on a gun-metal gloaming.    
     Man is a long time coming.
     Man will yet win.    
     Brother may yet line up with brother:

This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.    
     There are men who can't be bought.    
     The fireborn are at home in fire.    
     The stars make no noise,     
     You can't hinder the wind from blowing.    
     Time is a great teacher.    
     Who can live without hope?

In the darkness with a great bundle of grief    
    the people
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people march:    
   "Where to? what next?"

Born in 1878 in Galesburg, Illinois, to Swedish immigrant parents, Carl Sandburg was one of seven children. He dropped out of school at the age of 13 to work and help support his family taking upon himself a series of jobs as a newsboy, porter, bootblack, water boy for horses, milkman, an ice cutter and janitor.

At the age of 19 in 1897, he headed west as a hobo on the rails and got as far as Pike's Peak before turning back. He did odd jobs, waited on tables and simply panhandled on this trip west and back. This period was a time during which Sandburg sharpened his interest in labor laws and the plight of working people.

In 1898, Sandburg joined the army to help fight the Spanish American War. He left for the war on July 25, 1898 but only got as far as Puerto Rico and saw no action.

In 1899, He received an appointment to West Point West Point for just two weeks, before failing a mathematics and grammar exam.

Carl Sandburg returned to Galesburg and qualified as a veteran for college admission despite his lack of a high school diploma. There, he enrolled in Lombard College, where he become editor of the college journal and yearbook and captain of the basketball team.

Lombard was founded by the Universalists. He tells of reading Universalist tracts and pamphlets in the attic of the chapel where he had a job as the school's bell-ringer. Although he never formally joined a Unitarian or Universalist congregation, Sandburg was delighted with the open and embracing Universalism he encountered at the college, a welcome relief from the strict Lutheranism of his youth and the street corner evangelists he encountered in his travels.

At Lombard, he took the courses that interested him and ignored graduation requirements. Perhaps, most importantly, at Lombard, Sandburg was encouraged by his favorite professor, Professor Philip Green Wright to begin writing poetry and prose in earnest.

In 1903, he left short of earning a degree and returned to riding the rails and - then back to Galesburg for a few years where he authored a small pamphlet with a press run of only fifty copies. His first booklets were published by Professor Philip Green Wright.

Sandburg worked at journalism with some success. During nearly five decades as a newspaperman, he was a local news reporter, an investigative reporter, a war correspondent, a movie critic, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

He moved to Chicago and on to Milwaukee where he helped organize the Social Democratic party and even served as secretary to the Mayor when the Social Democrat candidate won the election. At that time, he was working as a journalist and editor for a number of socialist newspapers.

In 1908, Sandburg met and married his wife Paula, a schoolteacher, a convert to socialism and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. When they married, they agreed that if either of them ever felt it was not working, they would simply dissolve the marriage. They enjoyed each other's company for nearly 60 years of marriage that included three daughters and later herds of champion goats, which Paula raised. 
They lived in Evanston, Illinois, before settling at 331 S. York Street in Elmhurst, Illinois, from 1919 to 1930.

Encouraged by his wife, Sandburg kept wrote poetry, most of it free verse. His first serious recognition as a poet came in 1914 when Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, published several of his poems in her magazine. Sandburg’s first book. Chicago Poems, was published in 1916, and his last collection of poems, Honey and Salt, appeared in 1963, when he was 85.

Sandburg wrote three children's books in Elmhurst, Rootabaga Stories, in 1922, followed by Rootabaga Pigeons (1923), and Potato Face (1930). Sandburg also wrote Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, a two-volume biography in 1926. He continued researching and writing Lincoln’s life. The four-volume Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, published in 1939, won the Pulitzer Prize in history.

Sandburg wrote The American Songbag (1927), and a book of poems called Good Morning, America (1928) in Elmhurst.

Sandburg also became a popular platform performer, playing the guitar and singing American folk music, and reading his poetry and prose.

The family moved to Michigan in 1930. The Sandburg house at 331 W. York Street, Elmhurst was demolished and the site is now a parking lot.

Sandburg’s Complete Poems (1950) contained all of his books of his poetry: Chicago Poems (1916), Cornhuskers (1918), Smoke and Steel (1920), Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922), Good Morning, America (1928), and The People, Yes (1936). Complete Poems won him a second Pulitzer Prize in 1951.

In 1945 he moved to Connemara, a 246-acre rural estate in Flat Rock, North Carolina. Here he produced a little over a third of his total published work, and lived with his wife, daughters, and two grandchildren until dying of natural causes in 1967.

In September 1967, nearly 6,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington for a national memorial tribute to the Poet of the People. On October 1, 1967, Carl Sandburg’s ashes were buried at his Galesburg, Illinois, birthplace, now a state historic site.

Sandburg sized himself up in the preface to Complete Poems:
"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. . . . It could be, in the grace of God, I shall live to be eighty-nine, as did [the Japanese poet] 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.'"
The People, Yes

The People, Yes was published at the height of the Great Depression, Sandburg was inspired to write it for those hit hardest by unemployment and poverty. It is an epic poem, a 300 page work  thoroughly interspersed with references to American culture, phrases, and stories (such as the legend of Paul Bunyan).

Sandburg was greatly influenced by folk speech and folk expression. He so accurately captured the common American in The People, Yes. The work lauds the perseverance of the these people in notably plain-spoken language. Through the content of the epic, it becomes evident that Sandburg felt work was man's greatest salvation.
Sandburg drew most of his inspiration from American history and was profoundly influenced by Walt Whitman. His verse is vigorous and impressionistic, written without regard for conventional meter and form, in language both simple and noble. Much of his poetry celebrates the beauty of
ordinary people and things.

When you read Sandburg, you experience the dust of America. It gets into your eyes, into your lungs, and even under your skin. That "dust" is both the land and the essence of the common people who still forge America. The dust, nourished by sweat and tears, is the common element of firmament and stars -- the wonder of creation. Man suffers as he works with it; he "marches" through his time on earth upon it. He looks to the distant loam of the universe to dream and to hope. And, eventually he even becomes one with it. "Where to? What next?" Indeed, the people, yes. Holy, holy, holy.

 Watch this brief excerpt from "The American Experience":


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