Monday, August 4, 2008

Sandburg Gets Morbid

Carl Sandburg, early 20th century American poet, is best known for the fog poem, with its cat-analogy, and the Chicago poem. He took over the long free-verse line from Whitman, made it more laconic, much less ecstatic, and made it work. His poetry is pleasing in ways similar to those in which Jeffers's poetry is. Among the poets he influenced was Langston Hughes, who liked Sandburg's focus on working folks and his unpretentiousness.

Sandburg takes a morbid turn in the following poem, but I don't think it's a gratuitous turn, as one sometimes finds in Poe's verse, for example.

Cool Tombs

By Carl Sandburg

WHEN Abraham Lincoln was shoveled into the tombs, he forgot the copperheads and the assassin ... in the dust, in the cool tombs.

And Ulysses Grant lost all thought of con men and Wall Street, cash and collateral turned ashes ... in the dust, in the cool tombs.

Pocahontas' body, lovely as a poplar, sweet as a red haw in November or a pawpaw in May, did she wonder? does she remember?... in the dust, in the cool tombs?

Take any streetful of people buying clothes and groceries, cheering a hero or throwing confetti and blowing tin horns ... tell me if the lovers are losers ... tell me if any get more than the lovers ... in the dust ... in the cool tombs.

The decision to treat the iconic, even sacred, Lincoln roughly in the first line fascinates me, and I think it takes the poem in a successful, if risky, direction. Then there's a shift to Grant, feckless as a president, victim of corruption. The shift to Pocahontas makes sense; after Lincoln and Grant, we need a feminine icon, and we need a person who represents grace. As plain as the last stanza is, I think it's inspired--especially the choice to interrogate the reader. This not so well known poem is one I admire.
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