While Ashbery Dies, I Read Sandburg

The week John Ashberry dies, I read Carl Sandburg’s Wind Song. Ashbery is, for the time being, celebrated. Sandburg, once celebrated, is now consigned to the same storage unit occupied by Disneyland’s animatronic Abraham Lincoln, whose Main Street USA schtick owed as much to Sandburg’s biographical epic as to Lincoln’s own qualities.

Sandburg is Ashbery’s aesthetic antithesis. Ashbery was a poet’s poet, neither truly popular nor populist, but deeply admired by other writers. He was, the New York Times recalls, “by turns playful and elegiac, absurd and exquisite.” Evan Kindley, writing in the New Republic, characterizes his work as  “disorienting and capacious,” a poet who contained multitudes:

As much as anyone could, Ashbery straddled divides within American poetry culture. He was a card-carrying, fully paid up member of the avant-garde, and an immense influence on the Language poets, latter-day members of the New York School, and other experimental writers. But his work’s elegance, polish, and surface beauty have appealed to formalists as well, and critics like [Harold] Bloom and Helen Vendler have done much to situate Ashbery within the Romantic tradition of Whitman, Keats, and Stevens.

Once controversial, his work eventually became consensus: it sometimes seemed as if he were the only poet everyone could agree on. The fact that he was such a good citizen of the Republic of Letters, supportive of younger writers, and indifferent to scene politics, helped endear him even to those who may have found his work baffling.

Not everyone was endeared. A friend of mine remarked that Ashbery “devoted his efforts to being deliberately arch and obscure,” a view shared, I expect, by many who are as baffled by Ashbery’s lofty reputation as by work itself.

One thing is certain: Ashbery is an English Department powerhouse, and Sandburg is not. The 9th edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, a barometer of syllabus inclusion, devotes eighteen pages to Ashbery, enough to incorporate “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” in its entirety. Sandburg gets just three pages for four poems: “Chicago,” “Fog,” “Cool Tombs,” and “Grass.” Not a bad selection, that. However, it’s hard to imagine Sandburg championed in the classroom with the same fervor as MLA members champion Ashbery.

Yet, in his time – roughly the middle fifty years of the 20th century – Sandburg was immensely popular and widely honored. A few decades ago, every high school student would have read and, in those days, memorized and recited Sandburg’s poems.

Sandburg faded for a lot of reasons. For one, the political culture shifted, leaving Sandburg’s work stranded. He was a Leftist back in the day when the Left spoke the language of national pride and the dignity of physical labor. In that, his work presaged the WPA writers, photographers, and muralists. For a taste of this, reread “Chicago” and then watch two Pare Lorentz films: The River (1936) and The Plow that Broke the Plains (1938). Or listen to Woody Guthrie’s 1942 praise-song for the Grand Coulee Dam, built astride the Columbia River.

The heroic era of American infrastructure development, associated with early 20th century socialism, morphed by mid-century into establishment liberalism. Its last great project, the interstates, are not associated with a heroic working class but with traffic.

Sandburg’s other theme was rural life. His paeans to the farm mark the limits of his leftist inclinations. Like late 19th century Populists, he drew the line well short of any kind of collectivization, either corporate or federal. It was the family farm he had in mind, a type that still existed in profusion at mid-century. By the 1970s, though, the small family operation was in retreat, and those who knew it best no longer made sweeping claims for its national significance.

As liberalism shifted toward identity politics, environmental balance, and “small is beautiful” communitarianism, Sandburg lost his audience. His un-ironic embrace of the industrial worker, the ambitious skyline and, in its shadow, the small family farm, distances him from our present moment far more decisively than Ashbery’s winking word-puzzles. Ashbery isn’t taken in by bloviated claims on behalf of union chiefs, industrial moguls, Union generals, or the army’s dam-building corps of engineers. Sandburg champions – or seems to champion – all of these.

It did not help that Sandburg remained, for his entire career, a practitioner of realism, resistant to the abstract expressionism, language poetry, and pop art embraced by the cultural revolutionaries within the establishment itself. By “realism,” I mean that, in Sandburg’s poetry, a hog really is a hog.

Realism is not by itself a hurdle to sustained reputation. If Sandburg’s hog accidentally capered into one of Charles Bukowski’s poems, he’d end up as a side of bacon, but would remain, even in death, an actual pig. Nor would he risk his fundamental piggishness if he entrusted it to Claudia Rankine, Martín Espada, Wendell Berry, or Carolyn Forché, to name four poets I kept close at hand this past summer.

Yet Wind Song’s realism can disappoint. To be sure, Sandburg tips his hat to the specific. Successive poems mention San Francisco; Arizona; Chillicothe, Ohio; Rock Island, Illinois; New Hampshire; Niagara; Indiana’s “Monon corn belt;” Knox County, Illinois; New Mexico; Wisconsin’s Mississippi River overlooks; and Iowa’s Lake Okoboji.

These places are scattered throughout the country, and Sandburg seems uncommitted to any of them. In fact, without materially altering his poems, Sandburg could easily have swapped one of these locales for another.

This indifference to the particular poses a problem for Wind Song: its integrity. We tend to trust a person rooted in some special place: Wendell Berry, for instance, writing from his Kentucky farm. We may also trust a person who’s rooted nowhere but draws sustenance from his own language and his own mind: John Ashbery.  In fact, a generous reader can find pleasure in poets embracing a wide range of loyalties: from localist to nationalist, cosmopolitan to pietist, and humanitarian to narcissist.

What we do not generally trust is a person who claims to be rooted everywhere at once. And that, on first reading, is Wind Song’s sin. Apart from Chicago itself, what place truly lays claim to Sandburg’s soul?

Not New Hampshire, surely. A Midwesterner by upbringing and a North Carolinian by choice, Sandburg’s investment in New Hampshire was limited. And yet, in “New Hampshire Again” he claims deep remembered loyalties:

I remember black winter waters,
I remember the white birches,
I remember sleepy twilight hills,
I remember riding across New
Hampshire highways.
I remember a station named
“Halcyon,” a brakeman call-
ing to passengers “Halcyon!!
Halcyon!!”
I remember having heard the
gold diggers dig out only
enough for wedding rings
I remember a stately child tell-
ing me her father gets letters
addressed “Robert Frost,
New Hampshire.”
I remember an old Irish saying,
“His face is like a fiddle and
every one who sees him must
love him.”
I have one remember, two re-
members, ten remembers; I
have a little handkerchief
bundle of remembers.

One early evening star just over
a cradle moon,
One dark river with a spatter of
later stars caught,
One funnel of a motorcar head-
light up a hill,
One team of horses hauling a
bobsled load of wood,
One boy on skis picking himself
up after a tumble—
I remember one and a one and a
one riding across New Hamp-
shire lengthways: I have a lit-
tle handkerchief bundle of re-
members.

Apart from a nod to Robert Frost, there is little here that really needs New Hampshire. Any place with a snowy winter and an operating passenger rail line will do.

But this poem isn’t really about “New Hampshire” – it’s about “Again.” It is an aging man’s inventory of his dwindling possessions: “I have one remember, two remembers, ten remembers… I remember one and a one and a one… I have a little handkerchief bundle of remembers.” What matters here is Sandburg’s interior landscape, folded now into a small square of cotton cloth.

Sometimes, Sandburg’s hogs are not hogs after all. On a second reading, it is this way with many of Wind Song’s  poems.

This is no argument for the greatness of Carl Sandburg’s Wind Song, but it is an argument for its goodness.

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