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.

There are 3 comments

  1. Frank Hudson

    I’ve been lead here by the WordPress algorithm showing your Sandburg related post after my most recent one for the Parlando Project. From looking a few other posts here, I can see you encounter and think clearly about poetry fairly often.

    Though I try to be as broad as I can be with the material available for free use (pre-1923 public domain) over at my blog where I combine words with original music, I’ve found Sandburg increasingly inescapable, and like you think he’s gone through a drop in contemporary attention which I hope can change.

    I resonated with your comment on a Sandburg hog being in fact a hog, not some clever symbol tacked onto the poem. This is a tenet of Imagism, the modernist movement Sandburg held to as a young poet. “Direct treatment of the thing.” I’m limited by US law from speaking the words of poets post 1923 in public, so I have to go back to these early modernist poems–but by luck I’m finding them a refreshing contrast to late 20th Century modernism and post-modernism.

    That the cinder of fame for Sandburg being reduced to “Chicago,” which is remembered as a boosterish poem like politicians who think that “Born to Run” is an ode to the joys of New Jersey, is that it makes some think that Sandburg is, or should be, a localist. Sandburg’s socialism (at least pre-WWI) was internationalist. He was a second-generation immigrant, who traveled extensively in America, but if one remembers his second-generation immigrant status, his deep empathy for 1st generation immigrants and his ability to quickly capture different localisms as he travels is partly explained. But even as he developed his middle-aged outlook (as you sagely note: helping invent the idea of Americana) he consistently viewed the world of individual human action as a small point against eternity, a theme he returned to again and again.

    Coincidentally, the post of mine that WordPress associated with yours, is about a Sandburg piece on visiting California in the early 1920s.

    https://frankhudson.org/2018/01/14/california-city-landscape/

    Well I go on too long, as I’m prone to do when talking about Sandburg and some other poets. Thanks for considering Sandburg and for honestly encountering poetry, and writing well about it.

    Like

    1. leftwritecentaur

      Thanks for the comment. I remember the conservative columnist George Will, years ago, invoking “Born to Run” as if it were a patriotic hymn. That’s typical of the treatment accorded to social democrats. ML King’s radicalism is, of course, soft-pedaled, as are the (relative) radicalism and cantankerous religious skepticism of Twain, the socialism of Pledge of Allegiance framer Francis Bellamy, the revolutionary socialisms of Jack London and Helen Keller, etc. Of course, the Left does its share of whitewashing too: feminist icon Margaret Sanger was a Eugenicist, motivated in part by racism. At any event, yes, it’s a pity that our collective memory has ground down Sandburg’s bite so much that he finds his way into school anthologies as an old man gumming his overcooked vegetables.

      Like

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