Very cool selections from Carl Sandburg! He certainly is the poet of the common person, the working man, our universal and shared experience. In the first section of The People, Yes, the poet speaks of the Tower of Babel from the book of Genesis. For those unfamiliar with this tale: a unified human race seeks to build a tower that reaches the heavens so that the people of the world will not be scattered across the earth and can be close to god. God comes down though and scatters the people of the world across the globe and confuses their communication by creating different languages. Sandburg’s poetry seems to be an effort to rebuild the unity of the human experience and return us (or at least provide glimpses) of the universal aspects of our existence. The role of nature is a good example of this theme. In the excerpts provided, Sandburg repeatedly returns to man’s co-existence with and subjugation to the whims of the weather and other natural phenomena (the lines in section 50 about the iceberg were reminiscent to me of Stephen Crane’s A Man Said to the Universe). In some ways, Sandburg seems to almost dismiss the experience of the individual in its entirety. He rails against personal credit for worldly successes, against the “boss” and other titles, against the effects of capitalism/advertising and its tendency to separate man from his true nature. And while the poem is certainly critical of specific aspects of the American spirit of Sandburg’s time, I believe Sandburg ends the poem on a hopeful note. Despite the dual nature of the human spirit as a “comic two face: hero and hoodlum,” Sandburg recognizes our ability as people to continually achieve renewal (by going back to “the nourishing earth for rootholds”) and our desire to reach “for lights beyond the prisms of the five senses.” It is through this process of reaching for universal understanding that we may better answer the poet’s final question: “where to? what next?”
Sandburg’s treatment of Lincoln in section 57 is fascinating in light of our recent discussion of Whitman’s Lilacs. Their treatment of Lincoln through the poetry is very different, but the admiration for their subject (implied in the case of Lilacs) is the same. While Lincoln is never specifically mentioned in Lilacs, I would venture to say that Whitman’s elegy is more personal than Sandburg’s. Whitman is seeking to assuage his own grief in light of the tragic national events of his time. Sandburg benefits from the clarifications of time and a clearer picture of Lincoln’s impact on the people of America. Sandburg begins section 57 with “Lincoln?,” making it clear from the start that the section is meant to contemplate Lincoln the man, the type of person he was, and his impact on others. Was Lincoln a poet, a historian, a gatherer of the American dream, a dreamer himself? Sandburg points out that he was likely all of these things, but I can’t help but notice the strong parallels between Lincoln’s role of American unifier and Sandburg’s view of the poet’s role as unifier of the human experience. Sandburg ends the section with a quote from Lincoln that, in my mind, outlines exactly the objective of the poet as Sandburg sees it:
“If we could first know where we are,
and whither we are tending,
we could better judge
what to do, and how to do it.”
Sandburg can see the benefits Lincoln’s mindset ultimately resulted in and he clearly seeks to apply this mindset to the challenges and miscommunications of his own time.