Excerpts from a lecture delivered on January 5, 1978, on the centennial of Sandburg’s birth. Published 1979 by the Library of Congress.
If completion of his first century qualifies a departed poet for a celebration among the shades, then somewhere on or near Olympus, there must be tonight a gathering like this one, with a ghost of Sandburg himself at its center, singing “The Boll Weevil” or “The Streets of Laredo” to his guitar and saying his poems in that voice at once warm and rough. He could be in workmen’s clothes and have his audience in the palm of his ghostly hand. For Sandburg was the Will Rogers of the poetry circuit, a masterful entertainer. Only Robert Frost could rival him in this. He brought a sense of color, of liveliness, of beauty in their own lives to many who did not read other poets at all. His poems came as near to being prose as they could, and yet they are poetry. There is little in Sandburg of the virtues most readers value in the poems of his contemporaries. Most recent critics and scholars of modern verse have had other fish to fry, and have passed Sandburg by. Not that he didn’t get lots of praise in his time, but it was more often from those who prized the life his work reflects than from those whose chief concerns were with the art of poetry.
* * *
I assume that everyone at all familiar with Sandburg knows his most famous poem, the one that begins
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders…
This poem, perhaps overly famous, has become a sort of albatross to Sandburg’s reputation. He was capable of many other notes then “Stormy, husky, brawling,” but they may be drowned out in the memories of everyone who has read “Chicago.” One such note is joyousness in the most ordinary life, in sights other poets had not noticed, sounds made by people other poets had not listened to, as in “The Shovel Man”:
On the street
Slung on the shoulder is a handle half-way across,
Tied in a big knot on the scoop of cast iron
Are the overalls faded from sun and rain in the ditches;
And a flimsy shirt open at the throat,
I know him for a shovel man,
A dago working for a dollar six bits a day
And a dark-eyed woman in the old country dreams of
him for one of the world’s ready men with a pair
of fresh lips and a kiss better than all the wild
grapes that ever grew in Tuscany.
This is perhaps the first poem in American literature in which an Italian immigrant is presented as a serious subject; until Sandburg’s Chicago Poems appeared, the immigrant was to be found only as a comic stereotype, speaking in the dialect poems of Thomas Augustine Daly. Writing at the time not only of the free-verse movement in poetry, but also when the Armory Show had dramatized the new, democratic aesthetic of the Ash Can school and painting, Sandburg, too, could look up and down a teeming straight of city tenements and find subjects whose innate beauty and joy in life invited treatment in his art.
* * *
Sandburg is concerned with the effects and materials of his poetry but not with creating those effects from new modes of perception. He would, as he says in yet another definition, “achieve a synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits”—or of moonlight and mittens—simply by juxtaposing the one with the other. And yet we know that his practice is a little more uncasual than his protestations. His best poems, and the best passages in his longer uneven poems are shaped with a kind of caring of his own.
Daniel Hoffman (April 3, 1923 - March 30, 2013) served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1973 - 1974. Other honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His books of poems include: The Whole Nine Yards: Longer Poems (2009), Beyond Silence: Selected Shorter Poems (2003), Brotherly Love (1981), and An Armada of Thirty Whales (1954, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets). He also wrote criticism of such other writers as Stephen Crane, Edgar Allen Poe, and Williamm Faulkner, and translated poems from Hungarian to English. Hoffman taught at Columbia University, Swarthmore College, and the University of Pennsylvania. From 1988 to 1999, he was Poet in Residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, where he administered the American Poets' Corner.