Poetry Friday: Bronzes

Tonight, under 5-6 inches of new snow in Chicago (on top of what remains from last week), it seemed like a good night to post and ponder a poem about Chicago in winter.  Who better than the city’s most ardent lover, Carl Sandburg, to lead the way?  This is “Bronzes” in two parts, from his 1916 book, Chicago Poems:


The bronze General Grant riding a bronze horse in Lincoln Park
Shrivels in the sun by day when the motor cars whirr by in long processions going somewhere to keep appointment for dinner and matinees and buying and selling
Though in the dusk and nightfall when high waves are piling
On the slabs of the promenade along the lake shore near by
I have seen the general dare the combers come closer
And make to ride his bronze horse out into the hoofs and guns of the storm.


I cross Lincoln Park on a winter night when the snow is falling.
Lincoln in bronze stands among the white lines of snow, his bronze forehead meeting soft echoes of the newsies crying forty thousand men are dead along the Yser, his bronze ears listening to the mumbled roar of the city at his bronze feet.
A lithe Indian on a bronze pony, Shakespeare seated with long legs in bronze, Garibaldi in a bronze cape, they hold places in the cold, lonely snow to-night on their pedestals and so they will hold them past midnight and into the dawn.

A few thoughts arise.  The two halves are in an odd tension for me.  In the first, Grant is a sort of bully, his statue issuing schoolyard dares to passers-by.  In the daylight, in the bustle of a living city, he is a shrinking figure, but when the shadows lengthen he is empowered somehow.  Maybe Sandburg is drawing a sort of symbolic connection here—the shadowy parts of our own minds are where our more violent thoughts tend to remain.  But I think all in all the first half doesn’t reach me (am I misreading it?).

The second half, on the other hand, is so much more poignant.  I can imagine what it would be like for Lincoln to stand there, fixed in place as a world grows up to find itself so much more efficient at killing than he could have dreamed in 1862, even in his worst nightmares.  I feel like there’s a really rich subtext here—Sandburg gives me a lot to draw together.  Lincoln mute in the snow along with a Native American.  Garibaldi, Italy’s Lincoln (and no stranger to war), and the Bard of Stratford.  I wonder what it means that they all keep vigil through the long night.  What does that night signify, and what will they see in the dawn?  It feels very centered to me, as though the statues tie us to some of our noblest aspirations, and that in some way they will guard what is best and brightest about humanity.  It will survive this winter, the war and the darkness.  But why and how, I cannot say.

Recently I’ve been posting a lot of poems where I knew what I wanted to say, and where I wanted to take them.  Obviously tonight I’ve gone a different road, and I hope it will encourage at least one or two of you (if not more!) to offer your own thoughts.  Am I making too much out of a very simple (and maybe mediocre) poem, simply because I like some of Sandburg’s other stuff?  Or, conversely, am I too limited in my reading, especially of the Grant section—are there thoughts here I haven’t sorted yet?  And either way, why am I not seeing a more Chicago-specific read of a poem explicitly set here, and published in a book called “Chicago Poems”?  Even if you think I have it just right, I hope you’ll chime in.  Always good to know somebody out there still reads these, after all.  Peace to you tonight, wherever you are on a winter’s evening.

Poetry Friday: Chicago

Yes, yes, I know: Carl Sandburg has, in 2 years of Poetry Fridays (and given my lapses, we’re only talking maybe 50 or so posts), been given the stage thrice.  And that’s at least twice more than a number of other poets I like better than him.  But for crying out loud, if the first Poetry Friday from Chicago is not “Chicago” from Carl Sandburg’s 1916 anthology entitled Chicago Poems, Carl himself would rise from his grave (which, for all I know, is nearby) and throttle me with his zombiehands while reciting stark couplets about my grim demise.  As is now customary, I offer my thoughts below the poem:

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:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities;

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

I have always liked this poem—it taps into the “raw energy” I mention in my post below about Chicago, although I wonder now if I’m imposing on the real city what Sandburg’s city sounds like in the poem. Anyway, the relentlessness of those opening lines, bold and blunt, captures me right away. This is a poem about a prosaic city—a city that is unapologetic, loud, bubbling over with life, bloody-handed and sweat-stained. And Sandburg can’t get over the fact that he loves it in spite of its obvious faults: it reminds me of Shakespeare’s “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun”. In both cases, poets take conventions of the time—Elizabethan love poems and the kind of propaganda/advertising verse a lot of late 19th Century poets wrote about their booming hometowns—and invert them curiously, as they strip away all the compliments and somehow the love shines through all the more. Maybe that’s a fault in Sandburg: he excuses the brutality, the cruelty, the depravity of Chicago because it’s so freaking charismatic in its exuberance that he can’t take his eyes off it. I can’t quite tell what he means by it, to be honest—whether he’d accept that Chicago in the early 1900s is a bad place but a fascinating one (like a Iago, it becomes a villain more fascinating than any hero you could put on stage), or whether he’s arguing that the fascination redeems the badness. Or perhaps that both are true and that either way the city is a city to be reckoned with.

Maybe that’s the clearest image I take from the poem: Chicago can’t be overlooked, and is not about to be forgotten. Whatever history is made in the land will be made in part by Chicago. And that’s too bad for the neighbors but it can hardly be helped. The way you shake the world is to take hold of it as roughly as Chicago does, and with the same ignorant adolescent strength.

It’s a famous poem, and many of you will have already known it (some of you because I made you read it in 11th grade). What do you think Sandburg’s up to? I can’t put my finger on it and I want to — I don’t live in his Chicago, but his Chicago shaped my city, and for that reason I’d like to see through his eyes. I think his poem is one of the most “American” poems I’ve ever read, for the way it combines the language and the topic, but again I may be on a Chicago “high” right now. I remember more than one student telling me back in the day that I was too enthusiastic about this poem, come to think of it! I’m hoping it inspires some reaction in you, and that you’ll share it. Regardless, have a great weekend.

Poetry Friday: The People, Yes

A strange synchronicity operates in my life (in many of our lives, I’d guess), so this week I saw something that reminded me of Carl Sandburg’s lengthy poem “The People, Yes”, and when I went looking for excerpts of it, I hit a section about whether or not Abraham Lincoln was a poet. And that combines nicely with the ongoing conversation I’ve been having with David Hirsch ever since I posted in February arguing that Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural was a poem. So I basically have to give you a little bit of Sandburg here. I’m not sure if this will set your thoughts a-thinking or inspire much commentary (my luck in that regard is very hit and miss), but hopefully it does a little something for you this fine Friday: an excerpt from Carl Sandburg’s “The People, Yes”

He was a mystery in smoke and flags
Saying yes to the smoke, yes to the flags,
Yes to the paradoxes of democracy,
Yes to the hopes of government
Of the people by the people for the people,
No to debauchery of the public mind,
No to personal malice nursed and fed,
Yes to the Constitution when a help,
No to the Constitution when a hindrance
Yes to man as a struggler amid illusions,
Each man fated to answer for himself:
Which of the faiths and illusions of mankind
Must I choose for my own sustaining light
To bring me beyond the present wilderness?

Lincoln? Was he a poet?
And did he write verses?
“I have not willingly planted a thorn
in any man’s bosom.
I shall do nothing through malice: what
I deal with is too vast for malice.”

Death was in the air.
So was birth.

Poetry Friday: 1922 (part 2)

I know I technically finished Alice Adams yesterday, and should move on to 1923, but I thought I’d give 1922 one more poem, especially as I haven’t started the next Pulitzer novel yet.  And an old favorite poet of mine, Carl Sandburg, published an anthology called Slabs of the Sunburnt West, so I thought I’d give it a look.  I ended up reading this poem called “Fins”, and I don’t know entirely what to make of it, or what Sandburg was trying to convey.  Our first Poetry Friday was a different poem of his, also about the sea, and I really liked that one.  I think I might like this one also, but I’m not sure—anyone’s reactions (or proposed exaplanations/interpretations) would be very welcome!  So, without any further ado, “Fins”:

Plow over bars of sea plowing,
the moon by moon work of the sea,
the plowing, sand and rock, must
be done.

Ride over, ride over bars of sea riding,
the sun and the blue riding of the sea—
sit in the saddles and say it, sea riders.

Slant up and go, silver breakers; mix
the high howls of your dancing; shoot
your laugh of rainbow foam tops.

Foam wings, fly; pick the comers, the fin pink,
the belly green, the blue rain sparks, the
white wave spit—fly, you foam wings.

The men of the sea are gone to work; the women
of the sea are off buying new hats, combs, clocks;
it is rust and gold on the roofs of the sea.

Poetry Friday: 1918

When I announced that I was starting this blog, a question posed to me by a former student, Krista Gustafson, was whether we’d have “Poetry Fridays”.  A class I taught several years ago was so taken by poetry (particularly read aloud) that every Friday I’d take 5 minutes at the end of class and just offer them some poetry–whatever whim took me that day.  Krista may have been joking (she does have a good sense of humor), but I think she was a little serious, and the more I think about it, the more I like it.  So, every week on Friday I’ll offer a poem published in the United States in the year of the novel I am reading (often I’ll try to choose from that year’s Pulitzer-winning work of poetry, but I won’t limit myself that much).  It’ll be a poem I found interesting, and hopefully worth discussing, but I won’t offer any comment at first–just a poem.  Please offer your comments and reactions (positive and negative) and I’ll join in.  If it connects with what I’ve been reading (novel-wise), that will be interesting, but I’m not intending to steer it that way.  Let’s just look at a poem now and then, and watch them change over the years along with the novels (or perhaps stay the same).

Today’s poem is by Carl Sandburg, and was published in his book Cornhuskers in 1918 (there was no Pulitzer winner for poetry this year):

“The Sea Hold”

The sea is large.
The sea hold on a leg of land in the Chesapeake hugs an early sunset and a last morning star over the oyster beds and the late clam boats of lonely men.
Five white houses on a half-mile strip of land … five white dice rolled from a tube.

Not so long ago … the sea was large…
And to-day the sea has lost nothing … it keeps all.

I am a loon about the sea.
I make so many sea songs, I cry so many sea cries, I forget so many sea songs and sea cries.

I am a loon about the sea.
So are five men I had a fish fry with once in a tar-paper shack trembling in a sand storm.

The sea knows more about them than they know themselves.
They know only how the sea hugs and will not let go.

The sea is large.
The sea must know more than any of us.