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Carl Sandburg as a Modernist, Part 2

by Cynthia Scott, adapted from a university paper written in 2020.

     Sandburg writes poetry in Chicago while also working for The Day Book, a daily tabloid paper for the masses. In his reporter role, he scours the city for stories and interviews.

     His biographer, Penelope Niven, describes a poetry inspiration that comes while he waits to interview a juvenile court judge. After “watching the fog settle over the Chicago harbor… he took out a pencil and scrawled some words in a haiku form on a piece of newsprint…” (Niven 249).

The fog comes

on little cat feet.


It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on. (Sandburg 1438)

Tabby Cat GB.jpg

From Wikipedia: The Day Book was an experimental, advertising-free daily newspaper published in Chicago from 1911 to 1917. It was owned by E. W. Scripps as part of the Scripps-McRae League of Newspapers (later Scripps-Howard Newspapers). … Some 135 articles are attributed to reporter Carl Sandburg, who would become a celebrated poet after leaving the paper.

     Sandburg’s unique metaphoric way of describing fog is short but effective. His poem adheres to Pound’s definition of an image: “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Pound wants the reader to understand the poet’s image instantly, like a revelation or a “sense of sudden growth” (Pound 1507). Influenced by the nature-based form of haiku, Sandburg gives the fog a feline personality. His poem evokes a feeling of momentary anxiety about the fog, as a mouse might feel when sensing the stealthy forward-creeping movement of a cat stalking it. This fog (cat) finding nothing to pounce upon, waits and watches as it “sits looking…on silent haunches” before quietly moving away.

     When Sandburg writes about war, he describes the futility of it in “Grass.” He speaks as the grass itself, referencing locations of WWI, Napoleonic War, and American Civil War cemeteries.

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.

Shovel them under and let me work—

                                    I am the grass; I cover all.


And pile them high at Gettysburg

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

                                    What place is this?

                                    Where are we now?


                                    I am the grass.

                                    Let me work. (Sandburg 1439)

     Sandburg’s metaphoric grass demonstrates the correct modernist poetic direction to take, heeding Pound’s advice “Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something.” Pound wants writers to realize “that the natural object is always the adequate symbol” (1507). Sandburg uses the natural object grass to say that in the history of man, wars really make no difference (“What place is this? Where are we now?”) to the landscape. The grass covering graves and hiding the ravages of war is a metaphor putting things in perspective within the larger scheme of infinite time.

     Sandburg’s poems also meet some aspects of modernism described by Mary Loeffelholz in “American Literature 1914-1945.” Even though he does not draw from “world literature, mythologies, and religions” to force his non-intellectual readers into deep analysis or comparison of classical material with newer content, his work does consist of “fragments of … history, fragments of experience or perception…” (1184). Pieces of history appear in “Cool Tombs” where Sandburg looks back decades to the Civil War and back further to the settlement of Massachusetts to again talk about death and decay and loss of importance:

Copperhead cartoon.jpg
Pres Grant.jpg

When Abraham Lincoln was shoveled into the tombs, he forgot the copperheads and the assassin

…in the dust, in the cool tombs.

And Ulysses Grant lost all thought of con men and Wall Street, cash and collateral turned ashes

…in the dust, in the cool tombs.

Pocahontas’ body, lovely as a poplar, sweet as a red haw in November or a pawpaw in May, did she wonder? does she remember?

…in the dust, in the cool tombs?

… (Sandburg 1438)

     Sandburg does not explain his references to history or political terms of the period like “copperheads” or local vegetation such as “pawpaw” to the reader; in modernist fashion, he leaves it to the reader to find meaning and fill in the blanks between fragments. He is, again, not using any “superfluous word…which does not reveal something” as Pound’s manifesto dictates (1506).

     Sandburg’s poetry meets the three main points of Pound’s manifesto: direct treatment of the subject, economy of words, and rhythm of the musical phrase. He avoids traditional story and poetry forms, offers subjectivity in different voices, and his work is published in a little magazine—all elements of Modernism. Fellow artists in the community as well as ordinary working-class people like his work. He says himself that he writes “simple poems for simple people” (Sandburg 1436). Even though his work is not difficult to understand, that quality alone does not bar his poems from the Modernist category of literature. A writer can produce modernist work without matching absolutely all criteria of the genre.

Works Cited

  • Loeffelholz, Mary, editor. “American Literature 1914-1945.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 1914-1945. 7th ed., vol. D, W.W. Norton & Company, 2007, pp. 1177-1192.

  • Niven, Penelope. Carl Sandburg: A Biography. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991.

  • Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 1914-1945. 7th ed., vol. D, W.W. Norton & Company, 2007, pp. 1506-1507.

---, “Cool Tombs.” Loeffelholz, Norton Anthology 1438.

---, “Fog.” Loeffelholz, Norton Anthology 1438.

---, “Grass.” Loeffelholz, Norton Anthology 1439.

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