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Carl Sandburg as a Modernist, Part 1

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

1978 U.S. stamp (Sc. 1731): Carl Sandburg.

     Carl Sandburg wrote poetry for years during his primary career as a journalist and as a social Democrat party worker. Following a significant downturn in fortune and the loss of his first child in 1913, he shifted more attention to his poems. His biographer explains: “Working alone late into the night, with no friends or mentors there who were poets, no audience other than his wife and his own need, he was experimenting, and before he knew the term or the theory, crafting some poems very like those the Imagists would make famous” (Niven 234). He was composing modernist poems at the same time other writers were beginning to experiment with new forms on new topics without knowing others were also trying new ways to write.

     “Chicago” and “Fog,” written before World War I, and “Grass” and “Cool Tombs,” published after America joined the war, exemplify Carl Sandburg’s early contributions to the Modernist literary movement. Some might argue that these poems belong in the category of Modern literature because they focus on the social and political climate of the time, voice concerns about the war, or describe elements of current industry. But Sandburg reaches beyond modern consciousness. By evaluating these poems in relation to modernist manifesto points taken from Ezra Pound’s “A Retrospect,” one can understand why and how these poems are more modernist than simply modern.

1933 U.S.  stamp (Sc. 729): the Federal Building in Chicago.

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National Parks Souvenir Travel Stamp. Ties to "Grass" and "Cool Tombs" poems for a topical collection.

Chicago in Poetry mag 1914.jpg

     The problem with experimentation is getting it published. Paula Sandburg strongly supported her husband by repeatedly mailing his manuscripts to New York magazines and journals, but they were rejected because, “as Sandburg knew, they were ‘so unconventional in style and subject that they might not be considered poetry at all’” (Niven 235).  Finally, in 1914, Carl and Paula decided to send a package of poems to Harriet Monroe’s little magazine Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, even though Sandburg doubted the two-year-old publication would last. When Monroe published Sandburg’s “Chicago,” she helped him reach a more appreciative audience and welcomed him to her circle of other avant-garde creative writers. (Niven 238)

     Ezra Pound, a member of those Poetry contributors in Monroe’s circle, served as foreign editor and critic for the magazine. Poetry publishes his modernist manifesto in 1913, a year before Sandburg submitted his first packet of material.  Several elements of “Chicago” meet the modernist tenets of Ezra Pound’s manifesto. The opening stanza satisfies Pound’s edict for “direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective” (Pound 1506) by naming the kinds of rough Chicago industry and production ‘things’ such as “Tool Maker” or “Stacker of Wheat” famous there in the early 20th century. Sandburg’s direct treatment makes a headline, a loud broadcast that grabs attention with capitalized nouns to lure readers into the rest of the poem.

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Ezra Pound on 1995 Nicaragua stamp. He might never be on a US stamp because of his facist leanings during WWII.


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:

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2021 US Stamp (Sc. 5583): Mulefoot Hog, one of 10 farm animals on 20-stamp Heritage Breeds sheet

1957 US stamp (Sc. 1090): Steel Industry Centennial, impacts tool making.

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1974 US Stamp (Sc. 1506): Winter Wheat, one of 3 Rural America issues.

     The editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature says, “…modernist literature is notable for what it omits: the explanations, interpretations, connections, summaries, and distancing…” (Loeffelholz 1184). There is no preface, prologue, or introduction for Sandburg. He jumps right to the heart of the subject, the city he loves, by addressing it as though talking to a sentient being:

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…

1981 Jersey Stamp (Sc. 278): One in set J52 of Gas Light Anniversary.

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A book cover. Lawrence Block references stamps in his detective novels.

1998 US CTC (Sc 3185m): Dorothea Lange's photo, a Great Depression icon.

     In this poem, Sandburg is an admiring subjective observer addressing the city in first person voice. He speaks with a declarative style of plain words anyone can understand. (In this regard, his style is not high art or intellectually difficult the way some modernist purists would prefer.) He does not mince words and does not shy away from the bad things he has observed while living there.

     In “Chicago,” we see how Sandburg’s poetry speaks loudly for ordinary people who cannot obtain much education, who must work hard and long to barely survive, who form the bedrock of American industry. He is sympathetic to their needs, and believes in many of the principles of the Social Democrat movement active before World War I.  

I enjoy tying stamps to my articles about literature. The search for appropriate topical connections makes this a satisfying hobby. -- C. Scott

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