Thursday, 30 August 2012

Sandburg Celebration: His daughters offer new poems, memories, for poet’s centenary

Carl Sandburg would have been a hundred on Jan. 6. 1978. His is not the kind of centennial literary America hungers to celebrate. True, a handsome 13-cent stamp, designed by the poet’s close friend, William A. Smith of Pineville, Pennsylvania, will issue from the Galesburg, Illinois, post office on the literary handyman’s birthday. And the present incarnation of the poet’s own Lombard College (Knox College in Galesburg) has planned a fitting set of symposia.

Most important, two of the poet’s children have produced books that do honor both to his literary reputation and his personal reputation as a truly unique American character—in the non-pejorative sense of that neglected appellation.

His daughter Margaret, sifting through her father’s puzzling literary remains, has edited a small (and decidedly worth saving) selection from his unpublished poems. This volume, called “Breathing Tokens” (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), shows the young, fighting Sandburg at his feistiest:

You must expect to be in several lost causes before you die.
Why blame your father and mother for your being born: how could they help what they were doing?
And their fathers and mothers farther back? Can we say they could help what they were doing?
Why rebuke old barns the wind has not yet blown away?

It is a measure of Sanburg’s lasting (and, alas, currently neglected) importance to American civilization that he fought so many good fights and yet never got tired of fighting. That is surely the most unseen side of his personality, a side that the safely eliding anthologists—who like to lock this protean man into a Hog-Butcher, little-foggy-cat-feet song-and-dance-man stereotype for the benefit of high school students—consistently obscure: Sandburg was a social revolutionary. He met his wife-to-be, Lillian Steichen (the great photographer’s sister), on an organizing trip for the Social Democratic Party in Wisconsin. Their quickly blossoming love affair—in less than a month of letters between her teaching job in Princeton, Illinois, and his organizing the workers in Sheboygan, Wisconsin—is the most beguiling mixture of Marx and moonshine you have ever encountered.

Which brings us to the second volume to honor the poet’s centenary: Daughter Helga, married to a surgeon in Cleveland, has written a very moving valentine to her parents’ lifelong love affair, called “A Great and Glorious Romance” (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). It is the strongest case for monogamy I have ever read.

In the context of modern American writers, such faithfulness makes Sandburg look like a Boy Scout who has only slightly outgrown his uniform. But that it would seem so is our problem.

Sandburg never stopped writing verse, even though he never aspired to the concordance generating complexity of Eliot or Pound. But every normal man would have felt he had achieved enough with his splendid paean to Abraham Lincoln, a fellow Illinoisan whose soul was as simple and simpatico as Sandburg’s own. Never did a biographee have a more perfect biographer. They were indeed made for each other.

Sandburg defies pigeonholing. He was an early movie critic, and his “American Songbag” (1928) was a well-researched as well as pioneering foray into what has now become the American folklore industry. He took on television in his later years and won—as Howard K. Smith will no doubt attest when he gives the keynote address at the Knox College Sandburg Centennial Symposium on Friday, Jan. 5.

But the proof of the praise is in the reading. At the recent National Council of Teachers of English convention in New York City, I took my tape recorder into the lobby to catch the thoughts and feelings of my peers. It appears that there are more junior high schools named after the poet these days than there are enthusiasts for his work in the teaching profession. Not that I couldn’t find a few who valued the chance to express their joy in his continued presence on their bookshelves and in their teaching plans. But by and large the teachers at the convention seemed to have lost their taste for him.

And this fall, as I wandered, tape-recorder in hand, around Sandburg’s Connemara Farm in Flat Rock, North Carolina; the other visitors’ principal reaction was relish for the splendid scenery there. None admitted to having read the poet recently, though they to a person promised to do better soon, as if I had been chiding them as a martinet English teacher. The goat farm, chosen because the U.S. Weather Service told Lillian that the Asheville area was one of the two best places in the country to raise the animal, is a national historic site which is worth a visit even for Sandburg-denigrating Pound / Eliot enthusiasts.

It is a pleasure to report that the poetic side of the place is being conducted in a very classy way. An ex-drama teacher from Brooklyn has put together a delicious tour of the house using only Sandburg’s words—a sort of one-woman show in praise of the man who means the most in those precincts. And a local lad, having escalated into government service through a history degree at an Appalachian university, re-creates Sandburg’s “American Songbag” with guitar in the open air during the mild seasons. Unmistakably, Carl would have loved the way his memory is being kept green down in North Carolina.

I suppose the purpose of centennials is to force you to do some homework to review how you really feel about the person being honored. To do mine, I checked an old professor’s book out of the college library, Bernard Duffey’s standard work on the Chicago Renaissance in American letters.

The thing that struck me in rereading the section on Sandburg was Carl’s coping with failure. After service in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, Carl was given a shot at West Point. He soon flunked out because his education in the basics was so marginal. (He would have been a classmate of Douglas MacArthur!) The marvelous thing about Sandburg is his unflappability in the face of such setbacks. Needless to say, he had a poem for it:

            There’s no harm in trying.
            Nothing can harm you till it comes
            And it may never come
            Or if it comes it is something else again.
            And those who say, “I’ll try anything once,”
            Often try nothing twice, three times,
            Arriving late at the gate of dreams worth dying for.

Sandburg provides an admirable alternative to the whining and titanic posturing that in my opinion corrupts a good deal of contemporary American literature. His is a tonic voice of sanity, exemplifying, if you will, why decency is better than despair, why steadiness and love are to be preferred to the “good times” of the swinging singles scene. Like Lincoln, Sandburg will always be there for us to repossess.

Let the last words he his:

            “Be what you want to be…
            Be a gong or three gongs in one: a gong of silence;
            A gong of clamor crying hellbells to the satisfied;
            A gong of smooth songs saying yes and welcome.”

From The Christian Science Monitor, January 5, 1978

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