Sandburg the Surrealist (and other attributes…)

Last Sunday, I picked up a copy of the Carl Sandburg anthology, Harvest Poems: 1910-1960 from one of the booksellers who have tables on the west side of Broadway in the 70’s.

Though others of his poems, particularly “Grass“—and his biography of Lincoln—are well know Sandburg is perhaps best remembered by the wider public for his widely anthologized poem “Fog”:

THE fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

That’s not entirely typical of the poetry in this anthology though, much of which is closely observed and focused on industrial, not natural, topics.  For instance in “Psalm of Those Who Go Forth Before Daylight

The rolling-mill men and the sheet-steel men are brothers of
cinders; they empty cinders out of their shoes after the
days work; they ask their wives to fix burnt holes in the
knees of their trousers; their necks and ears are covered
wit a smut; they scour their necks and ears; they are
brothers of cinders.

[Sadly I don’t have the html skillz to reproduce the formatting. Each line after the first is indented.]

The tone of some of these poems compares in a way to Peter Maurin’s Easy Essays, but without the direct didacticism.  I think this is partly a result of their shared fondness for the word “they”.  For instance in Maurin’s “Selling Their Labor”

When the workers
sell their labor
to the capitalists
or accumulators of labor
they allow the capitalists
or accumulators of labor
to accumulate their labor.
And when the capitalists
or accumulators of labor
have accumulated so much
of the workers’ labor
that they do no longer
find it profitable
to buy the workers’ labor
then the workers
can no longer sell their labor
to the capitalists
or accumulators of labor.
And when the workers
can no longer
sell their labor
to the capitalists
or accumulators of labor
they can no longer buy
the products of their labor.
And that is what the workers get
for selling their labor.

I found an amusing irony in “Number Man”. Sandburg dedicates this poem “for the ghost of Johann Sebastian Bach”.

He was born to wonder about numbers.

He balanced fives against tens
and made them sleep together
and love each other.

He mananged eights and nines,
gave them prophet beards,
marched them into mists and mountains.

He added all the numbers he knew,
multiplied them by new-found numbers
and called it a prayer of Numbers.

He knew love numbers, luck numbers,
how the sea and the stars
are made and held by numbers

The irony is that Bach’s music is highly numerical and Sandburg, despite paying tribute to this quality in Bach, writes free verse that aggressively spurns meter, the analogical quality in poetry.

So finally the surrealism, which prompted this post in the first place, it’s a bit from “Arithmetic“. After reading a whole bunch of poems like “Psalm of Those Who Go Forth Before Daylight” (quoted above), I was not expecting something like this:

If you have two animal crackers, one good and one bad, and you eat one and a striped
zebra with streaks all over him eats the other, how many animal crackers will you
have if somebody offers you five six seven and you say No no no and you say Nay
nay nay and you say Nix nix nix?

Wrapping up, a couple words on this edition. It features an adequate preface by Mark Van Doren (who was an important influence on Thomas Merton and who is perhaps today not as much remembered as his son Charles Van Doren) focusing on Sandburg’s humor and a valuable excerpt from Sandburg’s own “Notes for a Preface” from his Complete Poems.

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