Thursday, July 12, 2007

EXTRA! EXTRA! Sandburg's class war looks toward Great War!

Check out Sandburg's draft card. Gray eyes. Sexy.

Anyway, I'm finding Sandburg more complex than I had remembered. I think I was swayed too easily by Bill Williams's scathing review of Sandburg's 1951 collected poems, where he denounces the mere accumulation of images and people in Sandburg's verse. Mere outcry, says WCW, does not cry out with the democratic directness Sandburg assumes. The truly democratic poet, for Williams, "digests that powerful incentive and puts it out as imaginative design, a new thing that embodies all their timeless agonies" (Selected Essays 276). But Williams's "poem as a field of action" has such a terribly different view of "fields" from Sandburg's midwestern vantage that his desire that Sandburg should be "disengaged" sounds faintly ludicrous (that is, if you take it as anything other than a self-analysis on Williams's part).

But listen to Sandburg the journalist, writing in the International Socialist Review (May 1917) about the question "Will Marshall Field III Enlist?". We've heard this recently: should the torpid, useless heir or heiress get it together, go to the front lines? (Whee!: "The general theory is that if he hadn't picked the world's greatest merchant's loins to spring from he would on natural form and ability be selling sox at the well-known wages paid by Marshall Field & Co. and without bonus payment at New Year's in war time with record-breaking profits.") At one point Sandburg notes, "When Marhall Field III. sings "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" with the accent on "MY," he is singing true to form, because he is chief designated heir to an estate of $350,000,000 at 50 years of age, and a big share of the country will be his." I take this to be a point about the interaction of class and prosody, and an especially interesting one as it comes up in relation to America's movement out of isolationism.

The question of the cost of poetic form comes up all the time in Chicago Poems (1916), most memorably in his most famous poem, "Chicago," with its incantatory, braggadocious rhythms of market accumulation. But poems like "Graceland" and "The Right to Grief" raise lots of questions for me: which poets were writing elegies for millionaires? Is the latter poem, which contrasts the amply commemorated rich with the neglected death of a poor girl whose father returns the day after to his job in the slaughterhouse, in any way an elegy for the hog's being butchered? Or what does it mean to compare the father sweeping pigs' blood away to the father pushing past his grief? Is grief, for Sandburg, qualitatively different across class lines, or just the degree of attention paid to it?

(ASIDE: The millionaires in Sandburg seem to me always to be cartoon millionaires, and S.'s invocation of the "cartoonist" in "Halsted Street Car" an allegory for the sort of sketching he is doing in verse; comp. to those other newspapermen like Mutt and Jeff, Krazy Kat, etc. as Gilbert Seldes analyzes them in the early 20s. END ASIDE)

Sandburg's exclamation, "I have a right to feel my throat choke about this" (in "The Right to Grief") pulls a broader social awareness of the poor, dead girl back to the individual speaker, with his very American "right" to grief. But it also recalls the singing contests that are among elegy's oldest conventions, and the origin of such contests in legitimating who had the right to bury and to mourn the dead. There is thus a kind of jockeying for possession of the poor ("stewardship" would be a more neutral word here, but i'm going with "possession"), between Sandburg's speaker and the vague top-hatted crowd.

I should say that Sandburg's reaction to the war was ambiguous, from what I understand, with his sentiment pulled between the dominant socialist opposition to the war and his own sense of America's necessary involvement. This page is better than I could be at breaking it down.

Copper and Bronze: In the brief poem "In the Back Alley," the Lincoln-head on the penny makes any circulation of the coin a sort of memorial for the great man, even if it's just newsies pitching pennies back of the tenements (and it's notably that the penny-handlers earn their keep by spreading the word, as opposed to any other job S. could have picked). But the most interesting poem I've seen yet is "Bronze," which has the statue of General Grant in Lincoln Park watching the motorized cars whizz past, as newsies yell out headlines of the "forty thousand men are dead along the Yser". The news of Battle of the Yser (16-31 Oct, 1914), which is heralded in the poem by the noise of mechanized transportation, almost rouses the statues to battle, but cannot. They sit on their pedestals, reminders of actions (Garibaldi and Shakespeare look on as well). But they are also, in their stillness and sentience, valuable stoics set apart from and maybe above the cold world (in short, the poem seems to be using these statues to test two versions of art's relation to the news of war).

What I'm wondering about a poem like this is to what extent the poetics of accumulation that Sandburg is constructing in a book like Chicago Poems (I'm not familiar enough with the full oeuvre to speak outside of this collection) are shaped by the U.S.'s neutrality? (I'll nod to Whitman here, since I haven't really considered that legacy of war verse yet, and need to.) Clair Wills has a brand new book on the neutrality of the Irish Free State during "the Emergency" (aka WWII), in which she discusses the local particularity and self-anthropologizing that was fostered by the insular gaze that became the nation's necessary policy (e.g. Patrick Kavanagh writing "The Great Hunger" at this moment).

Have either of you encountered works that speak to the contours of American responses to, or figurations of, neutrality? More broadly, what are the poetics of peace, within visible range of war?

(Lordy, I meant for this to a be a short posting...)