Sunday, February 14, 2016

Chicago Poems by Carl Sandburg

Source of book: I own this.

I figure anyone who has been through any kind of American schooling has had to read two Carl Sandburg poems: “Fog” and “Chicago.” Everyone knows them a little, even if few could quote them on demand. However, the acquaintance usually stops there, in my experience. I decided to read the complete Chicago Poems to fill this gap in my knowledge. It also seemed fitting since it was published exactly 100 years ago this year.

Chicago Poems contains the title poem, of course, the listing of the ways the poet views the city as he experienced it in the second decade of the Twentieth Century.

My particular collection of Sandburg has almost all of Chicago Poems. Two are missing. A quick search of the internet revealed why. One is called “Nigger,” and contains some unfortunate stereotypes. The other is “The Has-Been,” which contains the slang “niggerhead” for a mudball. So basically, these were deemed offensive, and left out without explanation. Whatever. I read them online, and didn’t find them essential or the best of the bunch.

Here are some of the poems that caught my attention as particularly good.

“Halsted Street Car”

COME you, cartoonists,       
Hang on a strap with me here       
At seven o’clock in the morning       
On a Halsted street car.               

Take your pencils        
And draw these faces.  
Try with your pencils for these crooked faces,
That pig-sticker in one corner—his mouth—
That overall factory girl—her loose cheeks.  
Find for your pencils        
A way to mark your memory             
Of tired empty faces.               

After their night’s sleep,             
In the moist dawn             
And cool daybreak,   
Tired of wishes,      
Empty of dreams.

A theme that runs through the book is that of the workers, exhausted by long hours, hungry from low wages that don’t cover rent and enough food for the family, and unable to rise beyond the need for survival. And yet, they are not just types, but actual people.


Out of your many faces
Flash memories to me
Now at the day end
Away from the sidewalks
Where your shoe soles traveled
And your voices rose and blent
To form the city’s afternoon roar
Hindering an old silence.   

I remember lean ones among you,
Throats in the clutch of a hope,
Lips written over with strivings,
Mouths that kiss only for love.
Records of great wishes slept with,       
Held long And prayed and toiled for..       

Written on
Your mouths
And your throats
I read them
When you passed by.

Some of Sandburg’s observations made me smile. Like this one.


I ASKED the professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though I was trying to fool with them
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the Desplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their women and children and a keg of beer and an accordion.

Perhaps a bit of a kindred spirit with Tchaikovsky who prefaced the final movement of his 4th Symphony (based on  Russian folk song) with “If you cannot find reasons for happiness in yourself, look at others. Get out among the people.…Oh, how gay they are!…Life is bearable after all.”

And yet, it is these “commoners” that the wealthy then - and now - are most eager to escape.

“A Fence”

NOW the stone house on the lake front is finished and the workmen are beginning the fence. The palings are made of iron bars with steel points that can stab the life out of any man who falls on them.
As a fence, it is a masterpiece, and will shut off the rabble and all vagabonds and hungry men and all wandering children looking for a place to play.
Passing through the bars and over the steel points will go nothing except Death and the Rain and To-morrow.

The neighborhood I grew up in - and the one I live in now - are kind of “old school” now. The kind where anyone can drive in. Now, it seems, so many are “gated communities.” Have a pass code, or stay out. And their own little private parks where their children can play without fear of poor kids rocking their world. Sorry. Pet peeve. Kind of up there with the tendency so many have to fight low income housing (or even apartments) in their neighborhood. Best to shut off all the rabble. Love this poem.

This one is a favorite as well:


STYLE—go ahead talking about style.
You can tell where a man gets his style just as you can tell where Pavlowa got her legs or Ty Cobb his batting eye.       

Go on talking.
Only don’t take my style away.       
It’s my face.       
Maybe no good           
but anyway,
my face.
I talk with it, I sing with it, I see, taste and feel with it, I know why I want to keep it.   

Kill my style             
and you break Pavlowa’s legs,        
and you blind Ty Cobb’s batting eye.

It’s almost as if Sandburg could have anticipated the arguments about style in professional sports, which have a strong element of race and class in them. (Looking at you, Cam Newton…)

Another one which struck me as interesting was this one, which is essentially one big line. The form is interesting, but also the sentiment. Sandburg, like me, believed the arts elevate, and make one more human.


A MAN saw the whole world as a grinning skull and cross-bones. The rose flesh of life shriveled from all faces. Nothing counts. Everything is a fake. Dust to dust and ashes to ashes and then an old darkness and a useless silence. So he saw it all. Then he went to a Mischa Elman concert. Two hours waves of sound beat on his eardrums. Music washed something or other inside him. Music broke down and rebuilt something or other in his head and heart. He joined in five encores for the young Russian Jew with the fiddle. When he got outside his heels hit the sidewalk a new way. He was the same man in the same world as before. Only there was a singing fire and a climb of roses everlastingly over the world he looked on.

The final one that I include here is this one.

“To A Contemporary Bunkshooter”

YOU come along … tearing your shirt … yelling about Jesus.     
Where do you get that stuff?     
What do you know about Jesus?
Jesus had a way of talking soft and outside of a few bankers and higher-ups among the con men of Jerusalem everybody liked to have this Jesus around because he never made any fake passes and everything he said went and he helped the sick and gave the people hope.   

You come along squirting words at us, shaking your fist and calling us all dam fools so fierce the froth slobbers over your lips… always blabbing we’re all going to hell straight off and you know all about it.  

I’ve read Jesus’ words. I know what he said. You don’t throw any scare into me. I’ve got your number. I know how much you know about Jesus.
He never came near clean people or dirty people but they felt cleaner because he came along. It was your crowd of bankers and business men and lawyers hired the sluggers and murderers who put Jesus out of the running.   

I say the same bunch backing you nailed the nails into the hands of this Jesus of Nazareth. He had lined up against him the same crooks and strong-arm men now lined up with you paying your way.   

This Jesus was good to look at, smelled good, listened good. He threw out something fresh and beautiful from the skin of his body and the touch of his hands wherever he passed along.
You slimy bunkshooter, you put a smut on every human blossom in reach of your rotten breath belching about hell-fire and hiccupping about this Man who lived a clean life in Galilee.  

When are you going to quit making the carpenters build emergency hospitals for women and girls driven crazy with wrecked nerves from your gibberish about Jesus—I put it to you again: Where do you get that stuff; what do you know about Jesus?   

Go ahead and bust all the chairs you want to. Smash a whole wagon load of furniture at every performance. Turn sixty somersaults and stand on your nutty head. If it wasn’t for the way you scare the women and kids I’d feel sorry for you and pass the hat.
I like to watch a good four-flusher work, but not when he starts people puking and calling for the doctors.
I like a man that’s got nerve and can pull off a great original performance, but you—you’re only a bug-house peddler of second-hand gospel—you’re only shoving out a phoney imitation of the goods this Jesus wanted free as air and sunlight.   

You tell people living in shanties Jesus is going to fix it up all right with them by giving them mansions in the skies after they’re dead and the worms have eaten ’em.  
You tell $6 a week department store girls all they need is Jesus; you take a steel trust wop, dead without having lived, gray and shrunken at forty years of age, and you tell him to look at Jesus on the cross and he’ll be all right.
You tell poor people they don’t need any more money on pay day and even if it’s fierce to be out of a job, Jesus’ll fix that up all right, all right—all they gotta do is take Jesus the way you say.
I’m telling you Jesus wouldn’t stand for the stuff you’re handing out. Jesus played it different. The bankers and lawyers of Jerusalem got their sluggers and murderers to go after Jesus just because Jesus wouldn’t play their game. He didn’t sit in with the big thieves.   

I don’t want a lot of gab from a bunkshooter in my religion.
I won’t take my religion from any man who never works except with his mouth and never cherishes any memory except the face of the woman on the American silver dollar.

I ask you to come through and show me where you’re pouring out the blood of your life.   

I’ve been to this suburb of Jerusalem they call Golgotha, where they nailed Him, and I know if the story is straight it was real blood ran from His hands and the nail-holes, and it was real blood spurted in red drops where the spear of the Roman soldier rammed in between the ribs of this Jesus of Nazareth.

This one affected me strongly. It contains some things I have wanted to say so many times, but never more than during the Ferguson protests. A bunch of well-meaning Christian friends spouted off with this whole “they all just need Jesus” bullcrap.

I can guarantee you that they weren’t meaning it in the sense of “Jesus needs to make the wealthy and middle class people who have used the justice system to loot and harass the poor realize that they have done evil, so they will stop looting and harassing and give back their ill-gotten gains.”

Chances are, the meaning was more “If those damn black people would just get saved, they would stop whining and protesting.”

Because, think about it, the oppression and looting and harassment and police brutality existed before, and continues to exist around our nation after the protests. But nobody bothered about it until there was social unrest, and suddenly “they need Jesus.” Hmm.

I wrote a bit more on Ferguson here, and included a link to the original Justice Department report, which should be required reading.

Sandburg’s point, though, is well taken. When you are preaching a “Jesus” that turns a blind eye to oppression, and supports the wealthy and self-righteous, you aren’t preaching the real Jesus, who sent John the Baptist’s followers back with this report: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” And the one who said “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” And the one who said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

The “gospel” isn’t a bludgeon to get the oppressed to shut up, but a ringing challenge to love your neighbor as yourself.

It is hard to read these poems without noticing that they caught a spirit - and a time - that resembles our own. Sandburg was a socialist, at a time when it legitimately seemed as if the United States might in fact turn socialist - or even communist. (As a matter of fact, the Bolsheviks at one time believed it was only a matter of time until the United States joined them. The reasons why this was, and why the revolution did not come to pass are fascinating.

In the second half of the Nineteenth Century, a number of notable events and changes took place. With the end of slavery and the industrial revolution, a shift in employment began away from agriculture (which now required fewer workers) and toward urban employment. This change continues today, around the world. More unique to the United States was the era of the Robber Barons. If you want to read a tale of corruption even more sordid than modern corporate-influenced politics, I recommend Railroaded, by Richard White. As that book noted, if you put together all the free land the Federal Government gave the railroads, it would make a state larger than either Texas or California, smaller only than Alaska. This in addition to the interest-free loans, many of which were not repaid. And then the big wheels looted the railroad corporations, enriching themselves at the expense of the smaller investors and creditors. (Just one of many reasons I laugh when anyone claims the world is more evil now than in the Victorian Era. I am calling serious bullcrap on that.) This led, naturally, to great inequality - and a lot of hardship for the ordinary workers who were then exploited by the giant corporations.

Just for perspective, when you adjust for inflation, of the 30 most wealthy Americans in history, 22 of them made their fortunes during the Gilded Age. And these men (yes, they were all men, of course) used their money to buy off elected officials in ways that would be shocking to us now in their refusal to even pretend they weren’t buying votes.

In the aftermath of this inequality, corruption, and exploitation, there were many calls for a fundamental change to the economic and political systems of the nation. A call for socialism was one of the ways this manifested itself.

So what headed off the revolution? While there were undoubtedly too many reasons to point to a single one as “the” cause, it is generally agreed that the United States - and most of the Western world - did in fact make fundamental changes to the system. It was these changes which removed the chief cause that there was a call for revolution in the first place. The changes were not immediate, and they were affected by two world wars, but they eventually came.

These changes included the rise of labor unions, which provided a counterbalance to the power of the rich and powerful employers. And also wage and hour laws, the abolition of child labor, and workplace safety laws, which help re-balance the lopsided employer-employee relationship. The New Deal put a safety net in place to help make a job loss less catastrophic, enabling more employees to speak up without fear of starvation.

It wasn’t just the government and unions, though. Individuals also took initiative. Whether from altruism or from a realization that momentum was building toward a revolution which would not be kind to them, some of the Robber Barons - or their descendants in some cases - decided to use a significant portion of their wealth for the public good. Leland Stanford founded a university, others sponsored libraries and the arts. Others founded charities of various sorts. It became popular - and expected - that the top 1% owed something to everyone else. Still others, like Henry Ford, changed the nature of employment, by choosing to pay his employees enough so they could buy his cars.

In essence, the social contract was changed. And, by the 1950s post-war boom, living standards for working class people had risen substantially.

This relieved the pressure that led to the call for revolution. After all, if one could get a better deal without it, it wasn’t necessary.

Now admittedly, things didn’t get better for everyone. As I noted in this post, it would still take a few decades until Jim Crow was ended. But for enough people, things did indeed improve. The United States has never returned to the days of workers being treated as expendable lives like they were in the Gilded Age.

However, some of the same pressures are building again now, and you can see it in the way that Millennials are leaning socialist. That is the topic for another post, but you can at least see increasing inequality (with a stratification by age in the mix as well), decreasing real wages, soaring costs for education and health care (and that’s before you get to the cost of housing), corporate control of elections, the decline of private-sector unions, and so on. It is only natural - and I would add just - that there is again a call to renegotiate the social contract.

I blogged about the way that “Communism” and “Atheism” have been conflated. Another unfortunate conflation is “Socialism” and the redistribution of wealth. It is the sort of thing that mistakes, say, France with North Korea. Everyone knows that subsidized post-secondary education is just one step away from the Gulags. Or something like that.

Again, a bit beyond the scope of this post, which has already gone a bit afield.

But the point is that, instead of just saying “young people are more evil because they support socialism,” perhaps a better plan would be to look at the underlying realities that create the pressure for revolution. Communism didn’t happen because people were atheists or evil. It happened as a response to genuine problems and injustices. Whether it the cure was worse than the disease is another matter. It doesn’t change the fact that if the underlying problems are not corrected, drastic treatment will often be attempted.

So just a word to conservative Boomers: Maybe instead of complaining about how bad Millennials are, or blaming it all on the brown skinned people, perhaps you might figure out how to renegotiate the social contract - like our ancestors did 100 years ago - in a way that reduces the inequality in wealth and power. It’s a thought.

One of the reasons I love reading works from the past is that it gives perspective. Very few things are new under the sun. From the days of the prophet Isaiah (and before, I am sure), there has been the call for justice. For a social contract which protects the vulnerable, and not the wealthy and powerful.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-- when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Sandburg captures the past, but also a universal truth. The value of our religion or philosophy or ethical framework isn’t measured by our hellfire or platitudes or neat little system of thought. In the end, it comes down to how we choose, whether at the ballot box or in our sermons or in our giving. Do we side with the powerful, or with the powerless? If our Jesus is just there to tell the poor to stop whining while we sit at our desks and eat our fill while calling for lower wages, well, I’m with Sandburg. I don’t want a lot of gab from a bunkshooter in my religion.

1 comment:

  1. The review came
    On little cat feet

    It began with
    playful exuberance
    but crouched in searing hope
    that readers would move escape with wisdom gained.