The polar opposite of Robinson, Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) played the part of the simple workman, down to the cloth cap he often wore. Nevetheless, he was an artist with words. His language was more colloquial and his rhythms looser than Robinson's; yet he too knew the value of form and poetic technique. As critic Louis Untermeyer puts it, there are "two Sandburgs: the muscular, heavy-fisted, hard-hitting son of the streets, and his almost unrecognizable twin, the shadow-painter, the haunter of mists, the lover of implications and overtones."
Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, of Swedish immigrant parents. He did odd jobs, served in the Spanish-American War, and worked his way through nearly four years of college afterward. From 1910 to 1912 he acted as secretary for the first Socialist mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Not along afterward he attracted public notice with his increasingly powerful poetry, especially the poem "Chicago," and he gradually became able to give most of his time to his writing. He did some literary journalism; he wrote ballads and books for children; and he continued with his serious poetry. And all the while, his interest in Abraham Lincoln deepened. He had grown up in Lincoln country and perhaps he thought of himself as a Lincolnesque figure. At any rate, he worked on the biography for years and by 1939 had completed the six-volume life of Lincoln he considered his masterwork. Imposing though the Lincoln is, however, his poetry promises to be more important. Of the poems, "The Harbor" embodies both the lyrical poet and the muscular "Son of the Streets."
It is the kind of poem that made Sandburg famous: short, powerful, organic in form. The few lines are brief; when Sandburg comes to the end of a phrase he ends his line, and each line ends on an important word. The power of "The Harbor" comes from two vivid contrasts. One is between the imprisoning ugliness of the slums and the grace and freedom of the lake and the birds flying above it. The other is the contrast between the grim message and the graceful vocabulary employed.
This kind of poetry is called free verse, in distinction from poems such as the sonnet, the form of which is fixed by convention. Walt Whitman was the first American poet to write free verse, and Sandburg's poem "I Am the People, the Mob" resembles Whitman's work, not only in form but in feeling¡Xthe same high vision of American promise, formed not of abstractions but of the common stuff of life. It has the long lines and repetitious sentence structure that marked Whitman's great "Leaves of Grass." Sandburg's poem, like Whitman's, gains power from this repetition and accumulation. The opening words are several times repeated for emphasis and the lines¡Xor rather, the verse paragraphs¡Xbuild up and grow longer until the end. Sandburg finished the poem with a short, staccato poetic statement. The central idea of the poem is realistically but optimistically democratic. Though the people suffer, they will triumph.
Such is the central idea also of the third poem by Sandburg, "The People Will Live On." It shows Sandburg's continued interest in poetic experimentation as well as his usual hearty optimism about the people. Composed in 1936, it reflects the then current aspirations of the New Deal. Not the least interesting thing about this poem is that, though a memorable piece or verse, it is by no means flawless. Some awkwardness results from the opposition of two kinds of language, one plain, the other ornate. An example of the first is "The learning and blundering people will live on." "The people is a polychrome, a spectrum and a prism, held in a moving monolith" is an instance of the second. This line is made awkward by Sandburg's use of "is" instead of "are", which more naturally follows "people".
Flaws and all, Carl Sandburg has been called the unofficial American poet laureate of the 30s and 40s, and righly so. The title is a tribute to the rhythmic strength of his poetry and his prophetic faith.