Sunday, February 10, 2013

"Psalm of Those Who Go Forth Before Daylight" (Carl Sandburg)

"Psalm of Those Who Go Forth Before Daylight"

(Carl Sandburg) 
The policeman buys shoes slow and careful;
the teamster buys gloves slow and careful;
they take care of their feet and hands;
they live on their feet and hands.

The milkman never argues;
he works alone and no one speaks to him;
the city is asleep when he is on the job;
he puts a bottle on six hundred porches and calls it a day's work;
he climbs two hundred wooden stairways;
two horses are company for him; he never argues. 

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

His city-of-the-big-shoulders poetry seems worn from schoolroom overuse, but Carl Sandburg's labor-union leanings came from experience: a restless vagabond, Sandburg ended formal schooling and his job as morning milk deliverer at age 13 to take other hands-on jobs, including bootblack, newsboy, hod carrier, kitchen drudge, potter’s and painter’s assistant, iceman, and porter at Galesburg’s Union Hotel barbershop. For four months in 1897, he traveled the railroads and washed dishes at various hotels.

After a brief residency at West Point in 1899, Private Charlie Sandburg fought for eight months in Puerto Rico with the Sixth Regiment of the Illinois Volunteers during the Spanish-American War. With the encouragement of an army comrade, he attended Lombard College for four years but quit before receiving a degree.
 Sandburg was fortunate in gaining the support of Philip Green Wright, an English professor who printed Sandburg’s first poetry collection, In Reckless Ecstasy (1904), on a basement press. In 1907, he helped organize the Wisconsin Social Democrat Party; he was secretary to Emil Seidel, Milwaukee’s first socialist mayor.

The poet’s massive correspondence linked him to the personalities of his day, including socialist Lincoln Steffens, actor Gary Cooper, Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson, and editor Harry Golden, Sandburg’s traveling buddy. (Marilyn Monroe and friends were photographed with Sandburg in 1962, above.) His poetic line, subject matter, and working-class folksiness have more than a passing resemblance to that of the later beat movement, but Robert Frost (for one) was repulsed by what he thought was Sandburg’s folksy affectation. Frost once described his contemporary as “the most artificial and studied ruffian the world has had” -- strong words from Frost, the poet-laureate who styled his image as a simple swinger-of-birches himself.

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