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‘People’s Poet’ speaks to our time

Carl Sandburg, whose home in North Carolina is a national historic site under Park Services auspices, is best known as the renowned biographer of Abraham Lincoln. In a large body of other writings, he deals with many social and political-power issues, and with working people’s struggles in the early 20th century.
His poetry celebrates nature’s beauty and life-sustaining energy, elements of inspiration and happiness for people seeking to make their lives, in the promise of democracy, in a vibrantly developing new country.
One sees mountains “in blue haze and red crag, … spray-flung curves of shore” where the endless tide maneuvers, and prairie stars where “the Dipper slants over the horizon’s grass.” Dew-misted sunflowers “mixed with poppies and hollyhocks in country gardens,” the smell of new-mown hay and the wind of the plain beckon people to “take hold of life … with passion.” The grandeur of its landscapes is among the “belongings of the people” making them “hopeful as a rain-washed hill of moonlit pines.” After they have built the skyscrapers and city streets, the “wind whistles a wild song” over their graves.
As though prophetic of our time, the Chicago Poems inveigh against conditions in the political affairs of life that work against the promise of democracy, then as now threatening to make of America, as Sandburg’s contemporary Theodore Roosevelt had also warned and sought to forestall, “a mere plutocracy [and] Wall-Street-syndicate civilization.”
Various poems note, among these, “the toil of piling job on job” and long, hard, “10-hour days’ work.” This often pays so little (“a dollar seventy cents a day”) that families are unable to make ends meet. A stockyard worker buries his “3-year-old daughter [who] had been scrawny and ran up high doctor bills.” Though grieving, he and his wife “are glad it is gone for the rest of the family now will have more to eat.” The little white coffin has cost the worker a week’s wages and “every Saturday night he will pay the undertaker 50 cents till the debt is wiped out.”
The period’s “1 percenters,” as now, are seen amassing enormous fortunes. There is the multi-millionaire “commanding in his written will the usury of $25,000 for roses, lilacs, hydrangeas, tulips…to perfume his grave.”
Through inadequate industrial safety protections, such as the lack of a fire escape, we see a factory girl die “who wasn’t lucky enough in making the jump when the fire broke;” yet the tragedy is branded as a “hand of God” event.
In a reverse of wealth-and-taxation inequality, though, while the heirs of today’s super wealthy won’t have a “death tax” to pay, the Chicago Poems note, “Death [then to be] refusing any check on the bank which a millionaire might order his secretary…to get cashed” to avoid that tax.
Chronicler of the common man’s hopes, traditions and songs, Sandburg has been called the “People’s Poet” and a “pugilist” for their struggles. His poetry is suffused, as well, with beautiful images of the natural world that sustained and inspired the lives of America’s “plain people.”