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On Modernism and Carl Sandburg’s Poetry

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            The period of modernist literature started in the nineteenth century as a result of various events. The onset of the two World Wars as well as the rise of many philosophical and psychological ideas and teachings all filtered into the way literature is viewed.  The influences of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “God is dead” credo, Sigmund Freud’s view of the unconscious as a source of meaning, and Karl Marx’s notion that the consciousness is predetermined by socio-historical factors all contributed to the new way of writing and looking at literature (Leitch, 14-20).  Some of the characteristics of modernist literature are fragmentation and discontinuity, complex language with much allusiveness and irony, experimentation of form, and anti-realism and focus on the individual.  This paper aims to read some of Carl Sandburg’s poems—“Chicago,” “The Harbor,”  “Fog,” “Cool Tombs,” and “Grass”—in the light of modernism.  It also intends to interpret and expound on the above attributes of modern literature in Sandburg’s poetry.

             After much carnage and devastation brought by the two World Wars, the people are left feeling misplaced and disoriented in the society, which they thought before to be a secure and stable one.  This displacement felt by the people is mirrored in the works of literature produced during this time.  Modernist literature is “marked by a break with the sequential, developmental, cause-and-effect presentation of the ‘reality’ of realist fiction toward a presentation of experience as layered, allusive, discontinuous” (Lye, n.p.).  The sudden shift of the people reality—from stability to uncertainty—after the wars is represented by a literature full of discontinuity, shifts, and overlays.

In Sandburg’s poetry, this discontinuity can be seen through his juxtaposition of two contrasting images.  In “The Harbor,” he juxtaposed the image of “women [with] hunger-deep eyes / Haunted with shadows of hunger-hands” in “huddled and ugly walls” with that of “Masses of great gray wings / And flying white bellies / Veering and wheeling free in the open” (Sandburg, n.p.).  The former image is that of imprisonment—imprisonment both physically, within the constraints of the “huddled and ugly walls,” and metaphysically, within the grasp of hunger and suffering.  The latter image, on the other hand, symbolizes freedom like those of a “fluttering storm of gulls.” The conditions of both groups are even more highlighted as they are placed side by side with each other.

Tightening of form is also a feature of modernism.  “An emphasis on cohesion, interrelatedness and depth in the structure of the aesthetic object and of experience,” tightening of form is shown through motif, significant parallels; different voices; as well as shifts and overlays in time, place, and perspective (Lye, n.p.).  An example of significant parallelism in Sandburg’s poetry can be found in the poem “Fog,” where the fog is compared to a cat that “comes / on little cat feet / It sits looking / over the harbor and city” (Sandburg, n.p.).  Both can move quietly, passing through everything in silence, before going to another place.

Tightening of form can also be illustrated in the motif that the poet or the author uses in his work.  Motif is a recurring object, concept, or structure in a work of literature (Oxford).  Motifs are important because it emphasizes the point and themes that the author wants to portray in his work; this enables the reader to make an accurate interpretation of the author’s work.  The image of cool tombs is a motif that is present in Sandburg’s “Cool Tombs.”  Here, he again uses juxtaposition with the images of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Pocahontas, “people buying clothes and groceries, cheering a hero or throwing confetti and blowing tin horns,” “lovers,” and “losers” (Sandburg, n.p.).  These people, in spite of their differences in stature and background, all share the same thing—all of them will return to dust “in the cool tombs” (Sandburg, n.p.).  The poet wanted to emphasize the equality that comes with death.  People, regardless of who they are and what they do, will all have the same end: death.

Death is just one of the most common themes that are present in modern literature.  Partly due to the aftereffects of wars, death became a major topic of many modern pieces of literature. Death is also accompanied by other themes such as “the search for ground of meaning in a world without God [and] the loss of meaning and hope in the modern world and an exploration of how this loss may be faced” (Lye, n.p.).  This loss of hope can be seen in the poem “Chicago.” The poem’s persona became face to face with death and hunger in the “City of the Big Shoulders:” as depicted in the lines “I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again” and “On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.”  However, toward the end of the poem, a resolution can be seen as depicted in the lines “Bareheaded, / Shoveling, / Wrecking, / Planning, / Building, breaking, rebuilding,” (Sandburg, n.p.).  The loss of hope present in the beginning of the poem is met with a promise of something better.

While death and the loss of hope are confronted in the poem “Chicago,” they were tried to be concealed in the poem “Grass.”  The grass in this poem served to hide the bodies murdered in the battles in Gettysburg and Waterloo, in Austerlitz, Ypres, and Verdun.  While the first poem tried to find a resolution for the problem, the second one showed a more passive action—covering up death as if by doing so it can be forgotten, as if it did not happen.  The “grass” wanted to do its work of hiding death, these piles of bodies, until “Two years, ten years, and passengers [would] ask the conductor: / What place is this? / Where are we now?’ (Sandburg, n.p.).

Modern literature, specifically modern poetry, is complex, dealing with various issues of the individual within a milieu of a shattered society; something that Carl Sandburg was able to exemplify in his works.

Works Cited:

Leitch, Vincent, et.al. eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Lye, John. “Some Attributes of Modernist Literature.” 29 September 1997. Brock University. 16 November 2007 < http://www.brocku.ca/english/courses/2F55/modernism.html>.

Sandburg, Carl. Chicago Poems. August 1999. Bartleby.com. 16 November 2007 <http://www.bartleby.com/165/>.

Sandburg, Carl. Cornhuskers. July 1999. Bartleby.com. 16 November 2007 <http://www.bartleby.com/134/>.

A Handbook to Literature, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms

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