Winter Milk and Carl Sandburg Revisited

Today is the 140th anniversary of Carl Sandburg’s birth. Sandburg began his long and broad career as an American Imagist poet, political activist, and journalist, and he went on to add prize-winning biographer, folk-song revivalist, and goat farmer to his resume. If one was to make a list, he would be in a small group of American cultural forces in the first half of the 20th Century who created what we today call “Americana,” and helped make sure that this label could be applied, as it can be today, to a musical genre. I won’t have time to go into this today, but in 1927 he published “The American Songbag,”  which is as important a landmark in the American folk song revival as “The Wasteland”  is for high-art Modernist English verse.

I’ve spoken about Sandburg here a great deal in the past couple of years because I believe he’s too-little read, too-little considered in academic circles, and too-often misunderstood from the effects of this quick (mis)understanding and dismissal. To the degree that people encounter him in school or surveys of poetry, it’s for two poems. One, sometimes effectively used as an introduction to metaphor even at the grade school level, is his short Imagist poem Fog.”

The other, better known as the  Carl Sandburg poem, is his Whitmanesque “Chicago,”  with its famous opening litany of praise for Chicago that is ever quoted whenever that city is to be characterized. Some things are odd about the case of “Chicago.”  First, while folks remember and re-use it’s opening stanza of praise, they forget the three lines that follow it, which though stated in century-old language, is unmistakably as stark a report as any OG rap laying out hos, gangsters, and poverty:

“They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.

And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.

And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.”

Though “Chicago’s”  Whitmanesque/expansive-litany style is one that Sandburg would continue to use at times, its prominence has overshadowed Sandburg’s sparer Imagist voice, the one that he used for the rest of the poems in his landmark “Chicago Poems”  collection.

It’s easy to think that if Sandburg had spent time in Europe hobnobbing with its cosmopolitan demi-mode, if he had included more Latin and Greek in his poems, and if he’d kept his political outlook to something between Tory and crypto-Fascist, that he might have scored more academic cred in the second half of the 20th Century. And his more general popularity, like that of Edna St. Vincent Millay, is in danger of dying out after the death of the fire-starter without the hard-blowing bellows of academia keeping the embers glowing.

If that’s so, who does that leave to keep Sandburg’s poetry more broadly heard?

If anyone remembers Sandburg, particularly the spare, Imagist Sandburg, it’s musicians and composers. He gets set to music often, and his free verse often sings easily. And, it seems to me that musicians, rather than page-poetry curators, more often remember the innovative modernist in Sandburg. One of my favorite records of 2017 was Matt Wilson’s “Honey and Salt”  which, like the Parlando Project, seeks to use a variety of music combined with Sandburg’s underappreciated broader pallet of literary expression in unexpected ways.

A promotional trailer for Matt Wilson’s Sandburg “Honey and Salt” recording

Today’s piece, a slightly remastered version of one I used to test streaming audio here before the official launch of the Parlando Project, is Sandburg’s tender “Winter Milk”  as performed by the LYL Band a couple of years ago. You can hear it with the player below.

Sandburg Family with Helga Sandburg on the left

A slightly older Helga Sandburg on the left with her parents and sisters.

A gentle reminder, I encourage readers and listeners here to share the links to these pieces on social media as it helps spread the work that Parlando Project does very effectively.

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