Working Girls, Happiness, and Muckers: three Carl Sandburg poems about workers

I wrote a short piece a few years ago, which goes like this:

The Temple of Summer is guarded by two pillars:
Memorial Day for those who gave up their lives in war,
And Labor Day for those who gave up their lives in peacetime.

This Monday is American Labor Day.*  What constitutes a laborer, a worker? Someone who works for someone else, who doesn’t own their own business? Are poets and musicians workers, or small businesspersons? These things are not simple — after all, that musician-derived term “the gig economy” shows that grants of independence can be superficial. Anyway, let me defer that discussion and say that poet and musician Carl Sandburg was a worker, knew he was a worker, and understood work. It should be no surprise that I’ve chosen to present three poems from his 1916 breakthrough collection, Chicago Poems for Labor Day — or for any working day if you read this later. They’re observed and written in the situation of their time, but let’s not dismiss their concerns and experiences as outdated this Labor Day — at least, not without hearing Sandburg out.

How many times, even today, when someone seeks to portray the working class, is a white male presupposed? Sandburg doesn’t make that mistake as his “Working Girls”  will show. My wife, a nurse, came home this week concerned around a strike deadline, and it’s safe to say that women have carried proportionally more of the stress of the past few years in the workplace. She tells me her coworkers are riven by this announced possibility. Some of the most stressed, see this as adding to their stress; others see this as an attempt to remedy some of what’s wrong in their field. Sandburg sees a dialectic in his river of working women, though his poem’s more about the general wearing-down of a life of work.

“Happiness”  is probably the best-known of the three Sandburg poems in today’s piece. It’s significant to know that Sandburg is a 1st generation immigrant, and he writes continually of the immigrant experience in his poetry. I don’t think it’s too hard to translate from Sandburg’s immigrants to today. My weekend summer nights here in my neighborhood feature accordion music as this poem mentions, though the singing is in Spanish for my ears. Oh, my wife and teenager sometimes have trouble sleeping, and then there’s this noise. I have trouble sleeping too, but I also hear this Sandburg poem in my head, accompanying from his time the Mexican songs from the yard three houses down the street.

Consider this on a holiday: no one feels leisure like a working person.

“Muckers”  may take a little translation. When I was growing up, closer in time to Sandburg’s than today is, a ditch digger was not a job description so much as a derogatory term. It stood for someone who had no ambition, no skills, no ability to advance. If you lacked those things, you might be cursed to become “a ditch digger.” It was essentially workplace hell — and the inhabitants, damned by their sins of omission. My father once preached a sermon I can recall from my youth in which the dignity of a ditch digger’s work was proclaimed. The detail he spoke of then, the part I can remember, was that some care as well as muscle was required to carve out a stable and straightaway ditch.

Sandburg’s poem takes a red-wheelbarrow to the job site, writing (as he would often do) an Imagist poem concerned not just with concise precision in the observation, but more at why so much depends on what is observed. And he’s got a punch line, one anyone who’s ever suffered through the worthlessness of unemployment will understand.

Together these three poems I perform today celebrate those who give up their lives in peacetime. “You dreamy poet,” some may be saying now, “That’s the way of the world. Don’t you know?” Oh, Sandburg knows. He went to work at 13. I was self-supporting at 18. The difference between us and some other poets is that we’ll write and sing about this. It’s as universal as love and heartbreak, near as universal as death, and it’s the mundane ground upon which poetry and music and all the arts are stroked upon.

Carl Sandburg with light guitar

Carl Sandburg: proud to be the guitar strangler, rockin’ maker, stacker of tracks of wax, hex-string player, and folk-rock maven of Modernist poetry.

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My musical performance is longer today than most Parlando pieces, but then it does present three poems and asks for a quantity discount. After working out and executing the acoustic guitar and “punk orchestral” setting of Emily Dickinson last time I wanted to plug in a Stratocaster and wail a bit, and so what you’ll hear today is a live electric guitar performance recorded then. One production oddity I’ll note: I recorded the two chordal “rhythm guitar” parts after the lead melodic part. The player gadget to hear the performance is below for many of you, and I provide this highlighted link for those viewing this blog in ways that cannot display the graphical audio player.

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*My teenager reminds me that “Labor Day” is not the international workers day that is May Day. I remind them that American Labor Day came out of the labor movement too, and no matter how you parse things, having two days to celebrate work and workers is not too much, no more than we should be embarrassed in America to have a Veterans Day and a Memorial Day.

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