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.

I Have Fallen in Love with American Names

Anyone remember those sentry questions that would be used in to determine if some straggler in the soldier’s darkness was an American or foreign foe? “Who plays first base for the New York Yankees?” they’d ask.

Native Iowans have a similar method to catch those from out of state. They might start right off with asking about the state capital. “Dezz Moynens.” Wrong! Not an Iowan. “Day Moyne.” Native. Poweshiek, that fine county with a Brooklyn no one knows. “Poe’s He Eck.” Nope. “Powa Sheek.” How about that nice small town founded by lost Swedes in Boone County, Madrid. “Ma Drid?” Outsider, it’s “Mad Rid!”

While overseas in France in the early 1920’s Stephen Vincent Benet wrote his own catalog of place names that I have adapted for today’s piece “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names.”  In it, Benet contrasts American place names with European ones, perhaps to staunch a little homesickness on his part, but also as part of his claim to something he and Carl Sandburg helped to define in the first half of the 20th Century, something that’s now used to label a musical genre: “Americana.”
 
To briefly define Americana, it’s the featuring of things that are distinctive to our country, most often things that are in the past tense, things that we are asked to pay attention to as our heritage. If these things seem a little odd, old-fashioned or provincial to us, that’s the tang the artist wants us to taste.

I came upon Benet’s poem after reading a Phillip Roth memoir in the New Yorker last month, where Roth takes off from Benet’s poem to discuss how a literary sense of a greater America he did not yet know expanded his horizons westward from his childhood neighborhood in Newark New Jersey. Roth remembered how, in the 1940s, even though one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world was a river and a marsh away from his town, New York City was a world away, perhaps as far away as America seemed to Benet in Paris.
 
Roth doesn’t mention it, but as I read Roth’s piece, I thought of Benet’s story “By the Rivers of Babylon,”  were a future neo-indigenous youth ventures across that same river into the ruins of New York on a vision quest.

The original title

This was “By the Waters of Babylon’s” original title

In the nearly 100 years since it was written, Benet’s “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names”  has not fallen to ruins, but it has gained some tarnish or patina. I’ve cut a stanza because the notables referenced are now obscure, and I modified another line in it, not out gentility, but because it frankly stuck in my craw. By chance, one of the obscure and colorfully named towns in Benet’s catalog, French Lick, now is slightly better known as the hometown of basketball great Larry Bird—but that’s the not the greatest resonance the poem has picked up over the years.

As the poem builds to its ending, Benet uses something like the thought used by Rupert Brooke in his famous war poem “The Soldier”,  the idea where even if Brooke was to die and his body was buried overseas, that his Englishness would remain. Benet sets up a series of places he might be interred in England or Europe, and ends with a line that later became the title of a landmark book about the cruel and unjust treatment of indigenous Americans. Did Benet choose to end his poem with the evocative place name of Wounded Knee because of the massacre that occurred there a bit more than 30 years before he wrote his poem, or because of legends that Crazy Horse was secretly buried there, or was it only something that caught his eye on the page of an atlas? I don’t know enough about Benet to say. His litany of American places does include “a Salem tree” which sounds to me like a reference to the Massachusetts witch trials and executions. If we are to remind ourselves of the greatness in our heritage, we are likewise obligated to remind ourselves of the sins there too.

I Married A Witch Poster

Fall in love with a Salem tree? I have a tenuous connection to the story made into this film.

In my performance, I made the choice that, author’s intention or not, modern audiences will hear it as intentional, so I should perform it that way.  The American name of my home state, Iowa, comes somehow from it’s indigenous people, but over 400 years passing, we no longer know what it’s meaning is. How strange to say that I come from a place of no meaning, knowing the pass-word to tell the magic ghosts of native sentries, but knowing not what I’m saying.

To hear “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names” use the player below.