I love me some early short-form Carl Sandburg. Oh, I can enjoy him in his lengthy Whitmanesque catalog mode and I surely appreciate his too little recognized work in forging what we more recently call Americana, but in much of his early work he’s writing in a mode that people often forget. It’s similar to some of the other early Modernists before the High Modernist style absorbed that revolution and used it to make a complex and literary bureaucracy of allusions and images that were more showy and complex on the surface.
If you have a moment, look at “Monotone,” a nine-line poem, linked here. How easy it would be to overlook this poem. There’s no exotic words or settings, and the images seem to risk falling into the banal. What’s there? A rainfall, a sunrise and a sunset. If most of us were to put those as the major images in a poem, our poems would likely fail to seem unique in any worthwhile way, or we’d stress and strain to make them unique. I myself might reach for the surreal or the odd detail because I would think I was otherwise making a poem with no worthwhile freshness. And perhaps Sandburg fails in that way for some readers here. What is he risking that failure to convey?
In these nine lines he wants to write a love poem of the least common kind. Poems of desire, poems of the kind of overthrow of the senses and proportion that new love brings, poems of enchantment with possibility—those are legion. And they’re worthwhile. Love and desire, like other visionary states, illuminate things we are otherwise unable to believe. Some of those things are true and some are false, some are the painful disguised as beautiful. They proclaim for us to give ourselves and give up ourselves.
Sandburg’s “Monotone” isn’t that. It’s a lyric poem of a long-time relationship. Even its title dares to be unexciting. Monotone word-wise is near enough to monotony, and musically who would be attracted to a piece that claims that as its title?
The poem’s opening image makes an argument for musical monotone. A rainstorm has no melodic invention, but if listened to without seeking that quality and being disappointed that it lacks this, it has dynamics of volume and rhythm. Listen to what’s there, not to what’s missing the first stanza asks of us, and we’ll find the “multitudinous rain.” This is not a showy stanza, but since multitudinous is by far the least common word in the poem, that one ornament stands out all the more. Even if one remembers only those two words “multitudinous rain,” one can carry it with ourselves and experience rain in new ways while thinking on that phrase on some grey and otherwise unappealing day.
Is the second stanza banal? If you think so I can’t give you an argument that’ll refute you. Yes, the sun on the hills is beautiful, and sunset over seas too. Thank you very much Carl Obvious Sandburg, but why have you wasted our time with those three lines about what everyone has already noticed. What value might they have? Well, for one they are common. Carl Sandburg is fully baptized in the belief of a common humanity, so the fact that he states what we all know isn’t quite the sin that another artist might abhor. What Sandburg does with these commonplaces is to let us know there’s something we still don’t know about them, even when we think they’re too prosaic to have anything yet to perceive. In those few words in the second three-line stanza there is the notion that the sunset (precious, golden fire) is captured by the cold sea. So easy to overlook if we read it like a prose paragraph, assuming only quick utility. If one had to translate this from a foreign language, if this was written in Chinese ideograms, perhaps we’d slow down and see this. The beautiful in the guise of the desired, is captured, is quenched, rises and sets.
Now the third, three-line stanza concludes this book of changes, bringing synthesis to the previous two. Beholding one’s long-time partner, one sees the multitudinous monotone rain and the moments of passion or anger, unease or loss, joined. With the “Monotone” title at the head and the ending line I read that sunny mountain scene and picture postcard sea-sunset of the second stanza as being measured against a rarer and more precious multitudinous rain of long-love.
With this simple concise expression of a complex feeling, the poem requests you to see that. In 1916 when this was published in Sandburg’s Chicago Poems its very simplicity was still audacious, and that itself made the case for this poem. In a generation or so it would seem to not be trying hard enough to capture our attention. While poetry was free to leave strict meter and reliable rhyme schemes behind, it had returned to an aesthetic of surface complexity equaling merit.
Espoused. Carl and Lillian Sandburg around the time “Monotone” was published. Photograph by Lillian’s brother, the photographer Edward Steichen. Earlier, inn 1908 Sandburg wrote “I would rather be a poem like you than write poems,” but we got the multitudinous rain of his poetry anyway.
A few words on the musical setting before I remind you that you can click on the player gadget to hear my performance of Sandburg’s “Monotone.” As I composed this I was concentrating more on timbre and less on melody. The dominant keyboard sound in the piece is a complex combination of a grand piano with every bit of string resonance brought forward, an electric piano, and a keyboard piano bass (that last a sound mostly known from Ray Manzarek’s playing with the Doors). It’s kind of the idea of the “Hard Day’s Night” chord being used throughout the piece. this is another composition where it would probably be better if I wasn’t the vocalist who sings it, but that’s who I have available. Listen to it with the gadget below.