Category Archives: Poetry

Carl Sandburg Rises from the Grave?

On the 21st of January 2013, the Chicago Tribune reported on the discovery of an unpublished poem supposedly written by Carl Sandburg.

Here is an image of the document:

sandberg-poem

And this is the text, reproduced in full:

A REVOLVER

Here is a revolver.
It has an amazing language all its own.
It delivers unmistakable ultimatums.
It is the last word.
A simple, little human forefinger can tell a terrible story with it.
Hunger, fear, revenge, robbery hide behind it.
It is the claw of the jungle made quick and powerful.
It is the club of the savage turned to magnificent precision.
It is more rapid than any judge or court of law.
It is less subtle and treacherous than any one lawyer or ten.
When it has spoken, the case can not be appealed to the supreme court, nor any mandamus nor any injunction nor any stay of execution in and interfere with the original purpose.
And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the old belief that God is always on the side of those who have the most revolvers.

The article informs us that this poem was discovered by a volunteer at the library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, one Ernie Gullerud, an eighty-three year old who once taught social work at the school. Gullerud has been entering Sandburg poems into the library’s computer system. His comment about the piece is telling: “Golly, someone could have written this today.”

Indeed.

The Tribune offers no skepticism, but I hereby state mine.

1. Old sheets of paper are easy to come by. So are antique manual typewriters.

2. The timing of this “discovery” is interesting. Gun control is on the political agenda at present, and this poem arrives just in time to suggest that an American icon would stand on one side.

3. More importantly, the language of the poem strikes me as having been written by someone who has read a lot of Sandburg, but isn’t the man himself:

A. Sandburg used specific details to express his point. He focused on the miniature to bring out the important. Phrases like “amazing language,” “umistakable ultimatums,” “terrible story,” “magnificent precision,” and “original purpose” sound wrong. They’re vague, showing me no image, no concrete thing.

B. Sandburg favored the smallest word that would convey his meaning. There are a good many polysyllabic words in the “discovered” poem. Of them, “amazing” is particularly odd. That’s a word that weak writers use when they can’t do a better job of describing what they mean. I’ve looked through Sandburg’s work to check, and while I may have missed it, I haven’t seen any poem in which he used that word.

By contrast, let’s look at a genuine poem of Sandburg’s, one on the same subject:

A.E.F.

There will be a rusty gun on the wall, sweetheart,
The rifle grooves curling with flakes of rust.
A spider will make a silver string nest in the
darkest, warmest corner of it.
The trigger and the range-finder, they too will be rusty.
And no hands will polish the gun, and it will hang on the wall.
Forefingers and thumbs will point casually toward it.
It will be spoken among half-forgotten, whished-to-be-forgotten things.
They will tell the spider: Go on, you’re doing good work.

(A.E.F. stands for American Expeditionary Forces.)

Note the smallness and the specificity of the language. It makes its point without being blunt. It shows tiny details that add up to the main idea. “A REVOLVER” is more of a shotgun than a target pistol.

Based on the evidence, here are my conclusions as to what this poem actually is:

1. It might be an early draft that Sandburg never finished. If so, it shows us the work that he went through to take his creations from idea to art.

2. It’s a fake, made perhaps to push an agenda, but timed to garner the most attention.

I’m going with the latter conclusion.

Crossposted on http://englreadingandwriting.wordpress.com/