Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46.2 (2004) 181-212
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Carl Sandburg's The People, Yes, Thirties Modernism, and the Problem of Bad Political Poetry
Brian M. Reed
After allowing for items to protect future operation
every cut in production cost should be shared
with the consumers in lower prices
with the workers in higher wages
thus stabilizing buying power
and guarding against recurrent collapses.
"What is this? Is it economics, poetry, or what?"
In September 1936, Archibald MacLeish published a review of Carl Sandburg's book-length poem The People, Yes in the leftist journal New Masses. MacLeish praises Sandburg as a political visionary:
The People, Yes ought to be required reading for every man in every American metropolis who thinks of himself as a radical. . . . It will teach him that the tradition of the people is not dead in this republic. It will teach him, further, that that tradition is the tradition upon which he must build if he wishes to build a social revolution which will succeed.
The American masses, MacLeish explains, will not rise up until they are persuaded that revolutionary socialism has indigenous roots traceable back to 1776:
We hold in our hands the growing thing, the true shelter for a great people, and yet it will neither grow nor shelter until it is grafted to the green wood of the people's lives. . . . What [Sandburg] says to [End Page 181] those who have attempted to spell the name of their own cause out of the cracked letters of the Liberty Bell is this: Why turn back? Why say the people were right then? Why not say the people are right still? . . . He points out the one great tradition in American life strong enough and live enough to carry the revolution of the oppressed. That tradition is the belief in the people.
MacLeish concludes his review with the ringing assertion that "the revolutionary party which can offer to restore the government to the people and which can convince the people of its sincerity in so offering . . . will inherit the history of this country and change it into truth" (27).
Not once does MacLeish comment on Sandburg's poetry quapoetry. He includes five long quotations from The People, Yes, but he neither praises nor analyzes them. They serve simply to illustrate or advance his argument. A case in point: while discussing the perennial fear of the masses that American politicians have exhibited, he turns to Sandburg for a civics lesson:
Into the Constitution of the United States they wrote a fear In the form of "checks and balances," "proper restraints" On the people so whimsical and changeable, So variable in mood and weather . . .
Relying on Sandburg solely as an expert in politics, MacLeish evades the awkward duty of evaluating his technique. He does not have to draw attention, for instance, to the clumsy initial inversion ("Into the Constitution . . . they wrote a fear"), nor to the quick, clotted accumulation of four nonparallel prepositional phrases ("Into . . . In . . . On . . . in"). He overlooks both the verbiage (why use both "changeable" and "variable"?) and the stale metaphors (of course "weather" and "mood" are "variable"!). In short, MacLeish is guilty of a grievous sin, judged by the standards of such contemporary poetry reviewers as Stephen Burt, Nicholas Jenkins, Marjorie Perloff, and Helen Vendler. He lauds Sandburg's content while disregarding its form.1
What Explains MacLeish's Crassness?
MacLeish and Sandburg were writing at a moment when, as Cary Nelson has illustrated, the nature and function of modern poetry, and by extension the role of the literary critic, were still greatly contested. When the famous Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren textbook Understanding Poetryfirst appeared in 1938, its disparagement of the "poetry of social protest" was far from an opinion universally shared among intellectuals [End Page 182] (Revolutionary,64-65). Not until after World War II did it become received...