Marking the Tempo: Carl Sandburg’s Harvest Poems

Carl Sandburg’s poems pulse with the soul of the prairie, conjuring up the feeling of Illinois and its neighbors, evoking the essence of the region. Indeed, the poetry in Harvest Poems (1910-1960) sweeps across a Midwestern experience embedding in place.  It’s the sound of his words that reverberate with that sense of place—like the prairie, harsh and difficult in places, smooth and windswept in others.

“Now They Bury Her” is a eulogy for poetry spun with macabre irony. The poem clips along with hard consonants, lifting expected phrases like “kicked the bucket” with more surprising ones like “could be a cadaver.” Later, the alliteration continues at a gallop, the hard d and the harsh f teaming up with the unyielding k:

… dedicated

to the dignity of death and the rakeoff on the coffin

they carry you off in: one grand, a thousand smackers

of the coin of the realm, for a casket of copper lined

with mauve velvet and draped with silver silk and guar-

anteed weatherproof and wormproof for the sake of a hand-

ful of dust …

These sounds clatter with the meaning of the words, creating, as much as the words themselves, the manner and degree of Death’s grasp. The poem slows with the smooth tones of “mauve velvet” and “silver silk,” and later “sift every scintilla of evidence,” and expands with wide open vowels as in “hunting parties on the way/to gather the remains”—a line that begs for a reader with a nasal, Midwestern drawl to draw out the a.  Then the poem hums with the warmth of “modern mortician in a morning coat” and “mug meant to be solemn, let him welcome the witnesses,” the m and w resonating softly.

Similar sounds carry the poem “Little Girl, Be Careful What You Say”:

air is finer than fire or mist,

finer than spider-webs in the moon,

finer than water-flowers in the morning:

and words are strong, too,

stronger than rocks or steel

This stanza blisters with the sharp sting of the f, like a fire sweeping over the grass in a wave, the cadence of the poem ebbing with the w in the middle of each phrase, and flowing into the m, then s, that mark the end with a hiss.

Sandburg’s masterpiece “Prairie” rocks and sways with the repetition of each stanza:

Here the water went down, the icebergs slid with gravel, the gaps and the valleys hissed, and

the black loam came, and the yellow sandy loam.

Here between the sheds of the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians, here now a morning

star fixes a fire sign over the timber claims and cow pastures, the corn belt, the cotton belt,

the cattle ranches.

Here the gray geese go five hundred miles and back with a wind under their wings honking

the cry for a new home.

Here I know I will hanker after nothing so much as one more sunrise or a sky moon of fire

doubled to a river moon of water.

“Have you seen a red sunset drip over one of my cornfields, the shore of night stars, the wave

lines of dawn up a wheat valley?

Have you heard my threshing crews yelling in the chaff of a strawpile and the running wheat

of the wagonboards, my cornhuskers, my harvest hands hauling crops, singing dreams of

women, worlds, horizons?

The phantom of a yellow rooster flaunting a scarlet comb, on top of a dung pile crying

hallelujah to the streaks of daylight,

The phantom of an old hunting dog nosing in the underbrush for muskrats, barking at a coon

in a treetop at midnight, chewing a bone, chasing his tail round a corncrib,

The phantom of an old workhorse taking the steel point of a plow across a forty-acre field in

spring, hitched to a harrow in summer, hitched to a wagon among cornshocks in fall,

These phantoms come into the talk and wonder of people on the front porch of a farmhouse

late summer nights….

The soft beckoning of the h  (“here,” “hanker,” “have,” “cornhuskers,” “harvest hands hauling,” “horizons”) gives way to ph, which in turn echoes in the fs flecking the last stanza above: “flaunting,” “forty-acre field,” “fall, “front porch of a farmhouse”. The repetition the words provides the rhythm of the rocking, marking the tempo for the poem.

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