Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Rather Better Poem by Carl Sandburg

Dear Guys:

Today, a rather better poem by Carl Sandburg:

They Will Say
by Carl Sandburg

OF my city the worst that men will ever say is this:
You took little children away from the sun and the dew,
And the glimmers that played in the grass under the great sky,

[Rest of poem removed because it’s probably still in copyright]

This is a one-trick poem, but it’s a good trick and it’s a short poem. You don’t mind getting only the one thing when all you’ve paid in attention is a mere seven lines.

The trick is in the first line, in those words “the worst that men will ever say.” Coupled with the possessive in “my city,” it sets up the reader to expect a positive statement, an expression of love for Chicago, which is Sandburg’s city and which he did indeed love. So the anti-child-labor (and child labor was a hideous thing, as bad as and even worse than portrayed here) editorial slips right past the reader’s defenses. Reading it, you’re expecting a BUT... my city has this virtue or that, or else this terrific beauty arises from it.

Then the poem ends.

And because there’s that unresolved “worst that men will ever say,” your mind goes back over the words, thinks about them, and realizes that there is nothing worse to be said about the city because there is nothing worse that COULD be said about a city, this side of Hell.

To see such white-hot anger so cunningly employed is a humbling thing. The man really did know what he was doing.

All best,


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