When I began my journey as a poet, a writer, I was given a book of poems by Carl Sandburg. The book was given to me by my uncle; himself a poet of the people and community activist whose work focused on the poor, the forgotten; whose voices and experiences mattered as he saw their lives as interconnected with his own. I read the poems—a collection of poems about Chicago, “Hog Butcher for the World”, and through the poems saw parallels with the city of my birth–San Francisco. I identified with the working class, the isolation, desolation, contradictions and, through the realism of the poems, redemption that can be found if one looks hard enough.
Why does Carl Sandburg matter? Why does the wind or sun matter? Why do our struggles matter? Do the strings on a guitar matter? If the strings are broken, do they still matter? It all mattered to Carl. Black lives mattered to Carl as he chronicled the brutality suffered by black people at the hands of police. For Carl, poetry was empathy but not an empty empathy. He used his gift as a writer to proclaim, in poetry, the pain, insecurities, loneliness was well as the laughter, the contradictions and finally, the triumph of the people–The People, yes! The people in all of their languages which are the language of human beings—overcoming barriers and borders. Carl, the son of immigrants. His father’s Swedish tongue, thick with the dust and dirt of a railroad worker who never learned to read but inspired his son to read the landscape and the people who populated his world. His father’s world was of work and toil; a father who asked his son—who he referred to as Sholly—what good were books?
Fellow poet Langston Hughes was confronted by the same question. He’d spent so much time in libraries and in books that he began having more faith in the written word than in people. Realizing this, he tossed his books overboard the SS Malone before embarking on a journey that took him to Africa and the depths of the Nile and the Mississippi—into the depths of his soul. Carl’s journey took him to the soul of the country, written in the faces of the people of the Midwest and beyond; in the music of their voices, their pain, isolation, dreams and victories–The People, yes! This journey informed his life as a poet. His journey, as well as Langston Hughes’, surely reflected the wisdom of Henry David Thoreau who said, How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
Carl’s poetry, his vision—matters—in this present moment perhaps more so than ever. Carl’s vision for a more equitable and just society matters. Carl’s compassion for people in struggle matters. Carl matters, just as the sun matters, the moon matters. Poetry matters.
(c) 2023 Tony Robles