SUSAN STAMBERG, host:
The poet Ezra Pound once said poetry is news that stays news. And for some time now, the Library of America has tried to make old poems new by republishing selected works by some of this country's greatest poets and keeping them in print.
The latest selection is by the great Midwestern poet Carl Sandburg. Paul Berman is the editor. Mr. Berman, I'm the proud owner of The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg, published back in 1950. And I got my ruler out and I measured it, and that book - the complete poems - measures almost two inches thick. Your book, the selected Sandburg poems, is a little over half an inch. So I bet you had some tough choices to make.
Mr. PAUL BERMAN (Writer in Residence, New York University; Editor, Carl Sandburg: Selected Poems): Well, yes, of course. Like many people - like you, perhaps - I grew up with that big, fat book, the collected poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize many years ago.
Mostly, what I trimmed away were poems that he wrote in his later years. I think Sandburg, as with a lot of poets, his greatest years were early on. There was a moment there, ten years or so beginning around 1914, when he was hot. He had the vision. He was going. He had one fine inspiration after another. That was his great period.
STAMBERG: Well, let's listen to that first fine inspiration, anyway - the first one that you published in this collection. This is quintessential Sandburg. He wrote it in 1916. Would you read a bit, please, of Chicago?
Mr. BERMAN: Of course.
(Reading) Hog butcher for the world. Tool maker, stacker of wheat. Player with railroads and the nation's freight handler. Stormy, husky, brawling, city of the big shoulders.
STAMBERG: Wonderful! The beginning of Carl Sandburg's Chicago. And just that first line, hog butcher for the world. Who would dream of starting a poem like that?
Mr. BERMAN: His genius, his inspiration in this poem and some others was to look around the streets and at the billboards and the advertising slogans and see in those things a language. And he was able to figure out that this language itself contained poetry.
STAMBERG: Yeah. Here's another Carl Sandburg. It's almost as famous as Chicago. And we have a recording of the poet himself reading it.
Mr. CARL SANDBURG (Poet): (Reading) The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over city and harbor on silent haunches, and then moves on.
STAMBERG: I love that Midwestern harbor.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BERMAN: Yes.
STAMBERG: And I love to hear his voice. Paul Berman, in your introduction to this skinny collection, you write that Sandburg's poems are fresh and noisy like a radio turned up too loud. But Fog isn't like that. That's a softer, gentler poem.
Mr. BERMAN: That's true. He had more than one string on his guitar.
STAMBERG: He was a Socialist Party organizer. He worked as secretary to the Socialist mayor of Milwaukee - things I never knew, but learned in your introduction. Then he moved to Chicago in 1912, and he kept on writing for the Socialist Press. How important are politics as the base of these poems?
Mr. BERMAN: They're very important, but in a peculiar way. The Socialist movement in America was a big thing around 1910. What the Socialist movement in those days managed to express was a completely contradictory and impossible mood - tremendous optimism about America and about industry and about these new, brawling cities like Chicago. And at the same time, a deep and bitter angry resentment, a pessimism - an utter despair about the wretchedness of social and industrial conditions. And this was something that Sandburg captured in his poetry, too.
STAMBERG: He wrote about and also against war. And here he is again reading his poem Grass.
Mr. SANDBURG: (Reading) Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. Shovel them under and let me work. I am the grass. I cover all. And pile them high at Gettysburg...
STAMBERG: Carl Sandburg traveled around the country playing his guitar. He was a troubadour, and you can hear that in his reading of Grass.
Mr. BERMAN: Yes.
STAMBERG: But there's a real "we shall endure" quality there, too - his respect for work, his respect for labor. Was he sort of the Studs Terkel of poetry, do you think?
Mr. BERMAN: There's a very specific Chicago tradition in American writing. Studs Terkel is absolutely a part of it. There is a Chicago love of the ordinary, American language as spoken by the man or woman on the sidewalk or at the checkout counter.
STAMBERG: Yeah. Sandburg liked making up words, too. And I know this is a favorite of yours. I wish you'd read it - this sort of common man style of his, too. You have to pronounce the name of it. It's on page 122.
Mr. BERMAN: Phizzog, which is his own word, and which he spells, p-h-i-z-z-o-g.
(Reading) This face you got. This here phizzog you carry around, you never picked it out for yourself at all, at all - did you? This here phizzog -somebody handed it to you - am I right? Somebody said, here's yours, now go see what you can do with it. Somebody slipped it to you and it was like a package marked, no goods exchanged after being taken away. This face you got.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STAMBERG: By the time he died in 1967, Carl Sandburg was famous. He was a national figure. Has his reputation stood up over the years?
Mr. BERMAN: His face, his own phizzog was on the cover of Time Magazine, and this did him not one bit of good so far as his reputation as poet. My feeling is that the later impression that he gave of the sentimental patriot, the populist poet, was a little misleading - that there was something sharper and harder in Sandburg.
There's a modern, adventurous, radical Sandburg that remains to be rediscovered, and I hope maybe in my little skinny book - as against his big, fat collection of poems - I hope that in my skinny book might have found the little, skinny, modernist, adventurous, radical Sandburg who's buried within the big, fat, sentimental, patriotic, cornball Sandburg.
STAMBERG: Thanks very much. Paul Berman is writer in residence at New York University and the editor of Carl Sandburg: Selected Poems. It's part of the American Poets Project. Thank you.
Mr. BERMAN: Thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
STAMBERG: You can read poems from the new collection. Also hear Sandburg recite two of them at npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.
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And I'm Steve Inskeep.
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