Poet's Pick April 8
Carl Sandburg: "Muckers"
Selected by Kevin Stein
National Poetry Month 2014

Letter from the Editors

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Kevin Stein's Poetry Month Pick, April 8, 2014

by Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)

Offering up Carl Sandburg to my American poetry course would be, I assumed, akin to ritual sacrifice. My guess was students wouldn't get Sandburg in the sacramental way I do as one of his working class tribe. After all, most were well-to-do and trendy young folks.

I imagined a rush of gasps would ensue, followed by the leaden gloom of silence. Then restorative rains would bucket from classroom skies and the ceremonial sun return, reaffirming a blue firmament of poets hip to students’ (and perhaps my own) pop cultural dogma. The old codger would have served his sacrificial purpose—as instructive lost cause and bloody touchstone of aesthetic history.

Goofily wrongheaded, my assumption was summarily gutted upon that very aesthetic altar. A surprising band of students regarded Sandburg as redemptively brash and ideologically charged. To them, Sandburg embodied poetry’s fundamental social function by engaging his economic moment, a capitalist tug of war that to their eyes mirrors the current scene. Sandburg’s Populist verse, a century following his 1913 publication of Chicago Poems, signaled him as one poet who would understand our present obsession with “income inequality.”

Beyond timely content, students admired the cinematic quality of Sandburg’s poetry. Its visual aspect spoke to them in ways to which a decidedly audio-visual generation like theirs can genuinely relate.

One instructive example of this filmic quality is Sandburg’s “Muckers.” The poem disparages ideological commentary in favor of scene-setting and interior dialogue reminiscent of cinematic expression. One can easily imagine the poem’s action framed on a movie screen. Refraining from telling readers what to think about the nature of work in capitalist culture, Sandburg simply presents this scene and the murmured responses of its onlookers to deliver his unspoken message.

          TWENTY men stand watching the muckers.
                    Stabbing the sides of the ditch
                    Where clay gleams yellow,
                    Driving the blades of their shovels
                    Deeper and deeper for the new gas mains
                    Wiping sweat off their faces
                              With red bandanas
The muckers work on . . pausing . . to pull
Their boots out of suckholes where they slosh.

          Of the twenty looking on
Ten murmer, "O, its a hell of a job,"
Ten others, "Jesus, I wish I had the job."

Framing the poem, Sandburg fashions the act of work as notable public spectacle. It’s neither something secreted away behind factory walls nor an item unfit for poetic subject. Few recent American poets—outside of, say, James Wright and Philip Levine—lavish as much attention on labor as does Sandburg. As witness, he asks his readers to do the same, elevating these men’s toiling in service of the collective good.

There’s a funereal saying in my family that anything involving a shovel must be bad news. Our mordant humor aside, anyone who’s ever struggled to shovel wet clay intimately appreciates the heavy slog of it, “suckholes” beneath the feet threatening to bury one in a sodden grave. True to point, the poem’s cultural diggings gain real depth via the divergent reactions of the twenty men scrutinizing this spectacle of spade labor.

Readers gather quickly enough which ten bystanders are blessed with jobs and which ten desperately invoke Jesus’s name in hopes of finding one, even backbreaking work mucking-in the city’s new gas lines. Sandburg’s poem recognizes a job’s innate contribution to the individual’s self-worth and dignity. This accounts for the poem’s timely glint in the eyes of my students, several of whom have observed the toll exacted on family members losing work during our current economic downturn.

Sandburg knows the allures of a political poet’s ham-fisted impulse. Elsewhere, in his poem “Ready to Kill,” he admits his hankering to grab readers’ lapels and “put it straight to” them, offering his poet’s punch in the kisser. Here Sandburg, to welcome effect, abjures that urge in favor of cinematic visuals and terse, revelatory dialogue.

About Kevin Stein:
Kevin Stein has published eleven books of poetry, criticism, and anthology, including the essays of Poetry's Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age. Among his poetry collections are Wrestling Li Po for the Remote, Sufficiency of the Actual, and American Ghost Roses. His work has garnered the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry, the Indiana Review Poetry Prize, the Devins Award, an NEA fellowship, and other distinctions. As teacher he has been named Bradley University's Faculty Member of the Year, and since 2003 he has served as Illinois Poet Laureate.

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