Carl Sandburg follows Robert Frost in The Voice that is Great Within Us. I do not have much to say about the particular poems of his that are therein gathered: general notes will have to suffice.
Sandburg is a grittier Whitman: his formal trappings (e.g. the heavy use of anaphora) are borrowed from the American master, as is his general moral (the celebration of life in all its aspects) – only Sandburg’s poems have a bit more soot. It is not that the facts he includes differ from those Whitman includes: both rejoice over the same life. Nothing is “absolutely” uglier in a poem like “Chicago” than in Whitman’s work. It is rather the effect of these shared facts that varies, and this is a matter of their presentation.
To my taste, these differences in presentation mark not an advance but a retreat. I sense in Sandburg a clearly defensive posture. What for Whitman is unreservedly beautiful is for Sandburg beautiful only in spite of its ugliness. Yes, he grants, it is ugly – and he must grant this, for he has heard doubts, well-founded doubts. Yes, but… – that is the mode of the Sandburg poem. Whitman is exuberant from within himself, while Sandburg is forced to answer doubts that crowd the edges and even the heart of his poems. It almost seems as if he is trying to convince himself of what he says, as if his tastes are not quite beholden to his aesthetic theory.
Intrinsically, the above is not a criticism, though I do prefer Whitman for his lack of such self-gnawing diffidence. But there are criticisms to be made. Sandburg does not lack for talent: isolated moments show it. But while the stray line may cause a shiver, these thrills are not sustained. It is no accident that the poem I found most successful of the selection, “River Roads,” is among the shortest.