I’ve just finished Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes. Most of us get a smattering of Sandburg if we take American Literature, probably his Chicago Poems, which are still vibrant and excellent, but perhaps no longer urgent. The People, Yes came later (1936) in his storied career, and it’s probably his poetic masterwork. Perhaps my education was flawed, but in my literature courses this poem was never mentioned, but a trip through Sandburg’s goat farm and home in North Carolina last year spurred my interest. An excellent PBS documentary on Sandburg led me to The People, Yes. I’m glad it did. After Whitman’s Song of Myself, and maybe Ginsburg’s Howl, it’s the best American book-length poem I’ve read.
A book-length poem might be a difficult sell to most groups, but there are some groups out there that would love this. You could spend a good part of the evening talking about Sandburg himself: an itinerant worker, a poet, an activist, a writer and collector of folk songs, and for many years considered the author of the definitive Lincoln biography. He did much of this while living in simple rural conditions, such as at the beautifully situated goat farm called Connemara in western North Carolina.
The People, Yes is a rambling, loquacious work, cataloging regular Americans much like the Chicago Poems did, but going further. Sandburg loads the poem with American vernacular, aphorisms, and wordplay from the early 20th century. He quotes our tall tales and our country sayings. It’s full of optimism and fight, even though published at the height of the Great Depression.
The people is the grand canyon of humanity and many many miles across.
The people is a Pandora’s box, humpty dumpty, a clock of doom and an avalanche when it turns loose.
The people rest on land and weather, on time and the changing winds.
The people have come far and can look back and say,
‘We will go farther yet’.
Sandburg touches on everything that we do: the work, the play, the art of the common people and the many ways the world conspires to keep them down. I’m reminded of the optimistic end speech in the film of The Grapes of Wrath, “…but we keep a-coming. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out, they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, cos we’re the people.”
Perhaps some readers will find this poem too rambling to take in. I read it slowly, over several months, parceling out the 107 sections so I didn’t get overwhelmed. If your group tries poetry, make sure to take time to read some sections aloud and appreciate the sound of the language. Others may find Sandburg’s sentiments too far to the left for current political taste, but as both a catalog of America past, and as a wellspring of optimism for those who survived the Depression that continues to flow for readers who need it today, this epic poem is uniquely special, a true American masterwork.