Sometimes a piece of literature grabs you by the throat and won’t let go, not until you’ve read it cover to cover and have absorbed, or tried to, all it has to offer. I experienced this when I recently came upon Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes, a book-length prose poem written from the depths of the Great Depression in 1936. Its themes of worker exploitation and political opportunism could have been ripped from today’s headlines and last week’s presidential nominating conventions.
In beautiful and straight-forward prose, Sandburg takes an unrelenting and unforgiving look at the ways in which the people are continually betrayed by those wielding power or seeking it. However, Sandburg also expresses hope in this work – hope about the possibilities of democracy and the world in which we live. And hope, most especially, in the people – in their power to persevere, to move forward, to prevail.
According to the National Park Service’s Carl Sandburg Home website, “The Depression years provoked in Sandburg a profound desire to console ‘the people of the earth, the family of man,’ and to lift the hopes of the people.
“Sandburg relinquished his Chicago Daily News job in 1932 to devote…full time to writing biography and poetry; he began to take a “detour” from work on the last stages of Abraham Lincoln: The War Years to write a long, innovative poem based in part on the lessons he had learned from Lincoln and American history. The People, Yes, an epic prose-poem, is in many ways the culmination of Sandburg’s work as a poet and is believed…to be his favorite work. He crafted it over an eight-year period, fusing the American vernacular with the details of history and contemporary events.
“Sandburg’s immersion in the Lincoln era had given him an informed sense of history, and he saw striking parallels between Lincoln’s time and the Depression years. Believing that economic inequity lay at the root of all social injustice, from labor conflict to racial and civil strife, he responded to the economic and social upheavals of the 1930s with The People, Yes.”
Here, then, are some beautiful and powerful excerpts:
The people is a monolith,
a mover, a dirt farmer,
a desperate hoper.
The prize liar comes saying, “I know how, listen to me
and I’ll bring you through.”
The guesser comes saying, “The way is long and hard
and maybe what I offer will work out.”
The people choose and the people’s choice more often than not
Is one more washout.
Yet the strong man, the priceless one who wants nothing for
himself and has his roots among his people,
Comes often enough for the people to know him and to win
through into gains beyond later losing,
Comes often enough so the people can look back and say,
“We have come far and will go farther yet.”
The people is a trunk of patience, a monolith.
The man in the street is fed
with lies in peace, gas in war,
and he may live now just around the corner from you
trying to sell
the only thing he has to sell,
the power of his hand and brain
to labor for wages, for pay,
for cash of the realm.
And there are no takers, he can’t connect.
And still more:
The people laugh, yes, the people laugh.
They have to in order to live and survive under lying politicians,
lying labor skates, lying racketeers of business, lying newspapers, lying ads.
The people laugh even at lies that cost them toil and bloody exactions.
For a long time the people may laugh, until a day when the laughter
changes key and tone and has something it didn’t have.
Then there is a scurrying and a noise of discussion and an asking of the question
what it is the people want.
Then there is the pretense of giving the people what they want, with jokers, trick
clauses, delays and continuances, with lawyers and fixers, playboys and ventriloquists,
The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds.
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it.
Man is a long time coming.
Man will yet win.
Brother may yet line up with brother.
In the darkness with a great bundle of grief,
The people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people march:
“Where to? What next?”
There isn’t any particular reason I’m writing about this beautiful and powerful Sandburg contribution to our literary canon except that I loved it, was moved by it and wanted to share it with you.
Or maybe I’m just wishing to hear – from politicians and corporate leaders alike these days – an acknowledgement, long overdue, of the valor, the grace, and the beauty of the people.
Thank you, Carl Sandburg.