"Splinter" by Carl Sandburg

One of the many poetry books I recently brought home from the St. Francis Episcopal book sale is a paperback copy of Harvest Poems 1910-1960. I never hesitate to buy a used copy of a Sandburg collection; there's something about his work that lends itself to having been passed along from to hand to hand.

Sandburg was one of the writers whose work thrilled me when I was young. I recall being about 11 years old and soaking up every available scrap of language originating from Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Carl Sandburg, voices that immediately felt like old friends. They still thrill me.

Carl Sandburg was one of the first poets to teach me that a poem could be very short and still hold enormous power through imagery and word choice. Here's an example:

My notes on this poem:

  • This isn't a quatrain—he could have so easily chosen to contain the image that way, with tidy end-rhymes. Instead, it's a tercet—three enjambed lines featuring two pieces of an image and a statement about the image, three lines that could have been an entire poem in themselves—followed by a final self-contained line that takes the image to a new level.
  • Word choice reinforces the singularity and loneliness/longing of the moment captured: The voice / one kind / It / a splinter. "Voice" is also emphasized because there's no other "v" sound in the poem (except the repetition of the softer end "v" in "of") and no close rhyme, although there is a loose tie to "one" and "so." And "one kind of good-by" implies that there are many kinds, that our lives are rich with endings and losses, which is underlined by the use of "last" and "first" in prominent positions in lines 1 and 2.
  • The last line offers a near-caesura, an almost-pause between the phrases "It is so thin" and "a splinter of singing," but the gap is lightly crossed through the music of "so thin a splinter." (A lesser poet would have ruined it with "It is such a thin splinter of singing.")
  • The "so" provides double emphasis by reaching to rhyme with "one" from within a field of other rhyme: It / is / thin.
  • Such lovely music throughout... voice/one/so, last/across/first/frost, kind/good-by, cricket/is/It/is/thin/splinter/singing, cricket/kind.

From "Notes for a Preface" in this collection (taken from The Complete Poems, 1950), Sandburg's musings on his writing life:

At the age of six, as my fingers first found how to shape the alphabet, I decided to become a person of letters. ... At fifty... there was puzzlement as to whether I was a poet, a biographer, a wandering troubadour with a guitar, a midwest Hans Christian Andersen, or a historian of current events... I am still studying verbs and the mystery of how they connect to nouns. I am more suspicious of adjectives than at any other time in all my born days. I have forgotten the meaning of twenty or thirty of my poems written thirty or forty years ago. I still favor several simple poems published long ago which continue to have an appeal for simple people. ... All my life I have been trying to learn to read, to see and hear, and to write. ... I should like to think that as I go on writing there will be sentences truly alive, with verbs quivering, with nouns giving color and echoes. It could be, in the grace of God, I shall live to be eighty-nine, as did Hokusai, and speaking my farewell to earthly scenes, I might paraphrase: "If God had let me live five years longer I should have been a writer."

He was eighty-nine on his last birthday.