Here’s Carl Sandburg again, this time from his 1920 collection “Smoke and Steel.” Today’s piece “Long Guns” is a protest poem of a kind. A few decades later, around midcentury, the folk-song revival in America (which Sandburg had helped to kick-off with his pioneering American Songbag collection of folk songs) grew a wing that wrote protest songs. Bob Dylan, a man who thought enough of Carl Sandburg to want to visit him as he was revolutionizing songwriting, wrote a few of them himself, even though Dylan once categorized the usual efforts of the protest song genre as “finger-pointing songs.”
So how does one go about writing a protest song or poem? There are probably lots of ways, and some work more often than others. Sandburg, the early Modernist, would sometimes write Imagist protest poems, which is quite a trick to pull off, though the classical Chinese poets that influenced Imagism had figured out how to do this centuries before. “Long Guns” is more in Sandburg’s Walt Whitman mode though, what with its parallelism and lists.
Sandburg wants to call attention to the disorder of order established by armaments and guns, but rather than doing this in the order of argument as an essay would, or by leading off with some singular event that will arrest our attention, he starts by addressing an otherwise unidentified someone named “Oscar.”
This is puzzling way to start, and I had no idea why Sandburg did this. My guess is that most current readers will just figure Oscar is some random name, and stumble past this, but since I hate to leave specific things unexamined, I eventually had to try to figure out who Oscar is. And I think I’ve figured that out.
I’ll wager you haven’t heard of him, but it’s likely Oscar Ameringer, a radical humorist who was styled “The Mark Twain of Socialism.” Ameringer was Sandburg’s contemporary, and both spent time working for Socialist candidates in Wisconsin, though their time in Milwaukee missed overlapping by only about a year in the years before WWI. At least to fellow Midwestern Socialists, this call out to Oscar may well have been recognized when “Long Guns” was written.
After this mysterious opening, Sandburg lays out a condensed history of the world, a Genesis story of armed nationhood, a litany of the primacy of guns, speaking too of the long range artillery that had been part of the new warfare of the recently ended WWI.
And then, just past midway, Sandburg jumps somewhere else entirely—which is the freedom we allow poetry (as we allow it in music)—to a twisted fairy tale, the payoff. In the end, this is how Sandburg makes his protest point. We are like the child, and/or we are creating the child in that story.
In performing and presenting “Long Guns” I decided to throw a frame around it. A couple of episodes back I mentioned some other Modernists, largely, but not entirely, separate from the recognized literary Modernists. In the same early decades of the 20th Century, Afro-Americans were “making it new” with a different language and music, which was labeled “The Blues,” and from which Jazz and Rock’n’Roll and modern popular music draw even to this day. There’s no Ezra Pound or T. E. Hulme to point to here, a name that we can say sparked things off. Their 19th Century Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman-like predecessors are barely known as names. I still want to say more on this later, but as frame for “Long Guns” I used a blues line I know from the singing of Chester Burnett who performed as “Howling Wolf:”
“I wore my 44 for so long, it made my shoulder sore.”
What a striking and original line! If Li Po or Pound had written it, we might read it in a literary anthology. A man whose fear or anger must carry it like a heavy revolver, painfully, always. As it happened, I know it from Burnett singing it, as the Wolf; where as part of his performance style, his voice is unnaturally raspy, his delivery as if spoken by a spirit, perhaps not a normal man. A man who lives where the running of the world was all in guns. Is that a normal man?