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From the Archive: Carl Sandburg Letter

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November 05, 2015

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Carl Sandburg Letter, 1936

This letter, dated February 10, 1936, from poet Carl Sandburg to Academy of American Poets founder Marie Bullock, is part of an exchange the two had regarding Sandburg’s inclusion on the list of sponsors of the organization. Though clearly a supporter of the Academy, Sandburg is hesitant to allow the Academy the use of his name due to the controversy and criticism surrounding his works, which he says “bother some people.”

In the letter Sandburg refers to two instances in which he “received the Pulitzer Prize Awards” but “the Jury was so divided that I was given half, and someone else was given the other half.” Sandburg was indeed twice a shared winner of the national Poetry Society of America Prize, the forerunner to the Pulitzer Prize. In 1919, he shared the prize with Margaret Widdemer, and in 1921, he shared the prize with Stephen Vincent Benét. (Though in the transition from the Poetry Society of America Prize to the Pulitzer Prize, no official prizes were awarded in the years 1920 and 1921 that could be associated with the Pulitzer Prize system, so Sandburg’s claim of having won two halves of a Pulitzer is somewhat misleading.)

The “next book of verse” Sandburg references is The People, Yes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1936), an epic prose poem that he wrote over an eight-year period. His last major book of poetry, The People, Yes fell in line with Sandburg’s interest in American history and recounted historical and contemporary events in the nation. Though Sandburg exhibits a hesitancy and perhaps even insecurity regarding this new book, calling it “perculiarsome,” in September of that year, fellow poet Archibald MacLeish would praise the book, writing, “The People, Yes ought to be required reading for every man in every American metropolis who thinks of himself as a radical. . . . It will teach him that the tradition of the people is not dead in this republic. It will teach him, further, that that tradition upon which he must build if he wishes to build a social revolution which will succeed.”

Though Sandburg, known as the “poet of the people,” is widely recognized as an important figure in American poetry, some challenged the repute of his work, which was unapologetically frank and plainspoken in its diction. Literary magazine The Dial called his work “gross, simple-minded, sentimental, and sensual,” and The Boston Transcript had a similar opinion, criticizing his “ill-regulated speech that has neither verse nor prose rhythms.” “Before men invented the alphabet, so that poems could be put down in writing, they spoke their poems,” Sandburg said in his own defense. “When one man spoke to another in a certain time-beat and rhythm, if it happened that his words conveyed certain impressions and moods to his listeners, he was delivering poetry to them, whether he knew it or they knew it."

Despite his disenchanted tone here regarding his partial honors—and the critiques of some detractors—Sandburg certainly went on to receive his due: He received several honorary degrees from several noted universities, a medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was named U.S. poet laureate, and finally received two Pulitzer Prizes all his own—one in 1940 for Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1939), and another in 1951 for Complete Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1950).

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