Poetry Review: “The Hammer” by Carl Sandburg

sandburgstampSpring in the North Country remains gray and wet. Last week our youngest graduated high school and so between rain storms we celebrated this mundane milestone in the fashion dictated by North-Country suburban conformity: with an open house. There are more bewildering suburban conformities, but not many.

As things quiet down, I can return again to reading and writing… and to reviewing poetry.

Between rainstorms and domestic duties I pick up familiar volumes of poetry. Looking at lines and poems I first read, sometimes four decades ago. Carl Sandburg is one of the poets I have been making time for.

As I have said before,

Sandburg, a musician, understands “sound” as well as any poet. He also understand space, growing up as he did in the flat and open prairie of western Illinois. This is why he does the small poem so well which relies so heavily on the interplay between sound and space.

This poem “The Hammer” show this as well as any Sandburg poem.



The Hammer

I have seen
The old gods go
And the new gods come.
Day by day
And year by year
The idols fall
And the idols rise.
I worship the hammer.



Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:

I have seen
The old gods go
And the new gods come

Repetition provides the sound-glue for this poem. Just two and a half small stanzas but there are four repetition pairs: gods-gods, day-day, year-year, idols-idols.

What is interesting is the way Sandburg then counter-balances this sound repetition with opposition: old vs. new,   fall vs. rise.

Why I like Sandburg so much as a poet, and why he is to me one of a handful of definitively “essential” poets, is that he can make the simple work so well. There is absolutely nothing in this poem that is what we are told poems must be or that poets must do. There is nothing particularly new or novel in language or images. There is nothing “cliche-busting” and/or intellectually clever. It does not “mine new metaphors” or “push the boundaries of language.”

It is “merely” simple, understandable,… and unforgettable!