August 6, 2014

Carl Sandburg: I Wish I Never

Having read poems by Carl Sandburg in my elementary school English classes, I was not a fan. "Fog" was a cute little thing. I still recall a teacher using it to teach us personification.

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

His poem "Chicago" was in at least two anthologies in school and we read that too.
It begins:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your
painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys...

Other than those painted women, it didn't interest me very much.

Then, in high school, I read "Mag" without knowing it was by Sandburg. It was bitter. It kind of shocked me. No curse words, but so cutting.

Mag

I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish you never quit your job and came along with me.
I wish we never bought a license and a white dress
For you to get married in the day we ran off to a minister
And told him we would love each other and take care of each other
Always and always long as the sun and the rain lasts anywhere.
Yes, I'm wishing now you lived somewhere away from here
And I was a bum on the bumpers a thousand miles away dead broke.
     I wish the kids had never come
     And rent and coal and clothes to pay for
     And a grocery man calling for cash,
     Every day cash for beans and prunes.
     I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
     I wish to God the kids had never come.


It was first published in his collection Chicago Poems (1916). This volume, along with Cornhuskers (1918) and Smoke and Steel (1920), established Sandburg's reputation as a talented free verse poet, known for portraying industrial America.

I suppose the obvious prompt from the poem is about marriage. Too obvious.

What struck me about the poem initially is the negative wishing. I was more used to reading poems where the wishes were for things in the future. Good things. Better things. But Sandburg is wishing to change the past. To undo what was done.

Your task this month is to write a poem about a negative wish (or wishes) - a wish to undo, wishes that change the past. Those are the wishes that pull you right back to the present and have you thinking about the future.

Submission Deadline: August 31, 2014

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