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Pennsylvania -- Carl Sandburg

       
(Poem #235) Pennsylvania
I have been in Pennsylvania,
In the Monongahela and Hocking Valleys.

In the blue Susquehanna
On a Saturday morning
I saw a mounted constabulary go by,
I saw boys playing marbles.
Spring and the hills laughed.

And in places
Along the Appalachian chain,
I saw steel arms handling coal and iron,
And I saw the white-cauliflower faces
Of miner's wives waiting for the men to come home from the day's work.

I made color studies in crimson and violet
Over the dust and domes of culm at sunset.
-- Carl Sandburg
'Pennsylvania' strikes a balance between the energy and exuberance of 'Chicago',
and the delicately evocative imagery of 'Crucible'. The danger in this approach,
of course, is the conflict between form and content [1] - Sandburg's subject is
(as usual) the working class, in all its rough glory. But whereas normally he
eulogizes it in Whitmanesque free verse (which works perfectly well, as the
Chicago poems testify), in 'Pennsylvania' his style is closer to the understated
elegance of the Imagists. The subtle tension thus generated is very reminiscent
of Edna St. Vincent Millay in essence, if not in detail [2].

As an aside, note how Sandburg uses the lovely rolling syllables of Native
American place names [3] to wonderful poetic effect, both in sound and in
meaning. The transition from suggestion to description is also quite striking; I
especially like the overtly Imagist use of colour in the last few lines.

thomas.

[1] Who'd have thunk it?

[2] Though I have to admit I'm not a great fan of Millay - somehow, her air of
quiet desperation just doesn't work for me.

[3] Monongahela, Susquehanna, Appalachia... and there are so many more:
Tallahassee and Rappahannock, Saskatchewan and Massachusetts, Shenandoah and
Mississippi... the only other place names which come close (in my opinion) are
Russian ones - Vladivostok, Novosibirsk and so on. More on this in my next post.

[Links]

Sandburg's most famous poem, 'Chicago', was also one of the very first poems to
be run on the Minstrels. You can read it at poem #5

The EB biography of Sandburg can be had at poem #163

My favourite Sandburg poem is 'Crucible' - just 3 sentences long, but absolutely
magical. You can read it at poem #205

And of course, all our other poems are archived at
http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/

[Fascinating Facts]

The Susquehanna flows from central New York State through Pennsylvania and into
the Chesapeake Bay in north Maryland. The Monongahela flows north through
Virginia and Pennsylvania to unite with the Allegheny at Pittsburgh, there
forming the Ohio. The Appalachian range extends from Quebec (in a roughly
southwest direction) all the way to Alabama. So now you know.

[Glossary]

 - culm
Pronunciation: 'k&lm
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English
Date: 14th century
: refuse coal screenings : (syn.) SLAG
        -- from Merriam-Webster online, http://www.m-w.com/

[End Note]

The same people and places are celebrated by Bruce Springsteen in 'Youngstown',
a sympathetic and insightful portrayal of the decline of Pennsylvania's coal and
steel towns in the 70s and 80s. Beautifully done, and well worth a listen. (It
can be found on his vastly underrated 1995 album 'The Ghost Of Tom Joad').

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