Poetics of Blues: The Grey Theme of Carl Sandburg’s Smoke and Steel

30/06/2017 15:30
Cao Xiaoan

Poetics of Blues: The Grey Theme of Carl Sandburg’s Smoke and Steel*

Cao Xiaoan

(School of Foreign Languages, Guangzhou Maritime University)


Abstract: The time of American poet Carl Sandburg was that of fast development of American industrial society and that of the two world wars. In the process of America’s modernization, industrial development played a key role. On the other hand, industrial workers were both unselfish dedicators and victims worthy of sympathy during the course of American industrialization, on the other hand, this is also a tragic and miserable era of WWI and WWII when people’s spirit and flesh were seriously twisted. Sandburg’s poetry collection Smoke and Steel published in 1920 comprehensively reflects the grey theme during the mature period of American industrial development (1914-1945) and around the end of WWI. The poet composes the depressing blues of the people from the two angles of American industrial society and WWI.

Key words: Sandburg; Smoke and Steel; poetry; grey theme


Usually, the blues can mean a state of depression or melancholy, or a style of music evolved from southern Black American secular songs, and also can refer to a kind of rhyming verse. Herein, the poetry collection Smoke and Steel of Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) just shares the nature of the blues, exposing the reality of the then American society and the plight of the then people.

In the year of 1920, Harcourt, Brace and Howe, the company, published Smoke and Steel. As Sandburg’s third book of poetry after the first two anthologies Chicago Poems and Cornhuskers, Smoke and Steel was in many ways the culmination of his work, reflecting his interior life as well as the emotional and social milieu of his times, a typical common person’s soul and experience, and revealing in varied portraits of working people the problems of contemporary life and the universal themes —love, loss, joy, pain, death, war and so on.

However, what is the most striking theme of Smoke and Steel? One step after another, Carl Sandburg came to readers from Chicago Poems with a kind of pride, and then Cornhuskers with an air of romanticism, to Smoke and Steel with a grey theme like the blues of disillusionment of the world war and the society and soulful sympathy with the people. The pivotal book made Sandburg begin to turn his readers toward their shared history, collective fate and joint future.

In the book, the leading poem is “Smoke and Steel” in which images of “Smoke and Steel” originated from Sandburg’s travels to steel towns. One of them is Gary, Indiana that he most frequently visited when he worked as a reporter. The city was founded on land and purchased by the U.S. Steel Corporation in 1905. It was a real and highly industrialized steel city. In the poem Sandburg gives us a mixed vision like a dream:

The smoke changes its shadow

And men change their shadow;

A nigger, a wop, a bohunk changes.


A bar of steel—it is only

Smoke at the heart of it, smoke and the blood of a man.

A runner of fire ran in it, ran out, ran somewhere else,

And left—smoke and the blood of a man

And the finished steel, chilled and blue.

In fact, smoke and steel and steel workers are a combined mixture. Whether he is a “nigger”, a “wop” or a “bohunk”, they become part of steel. A bar of steel is made of “smoke and the blood of a man”. The industrialized product—steel has been infused with human energy, flesh and spirit. And it has been more than a kind of material. If we go back to the producing process, we will feel shocked at “the finished steel, chilled and blue” like a blue bloodsucker ghost wresting the blood of steel workers, and containing a blue mood, and blue music. In the following lines, Sandburg unmasks this open secret to us:

And always dark in the heart and through it,

Smoke and the blood of a man.

Pittsburg, Youngstown, Gary—they make their steel with men.


In the blood of men and the ink of chimneys

The smoke nights write their oaths:

Smoke into steel and blood into steel;

Homestead, Braddock, Birmingham, they make their steel with men.

Smoke and blood is the mix of steel.

Usually what we can see is the only shining steel from appearance. Seldom can we find it agglomerates “the blood of a man”. The blood was left in the steel; the soul of workers was gone with the wind in the smoke, for “they make their steel with men” such as in Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Gary, Homestead, Braddock and Birmingham. He leads people to see clearly that “smoke and blood is the mix of steel”. Sandburg chose “Smoke and Steel” as the title; however, if it could be changed into “Soul and Steel”, it maybe better and direct (but franker). The smoke is the soul of steel workers and the steel is also the blood of them. These are part of the people and these are where the people’s contribution and sacrifice lies. Meanwhile, this blood-extracted fate is doomed if they do not want to go hungry:

The anthem learned by the steel is:

Do this or go hungry

Look for our rust on a plow.

Listen to us in a threshing-engine razz.

Look at our job in the running wagon wheat.

What can they do, if they don’t want to go hungry? The “rust on a plow” is part of the workers; the “threshing-engine razz” contains the workers’ mourning; “the running wagon” rolls and winds the workers’ soul, and the “anthem” is actually the blues.

At the end of “Smoke and Steel”, Sandburg reflects on the transience of the lives of men, and permanence of the people forged into a steel bar they leave behind. It’s the epilogue of the blues:

A pool of steel sleeps and looks slant-eyed

on the pearl cobwebs, the pools of moonshine;

sleeps slant-eyed a million years,

sleeps with a coat of rust, a vest of moths,

a shirt of gathering sod and loam.


The wind never bothers … a bar of steel.

The wind picks only .. pearl cobwebs .. pools of moonshine.1

The whole poem shows workmen wrest steel from fire; some even die in the process. Men and steel are simultaneously tools and symbols of the industrial society, for, as the quotation says under the subhead of this section, “Their bones are kneaded into the bread of steel / Their bones are knocked into coils and anvils”. And many people’s sacrifice of lives accompanies modern cities’ civilization, with the blue smoke rising from the steel like a blue bloodsucker ghost singing the blues.

The theme and the sprawling symmetry of form in “Smoke and Steel” repeat the pattern that Sandburg established in “Chicago” in Chicago Poems and “Prairie” in Cornhuskers. Then the leading poem is followed by a series of dark portraits of working people under the burden of and overwhelmed by the society and their lives.

Similarly, in the poem “Crimson Changes People”, there is the despair of “a crucifix in your eyes,” and the “dusk Golgotha”, colored with dark blues:

DID I see a crucifix in your eyes

and nails and Roman soldiers

and a dusk Golgotha?…2

The crimson color in the title apparently implies Jesus’ tribulation and blood. Sandburg uses biblical quotation to show his disillusionment from the severe society. He is disappointed with the doomed fate of the ordinary people. Though he uses a question mark, he made sure that he saw “a crucifix”, “nails” and “Golgotha” in “your eyes”. Actually under the high pressure from the society, the people have no alternative, and they can but bear this suffering just like Jesus suffered. “Crimson Changes People” indicates suffering changes the people. The crucifixion on earth changes the people’s life attitude into a passive and tolerant one. And he wishes in heart “crimson” could change the people into action instead of tolerance. Or we can regard it as the blues or a lament for the people’s tribulation. Meanwhile in “Cahoots”, the poem contains a sense of cynicism with disillusionment:

Play it across the table.

What if we steal this city blind?

If they want anything let ‘em nail it down.


Harness bulls, dicks, front office men,

And the high goats up on the bench,

Ain’t they all in cahoots?

It is sure they are playing a game “in cahoots”. The mood of “Harness bulls, dicks, front office men”, especially the use of “dicks”, gains an insulting effect on these persons. By the way, “goat” can mean lecherous man. On the one hand, Sandburg regards them as “bulls, dicks” and “goats”; on the other hand, he’d like to put harness on them. By all appearances he looks them down as the animals and the indecent for they are carving up the people’s benefits:

Ain’t it fifty-fifty all down the line,

Petemen, dips, boosters, stick-ups and guns—

what’s to hinder?


Go fifty-fifty.

If they nail you call in a mouthpiece.

Fix it, you gazump, you slant-head, fix it.

Feed ‘em….


Nothin’ ever sticks to my fingers, nah, nah,

notin’ like that,

But there ain’t no law we got to wear mittens—

huh—is there?

Mittens, that’s a good one—mittens!

There oughta be a law everybody wear mittens. 3

They are brazenly and openly partitioning the city, the people’s benefits “fifty-fifty”, half-and-half, and completely with “guns”. “What’s to hinder?” Nothing! That’s because they have guns shamelessly. But they realize “mitten” is good for them to wear to insure “Nothing’ ever sticks to my fingers”. The poem is full of scorns and bitter mocks, putting up Sandburg’s deep hatred for the upper class oppressing the lower class. “Bulls”, ”dicks”, “goats” are their images; and “mittens” are their veils and instrument to hide evils and crimes. Like many other common people, and as one of them, Sandburg takes the guys as disgustful. But he takes himself as a fighter for the people, a champion for the interests of the people like American abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) in his poem “Finish”:

Death comes once, let it be easy.

Ring one bell for me once, let it go at that.

Or ring no bell at all, better yet.


Sing one song if I die.

Sing John Brown’s Body or Shout All Over God’s Heaven.


Death comes once, let it be easy. 4

And thereupon, when he died at the finish in 1967, there were the songs and the poetry, as here outlined in the poem, and one bell for the eighty-nine-year singer and seeker to make his last wish and dream of dying like John Brown come true. Yes, death came only once and easily for him. But as we know, his whole life, like John Brown too, fighting and speaking for the people, was not a piece of cake, containing a spirit of backbone and perseverance. “Finish” becomes the blues of himself and his death.

Sandburg was forty-one when he had Smoke and Steel published, standing professionally and emotionally near the midway of his life and climax of his career and with his thought, philosophy and poetry having grown mature. In the book his most remarkable statement of disillusionment of the world war is in “Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind” with four cantos:


“The past is a bucket of ashes.”


THE WOMAN named To-morrow

sits with a hairpin in her teeth

and takes her time

and does her hair the way she wants it

and fastens at last the last braid and coil

and puts the hairpin where it belongs

and turns and drawls: Well, what of it?

My grandmother, Yesterday, is gone.

What of it? Let the dead be dead.

Tomorrow comes in the form of a woman taking her time. What does the woman symbolize? “The woman named To-morrow” symbolizes a society. “My grandmother, Yesterday, is gone,” she says. “What of it? Let the dead be dead”. And what does “Yesterday” mean? It represents social history. Since “My Grandmother, Yesterday, is gone”, “Let the dead be dead”: Let history be history and past. That has become lessons. This just makes the epigraph of the poem clear: “The past is a bucket of ashes” echoing Sandburg’s “Prairie” in Cornhuskers:

I speak of new cities and new people.

I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes.

I tell you yesterday is a wind gone down,

    a sun dropped in the west.

I tell you there is nothing in the world

    only an ocean of tomorrows,

    a sky of tomorrow…. 5

He leaves promise for tomorrow, calling the people to leave the past behind, seeing tomorrow beautiful. But whatever tomorrow is, Sandburg cannot conceal his disillusionment mood, and disillusionment is the keynote in the poem and in the book. Anyway he, as a member of the ordinary people, never forgets to remind his fraternal people of: “Tomorrow is a day” and will be beautiful.

In the second prelude, doors twisted on broken hinges suggest the spiritual and moral degeneration of societies smashed by war and some upper people’s greed, and imply the destroyed relationship of the people and the society, the disharmony between the people and society, morality and social system:

The doors were cedar

and the panels strips of gold

and the girls were golden girls

and the panels read and the girls chanted:

     We are the greatest city,

     the greatest nation:

     nothing like us ever was.


The doors are twisted on broken hinges.

Sheets of rain swish through on the wind

    where the golden girls ran and the panels read:

    We are the greatest city,

    the greatest nation,

nothing like us ever was.

In the prelude, it describes doors of cedar and panels of gold bearing the inscription: “We are the greatest city, the greatest nation, nothing like us ever was.” It is chanted by golden girls with pride, and it is repeated four times including the following part in the third prelude. The haunting refrain, as in a song, highlights a tension feeling and unifies the tightly organized poem. When “Sheets of rain swish through on the wind, / “Strong men put up a city and got / a nation together”:

It has happened before.

Strong men put up a city and got

     a nation together,

And paid singers to sing and women

     to warble: We are the greatest city,

     the greatest nation,

     nothing like us ever was.


And while the singers sang

and the strong men listened

and paid the singers well

and felt good about it all,

  there were rats and lizards who listened

  …and the only listeners left now

  …are…the rats…and the lizards.

Is the nation really so great and strong in Sandburg’s eyes? Why are the singers paid well to sing? Why were there only rats and lizards listening? Sure enough, Sandburg doesn’t think so here. And the reason that the singers and women were paid to sing, unwilling to sing, is that an illusive and unreal prosperity lies in the country. To pay to sing is to satisfy the “strong men” themselves and meet the vanity of them. Here Sandburg’s cynicism is shown again by the employment, for example, the “rats” and “lizards” here belong to the same group—“the strong men”:

And there are black crows

crying, “Caw, caw,”

bringing mud and sticks

building a nest

over the words carved

on the doors where the panels were cedar

and the strips on the panels were gold

and the golden girls came singing:

          We are the greatest city,

          the greatest nation:

          nothing like us ever was.


The only singers now are crows crying, “Caw, caw,”

And the sheets of rain whine in the wind and doorways.

And the only listeners now are…the rats…and the lizards.

The second half of the third prelude denotes the fate of the nation after war that sang of their own greatness. Black crows, always hinting misfortune, begin to nest over the doors that were cedar and gold. Singers have been substituted. “The only singers now are crows crying, ‘Caw, caw,’” and “the only listeners left are ... the rats ... and the lizards.” Black crows and rats predict the degeneration of civilization. And “sheets of rain” do not “swish” any more like before, but begin to “whine in the wind and doorways”, echoing the cawing of crows.

And the fourth prelude of the quartet depicts the symbolic dominance of the rats scrambling over the civilization of the nation:

The feet of the rats

scribble on the door sills;

the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints

chatter the pedigrees of the rats

and babble of the blood

and gabble of the breed

of the grandfathers and the great-grandfathers

of the rats.


And the wind shifts

and the dust on a door sill shifts

and even the writing of the rat footprints

tells us nothing, nothing at all

about the greatest city, the greatest nation

where the strong men listened

and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.6

According to Webster’s Dictionary, a “rat” can refer to a scoundrel, or untrustworthy person.7 Sandburg should have implied this level of meaning. It was these “rats”, the scoundrels, the untrustworthy persons that disordered the society and civilization. “Rats” are the starters of war. “Rats” are the destroyer of peace. “Rats” are the destructor of civilization. Sandburg’s “Four Preludes” captures the emptiness and fragility of the people’s contemporary life, and the abatement of hope, reflecting WWI’s deep negative influence on the people. But who made the people lost? Who were the chief criminals? They were these “rats”. And these “rats” were the killers and misleaders of the people; these “rats” were the makers of low tempo in the classic blues of “Smoke and Steel” and “Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind”.

Generally speaking, the grey mood, especially the mood of “Smoke and Steel” and“Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind”, dominates the whole book of Smoke and Steel. This disillusionment theme of “Smoke and Steel” came from Sandburg’s disillusionment about World War One. It was Sandburg’s consideration and contemplation on the side of the people. And it was Sandburg’s social responsibility sense that made him have had such a deep speculation. It is sure, Carl Sandburg, as the people’s poet, never unburdened the people’s weight from his back and his heart. “Smoke” is the soul and the blues of the working class gone with the wind and in the history. “Steel” is forged with the flesh and bone of the working people. The “Four Preludes” is the blues music accompany of “Smoke and Steel”. These all compose a classic blues symphony of modern industry and modern society, and a classic blues symphony of suffering and tribulation of the common folk, with the composer is Mr. Sandburg.



1. Sandburg, Carl. Smoke and Steel. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1920:3-10.

 2. Ibid. 42.

3. Ibid. 45.

4. Ibid. 266.

5. Sandburg, Carl.Cornhuskers. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2000:7.

6. Sandburg, Carl. Smoke and Steel. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1920: 75-77.

7. Callahan, North. Carl Sandburg: His Life and Works. University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987.

8. Golden, Harry. Carl Sandburg. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1961.

9. Niven, Penelope. Carl Sandburg: A Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991.

[*] This article is one of the achievements of the research project--Translation Literature and Translation of Literature (No. GD16WXZ26) from Guangdong Planning Office of Philosophy and Social Science (China).


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