Carl Sandburg – Pennsylvania

Carl Sandburg – “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.

Commentary
Many might only know Sandburg for his famous “Chicago” poem, but I think this poem about my home state is quite powerful. As usual, he looks at the working-class landscape with a beauty you wouldn’t necessary associate with coal miners and rural Appalachia. There’s something soothing about the place names – Monogahela, Hocking, Susquehana, Appalachian – that he uses for good effect.

Something happens in the third stanza, though. Not quite jarring, not quite fully addressing the roughness of the type of world he’s describing, but nonetheless it gives me pause. The “steel arms handling coal and iron” and “white cauliflower faces” are not necessary as soothing images as the previous boys playing marble or the blue river. The wives’ faces in particular are oddly thought of as “cauliflower,” which I infer refers both to their roundness, as well as their paleness, compared to their husbands’ faces, dark with coal dust. It’s interesting that he evokes the image of the miners simply by describing the contrast of their wives’ appearance.

The ending combines the sunset’s pretty colors with the dust and slag from the mines, again wedding together images of beauty and roughness. It sounds almost over-romanticized, but not quite. Somehow, Sandburg gets away with it – if only because we long to find the light among the darkness.

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One Response to Carl Sandburg – Pennsylvania

  1. Angele Ellis says:

    Thanks for this poem and for my new word of the day–“culm.” I’ve lived in Pennsylvania all these years without knowing that culm refers to finest screenings of coal, those that are unusable–also called “slack.”

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