An Excerpt From Carl Sandburg’s Poem “Yes, The People” Re-considered As An Economic And Political Commentary

October 10, 2013 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

1 Introduction

All people receive new information through a kind of perceptual grid consisting of their background, education and prejudices, which modifies their capability to absorb new information, except by integrating it into their previous patterns of understanding. This is valid for everyone. For the most part, that perceptual grid is helpful, enabling a more thorough understanding of the things being observed, as Richard Feynman has noted at some length, and facilitating a deeper consideration of the issues being discussed.

Here’s what my grid does to Carl Sandburg’s poem.

2 “Yes, the People” by Carl Sandburg

The excerpt of this poem quoted here comes from

2.1 Will the people live on?

The poem begins

“The people yes
The people will live on.”

They certainly have so far. World War I resulted in 37 million military and civilian casualties, compared to 52 million in World War II. Some older sources allege the first World War was more deadly than the second, perhaps because of confusion between the war dead and the overlapping effects of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which was partly spread by war conditions, and which killed between 20 to 40 millions. The 13th century Mongol invasion of China perhaps produced over 50 million dead, with total deaths due to Mongol assaults in the Middle East and Europe probably accounting for over 80 million deaths in the Mongol wars and their aftermath. The all-time mass murderer was Genghis Khan.

But it is by no means certain that the people will always live on. Post-war population levels could be reduced by atomic war to less than 1% of previous levels. The Mongols did just that in northern China.

In modern circumstances, an atomic war is suicidal for the nations involved in it. Some people will live on but perhaps not the nations of the main combatants, and never the leaders of the losing side.

2.2 And then?

“The learning and blundering people will live on.”

Sandburg gets the order right – the learning is more important than the blundering.

“They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it.
The mammoth rests between his cyclonic dramas.”

Most elections are now based on trickery, with many politicians promising during elections some outcomes which they either do not know how to deliver, or which they never had any intention of delivering in the first place. Cameron said “The NHS will be safe in my hands” but it is being privatised. Clegg promised not to increase student fees in Higher Education but he did, greatly disadvantaging poor and bright students, and the Liberals will pay for that broken promise come election time. The Liberals claim they have modified Conservative extremism but they have voted for it while only modifying the most minor excesses of conservatism. Poverty has boomed under the Coalition government.

Unfortunately for the Coalition Government, the way the mind works is by naturally remembering the worst thing that politicians have done – like NHS privatisation and trebling HE student fees and increasing family financial difficulties. The major growth industries under the Coalition Government have been those associated with the production of greater poverty. These are and most notably, the High Street money shops offering payday loans at interest rates between 1,000% pa and 5,000% pa, and the enormous growth of food banks which cannot cope with feeding the increasing numbers of the new poor, along with the loss of about £1,500 pa in family income since the Coalition came to power, with the promise of more hardship to come if they are re-elected.

Tricked, sold and again sold – but the British still have a enormous capacity for renewal and comeback. Here’s to the next Kondratieff upswing in this mammoth cyclonic drama.

2.3 Living and learning

“The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
“I earn my living.
I make enough to get by
and it takes all my time.”

Well, five million people in the UK don’t earn enough to live on, and it takes all their time. They don’t make enough to get by. The middle range income groups have suffered the greatest drop in incomes in living memory due to the economic stupidity of the Coalition Government. No, Mr Cameron, it isn’t due to the position inherited from the previous government, this has all happened on your watch, and as I have told you by letter several times, you didn’t need to do that.

Even where there is no realistic prospect of employment, the Cameron Coalition Government have introduced vexatious rules to waste the time of the unemployed by forcing them to apply by computer for jobs which are only really there for perhaps one applicant in ten, if that. If the unemployed don’t obey these stupid rules – applying by computer 12 times a week for jobs which don’t really exist – they lose benefit, sometimes because of computer network failures in the DWP, which these days is the Department of no real Work and inadequate Pensions.

“If I had more time
I could do more for myself
and maybe for others.
I could read and study
and talk things over
and find out about things.
It takes time.
I wish I had the time.”

The people could. But those capable of benefitting from Higher Education in England now have to pay a small fortune for the privilege of acquiring a degree which would give them the income to change their lives. And government departments are, more than ever, preventing studying and learning by wasting the time of the people under the pretense of caring for them.

2.4 Heroes and Hoodlums

“The people is a tragic and comic two-face: hero and hoodlum:
phantom and gorilla twisting to moan with a gargoyle mouth:
“They buy me and sell me…it’s a game…sometime I’ll
break loose…”

There are always more heroes and hoodlums in any nation than can be publicly recognised. The heroes do their best in difficult circumstances, the hoodlums their worst. Everywhere the police have been obliged to reach an accommodation with ineradicable local and national villainy exacerbated by economic and industrial decline – not that they’ll tell you that. The workers in all British companies are potentially up for purchase or sale, and there are limits to the extent to which people will put up with inept political nut-cases running any country.

The British Coalition Government – please note. The British politicians are a tragic and comic two-face, too, also sometimes unfortunately bought and sold by commercial interests, twisting to moan that they’ll legislate for a less corrupt media (not bloody likely) and for a more fair society (but the Coalition is a government by the privileged, of the privileged, and for the privileged). Pay no attention to what politicians say – words cost nothing – and look at what they’ve done, and vote accordingly. That’s the only way to avoid being tricked and sold and again sold.

“Once having marched
Over the margins of animal necessity,
Over the grim line of sheer subsistence
Then man came
To the deeper rituals of his bones,
To the lights lighter than any bones,
To the time for thinking things over,
To the dance, the song, the story,
Or the hours given over to dreaming,
Once having so marched.”

Nearly all of the British People marched over the “margins of animal necessity” with the creation of the welfare state between 1948 and its maintenance until the Thatcherist reversals following 1979. Now over 5 million people in the UK are being paid less than a living wage, paid below the grim line of sheer subsistence.

And every Kondriatieff upswing produces the flowering of optimism and new forms of music and the arts, of the “lights lighter than any bones”. The dances of the 1960s, the rise of the Beatles, and the hopeful dreams of the long economic upswing were all part of that.

Here’s to the next Shimomuran-produced Kondratieff-forecast upswing in the later 2010s and 2020s.

2.5 The Inherent Nobility and Yearning Of The People

“Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prison of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.”

The British people, the EU Europeans, the Americans and most of the people in the world yearn for a better life than that provided by the current selectorate. In the UK, I think they would want a cultural richness, not the churn of recycled 1950s and 1960s TV programmes and the cheap to produce, appalling to watch endless variants of the British Baking and Cookery Corporation programmes and the updated version of Hughie Green’s “Opportunity Knocks”, which looks more like a blue murder computer shoot-up game than a TV programme.

A cultural richness is now being provided by the undercultures of the internet, with the great risk that the official spokespersons are increasingly becoming irrelevant. Modern children are much more aware, much better informed and more intelligent than previous generations were, in an internet-accelerated continuation of the Flynn Effect. They long for stars to steer by.

“This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.”

They certainly have. Recent comments I’ve overheard include “Let’s switch on the TV and see what the BBC thinks the news is” followed by “Let’s look on the internet to see what’s going on,” and, following many news and advertising items, “What are they trying to make us think by telling us that rubbish?”

Daily Mail and all the British newspapers which are part of the worst aspect of British life, please note.

“Yet this reaching is alive yet
for lights and keepsakes.”

It is. May that always be so.

2.5 The Immortality of Experience

“The people know the salt of the sea
and the strength of the winds
lashing the corners of the earth.
“The people take the earth
as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.
Who else speaks for the Family of Man?”

Nobody else. Many artists but no existing government, so far.

“They are in tune and step
with constellations of universal law.”


“The people is a polychrome,
a spectrum and a prism
held in a moving monolith,
a console organ of changing themes,
a clavilux of color poems
wherein the sea offers fog
and the fog moves off in rain
and the labrador sunset shortens
to a nocturne of clear stars
serene over the shot spray
of northern lights.”

“The steel mill sky is alive.
The fire breaks white and zigzag
shot on a gun-metal gloaming.
Man is a long time coming.
Man will yet win.
Brother may yet line up with brother:”

This climax of the poem is very alive for me. With some of my family I have seen moving green and orange curtain of the Northern Lights from Rovaniemi, and the orange disks on the clouds above the iron furnaces on the site of what is now the shopping centre of Meadowhall, Sheffield, and the similar disks which once appeared above Colville’s blast furnaces on the Motherwell Crossroads. All now gone. The steel mill skies were always alive as scudding clouds flickered and flamed above the reflected images of the furnace fires below.

I have seen my father drop a brick of carbon into the glowing disk of orange melted iron of the steel furnace he was stoking, and the green flash and the immediate blizzard of silver-glinting black snow produced from that brick, as carbon steel wire was produced at the United Wire Works, Granton.

I do hope than mankind will eventually line up, able to do what must be done if mankind is to survive.

“This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
There are men who can’t be bought.
The fireborn are at home in fire.
The stars make no noise,
You can’t hinder the wind from blowing.
Time is a great teacher.
Who can live without hope?”

The extent of corruption and dishonesty is always a surprise to most people. The fire born, in Delhi-Lucknow Sanskrit poetry, who are – “those affected by beauty on the percipient soul”, according to one source – may refer to everyone. And as the Chinese poet Wang Hung Kung remarks, in Kenneth Rexroth’s translation:

“Day after day the rain falls.
Day after day the grass grows.
Year after year the river flows.
Seventy years, seventy years,
The wheel of dreams revolves.”

The winds of change blow forever and canot be much hindered. Despite everything, social development has happened, nearly always driven by the people, who are usually more socially aware than their political masters. And the people, taught by time and chance, persist in hoping for better despite the appalling example of their inept political leaders and their often corrupt plutocratic societies.

A plutocratic society, lest we forget, is one like that of the UK or the USA – defined in Wikipedia as “a society or a system ruled and dominated by the small minority of the top wealthiest citizens.” And run for their benefit, as the Coalition Government does.

3 Where next?

“In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people
“Where to? what next?”

The protest marches are happening again in much of the world. The people want better, less corrupt governments, and protest in the hope of getting these.

Better is possible.

Here’s to Shimomuran economics and the more full development of most of people’s lives. To a more inclusive, richer better future for all mankind. To the hope for a future hyperstate which is the only way to avoid major world wars. To the success of the project for longer better lives for everyone. For the more full employment of everybody’s talents.

To the reduction of grief as the longest march continues. To the hope of much better and more informed government and to zero tolerance of inept politicians. To the exploration of the universe using a much better understanding of the behaviour of matter.

Onward forever onward, and to development through understanding and experience, whatever comes.

The people will cope. That’s what they do. Gloriously and hopefully forever.

© George Tait Edwards 2013


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This post was written by George Tait Edwards

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