Work Gangs by Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg, an American poet, published “Work Gangs” in 1920. The poem compares workers to their tools. In addition, the poem describes conditions associated with the lower tier of work and earning power. The workers in Sandburg’s poem find ways to enjoy each other, to make meaning out of drudgery; they sing — not to celebrate at least having a job but to signal their worth and to make themselves, as a community, seen and heard.

Work Gangs

Carl Sandburg

1920 (in Smoke and Steel)

Box cars run by a mile long.
And I wonder what they say to each other
When they stop a mile long on a sidetrack.
Maybe their chatter goes:
I came from Fargo with a load of wheat up to the danger line.
I came from Omaha with a load of shorthorns and they splintered my boards.
I came from Detroit heavy with a load of fivers.
I carried apples from the Hood river last year and this year bunches of bananas from Florida; they look for me with watermelons from Mississippi next year.

Hammers and shovels of work gangs sleep in shop corners
when the dark stars come on the sky and the night watchmen walk and look.

Then the hammer heads talk to the handles,
then the scoops of the shovels talk,
how the day’s work nicked and trimmed them,
how they swung and lifted all day,
how the hands of the work gangs smelled of hope.
In the night of the dark stars
when the curve of the sky is a work gang handle,
in the night on the mile long sidetracks,
in the night where the hammers and shovels sleep in corners,
the night watchmen stuff their pipes with dreams—
and sometimes they doze and don’t care for nothin’,
and sometimes they search their heads for meanings, stories, stars.
The stuff of it runs like this:
A long way we come; a long way to go; long rests and long deep sniffs for our lungs on the way.
Sleep is a belonging of all; even if all songs are old songs and the singing heart is snuffed out like a switchman’s lantern with the oil gone, even if we forget our names and houses in the finish, the secret of sleep is left us, sleep belongs to all, sleep is the first and last and best of all.

People singing; people with song mouths connecting with song hearts; people who must sing or die; people whose song hearts break if there is no song mouth; these are my people.

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