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Carl Sandburg: "A Revolver"

"A Revolver" is a newly-discovered, unpublished and previously unknown poem by Carl Sandburg. Although it was written decades before Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora and Sandy Hook, the poem seems highly relevant and might have been written just a few minutes ago and addressed to the "religious right," the NRA and its powerful gun lobby. "A Revolver" was discovered recently among Sandburg’s archives, which are housed in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

A Revolver
by Carl Sandburg

Here is a revolver.
It has an amazing language all its own.
It delivers unmistakable ultimatums.
It is the last word.
A simple, little human forefinger can tell a terrible story with it.
Hunger, fear, revenge, robbery hide behind it.
It is the claw of the jungle made quick and powerful.
It is the club of the savage turned to magnificent precision.
It is more rapid than any judge or court of law.
It is less subtle and treacherous than any one lawyer or ten.
When it has spoken, the case can not be appealed to the supreme
     court, nor any mandamus nor any injunction nor any stay of ex-
     ecution come in and interfere with the original purpose.
And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the
     old belief that God is always on the side of those who have the
     most revolvers.

Sandburg, an Illinois native perhaps most famous for his description of Chicago as the "city of broad shoulders," was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1919 and 1951, and for history in 1940 for his biography of Abraham Lincoln (who was, of course, shot with a revolver).

The poem was found last week by Ernie Gullerud, a retired U. of I. professor who has been involved in indexing the more than four tons of material that make up the library's Sandburg collection. Gullerud, 83, has been documenting the first and final lines of all Sandburg’s poems to make them searchable online.

As Gullerud entered the basic index information for “A Revolver,” he felt compelled to read the lines in between: “It’s just amazing how something written way back then is relevant today,” he said. "I'm no judge of what makes a great poem, but this one said so much and so succinctly and to the point. I thought 'Golly, someone could have written this today,'" concluding, "When I wrote down that last line, I knew this was really big."

With the recent mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and the subsequent debate over gun control in mind, Gullerud decided to share the poem with Valerie Hotchkiss, the head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

“I think it’s so interesting that Sandburg says poetically what we all know about guns: that they are the final word,” Hotchkiss said. “But he takes the idea one step forward to meditate on the effect of guns on freedom of speech – how the First Amendment is watered down by the Second Amendment. If somebody has a gun to your head, you can’t speak freely.”

Kathryn Benzel, a Sandburg scholar who is the Martin Distinguished Professor in English at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, called the poem “an amazing find.”

“He has a lot of anti-war poems, poems that undercut the sense of war as the answer to whatever question somebody might have,” she said. “So the fact that he would write this poem … is really indicative of his perception of violence in society.” The final line, she said, echoes another Sandburg theme of “railing against hypocrisy.”

George Hendrick, a U. of I. English professor emeritus who edited several volumes of Sandburg’s poems, said this one may have been inspired by the Lincoln assassination. “Sandburg was very concerned about that murder, and the use of the gun that killed Lincoln,” Hendrick said. “It sounds to me as if he had thought about this problem for years and years before he wrote this poem.”

"Sandburg wrote the multi-volume biography of Lincoln … Lincoln was his great hero, and his great hero was cut down by a man who used a gun to end his existence," Hendrick said. "It's clear that Sandburg had very strong feelings about weapons being used to end the life of others."

The poem is undated. Sandburg died in 1967, but Hotchkiss is certain of its authenticity, citing the smudgy F and A that match other poems from Sandburg’s typewriter. “This has all the marks of a Sandburg poem on it,” she said. “This is clearly written on Carl Sandburg’s dreadful onionskin typewriter paper.”

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