Sandburg’s “Fog” and the Imagist Movement

Out of all of the poems written by Carl Sandburg, an early twentieth-century poet of the Imagist school, “Fog” may be his most famous. This may seem surprising; it’s a deceptively simple poem, only six lines long, with no real discernible meter or rhyme scheme. However, the significance of this poem lies not only in the latent power of its imagery, but also in the groundbreaking poetic tradition in which it participates, and of which it was one of the earliest examples.

Carl Sandburg composed “Fog” in the year 1916. World War I was raging, and bringing with it massive social changes, the repercussions of which we still feel today. In literature, and poetry specifically, the austerities of the war and the harshness of the reality which people the world over were being forced, for the first time, to face brought about an entirely new style. Works of literature composed at this time became crisper, less romantic, more realistic – and no genre exhibited this shift more obviously than the poem. Carl Sandburg was clearly writing within this tradition; in a review of his work, one critic states that he “has the unassailable and immovable earthbound strength of a great granite rock which shows a weather-worn surface above the soil.”[1] This particular trend of strong, concrete, reality-bound literary works manifested itself specifically in the Imagist Movement. A subset of the modernist trend of the early 1900’s, the Imagist Movement was centered around the use of imagery as a primary force in poetry; writers of the Imagist school focused on creating strong, realistic images, which they allowed to be the center of their poems. Sandburg’s reviewer speaks to the compelling way in which Sandburg participated in this trend, saying: “This is speech torn out of the heart because of the loveliness of.., a fog coming ‘on little cat feet’ – the incommunicable loveliness of the earth, of life – is too keen to be borne.”[2] The Imagist poets tried to access the deepest realities by presenting, with clarity and force, but without subtext, true images drawn from real life; in this lay their peculiar power. Carl Sandburg manifests this trend in a particularly clear and compelling way in “Fog”.

Carl Sandberg wrote primarily in free verse, meaning that the majority of his poems flowed freely without a clearly discernible metrical character or rhyme scheme, and “Fog” is no exception. The metrical feet fall in what appears a random pattern, and none of the lines rhyme. Its brevity, tightly constructed lines, and overall conciseness almost put one in mind of a Japanese haiku. There is one legend that holds that Sandburg wrote the poem while he was waiting for a friend in a Chicago park; he had a book of haikus with him, and decided to try his hand at writing one himself, which he eventually developed into “Fog”. Whether or not this story is true, it’s certainly undeniable that this tight free-verse piece bears some similarity with the clean, concise lines of Japanese haiku. This method of constructing a poem lends a particular force; the reader is more attentive than he might be if he were simply reading a paragraph in prose, and yet the naturalism of the word choices and the lack of rhyme imparts a realistic quality to the piece. This emphasis on realism, again, is a quality of the modernist movement, in which Carl Sandburg, as an Imagist poet, was writing. The imagery in this poem is particularly unique, since it relies on a single metaphor to give it a focused center. The poem reads as follows:

The fog comeson little cat feet.

It sits lookingover harbor and cityon silent haunchesand then, moves on.[3]

The comparison of a cat to the fog is a very apt one, since cats and fog actually do share a few characteristics. Both can be absolutely silent, and can creep into an area completely unawares. Similar to a drifting fog, the stereotypically defiant cat goes wherever it will and does what it pleases, regardless of the effect it has on its surroundings. Both cats and the fog are somehow mysterious and elusive, and both are notoriously fickle. The testimony of cat owners from time immemorial affirms the idea that cats can change their moods in an instant, without rhyme or reason. Fog, too, is notoriously moody, arising or dissipating with a swiftness that is sometimes startling. The choice to connect cats and fog was truly inspired.

In terms of poetic devices, Sandberg employs a few noteworthy ones which are very helpful in developing the overall metaphor and tone of the poem. He begins with an instance of alliteration in the second line: “little cat feet.” The repetition of the “t” sound here evokes the idea of tiptoeing, which begins to establish the idea of a creeping silence – an apt image for both fog and cats. Sandburg’s use of short lines in free-verse help to perpetuate this idea of a slow approach. Free-verse itself, as a genre when used by Sandburg, tends to create a ponderous, earth-bound rhythm; as Harriet Monroe says in her article about the work of Carl Sandburg, “The free-verse rhythms which this poet prefers are as personal as his slow speech or his massive gait; always a reverent beating-out of his subject.”[4] This ponderous but thorough treatment of the reality he is trying to convey is advanced further in his choice to keep the lines of the poem intentionally short. In doing this, Sandburg is able to control the pace at which his reader takes in the poem, since the combination of short lines and free verse make it impossible to predict what the poet will say next, and require an attentive reading. This slow, intentional reading reflects, in a way, the slow but inevitable approach of the fog as it rolls in.

Overall, while “Fog” is one of the shortest poems to be included in a canon of great poetic works, the strength of its imagery and the fascinating use of poetic techniques which the artist employs ensure that it does indeed occupy a rightful place there. Sandburg’s use of naturalistic imagery to convey his idea is a testament to his natural power of his artistry; as Harriet Monroe writes, “His book [of poems], whether you like it or not, whether you call it poetry or not, is fundamental in the same majestic sense – it is a man speaking with his own voice, authoritatively like any other force of nature.”[5] The really shocking element of Sandburg’s artistry, however, lies in his uncanny ability to capture a single moment – that of the fog as it floats fleetingly through the city and over the water. In this, he not only establishes himself as a fine example of the Imagist school of poetry, but also solidifies his place as one of the greatest poetic imaginations of our time.

[1] Harriet Monroe, “Carl Sandberg” in The Poetry Foundation, September 1924, 321 [2] Monroe, 321 [3] William Harmon, ed., The Top 500 Poems. Columbia University Press, New York, 1992, 914. [4] Monroe, 321 [5] Ibid.