Under a Telephone Pole

Carl Sandburg, ‘Under a Telephone Pole’
in The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg
(New York: Harcourt Brace, 1950)
First published: 1916

I am a copper wire slung in the air,
Slim against the sun I make not even a clear line of shadow.
Night and day I keep singing—humming and thrumming:
It is love and war and money; it is the fighting and the tears, the work and want,
Death and laughter of men and women passing through me, carrier of your speech,
In the rain and the wet dripping, in the dawn and the shine drying,
A copper wire.

Carl Sandburg’s ‘Under a Telephone Pole’ presents a personified copper wire line that hangs above the ‘death and laughter of men and women’ whose voices pass through it. The poem’s key image is that of the charged, shining telephone wires that hum incessantly over the citizens below as if they are the gatekeepers of the city’s private information. Sandburg contrasts the surreal phenomenon of voices travelling through the copper wire with the telephone line’s seemingly insignificant and slight presence: ‘slung in the air.’ Perhaps most significant though is the extended metaphor that connects the telephone wire’s work with that of a soldier or messenger whose role is to carry important messages between people. The ‘humming and thrumming’ of the line mimics the drum beat to which a soldier marches while the reference to ‘love and war and money’ suggests things that are used to justify the transmission of messages along the copper wires. As these three lyrics show, the spectre and awe of the telephone and the human voice that it carried was a poetic topic that promoted the audible essence of lyric.

by Tyne Daile Sumner