Making Modernism

Carl Sandburg’s Introduction to Poems of Sis Willner, 1931

Although Carl Sandburg’s introductory note is not a conventional blurb or ringing endorsement for this poetry collection, it is, arguably, another poem itself, one which ventures close to damning the work it precedes with the faintest of praise, placing Sis Willner in the company of “the best light-verse queens of Cook County.” Sandburg then alludes to several recognizable women, both real and fictional, from the coquettish Clara Bow to the tragic Ophelia. The result parallels Willner to these women as they were before being tainted by men, both professionally and personally (and literarily), which is both in keeping and at odds with the recurring topics in Willner’s collection: fickle passions, the difficulty of forging lasting connections inside and outside of relationships, miscommunication, and a sense of cynicism toward the possibility of female agency successfully supplanting a conventional male power structure, as evidenced in the titular move from her first collection, A Lady Thinks, to her second, A Gentleman Decides. Sandburg’s introduction remains revelatory in its sarcasm and strange comparisons, and it is interesting to read between the lines and discern what Sandburg may actually have thought about Willner’s person and persona.

Notably eager to distance herself from comparisons to Dorothy Parker (“i object”), Willner presents herself as a Midwestern modernist, a former gossip columnist, and a future lyricist for the 1942 Broadway production of “Star and Garter.” Sandburg says he has no “instructions or advice for this girl,” and we believe him, especially when he concludes his introductory remarks by explaining that Willner  “is fed up on advice and her writing tells why.” Sandburg and Willner shared a friend in William Targ of Black Archer Press, known for having published Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, andwhose 1984 memoir, Abacus Now: Footnotes to Indecent Pleasures, & Observations on Fine Book Printing, Book-collecting, & Matters Personal, Including how to Survive in the Computer Age, is also available in the Newberry’s Special Collections.

At the end of A Gentleman Decides, Samuel Putnam, in his “postface” posits that Sandburg and WIllner are both “as irretrievably of Chicago as a premium ham.” Willner’s deceptively light verse can be viewed as a quasi-Modernist reconstruction of numerous past events, looking to the future without loving or living in the present. Stylistically, this collection features even more ellipses than her first, creating a sense of detachment, an uncertain projection into the future, and deeper exploration into form, but also with this sense of bracing oneself against forward momentum, as in “villanelle of foreboding.”

Erica Bernheim, Florida Southern College

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