Is it Tuesday? Every Tuesday a new poem appears in the box and on the blog.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Poem 23 Carl Sandburg

Chris Ferrin, a wonderful former student of mine, is our guest curator this week while I am away at a conference.  Chris is currently a student at University of Minnestota, Morris, majoring (appropriately enough) in English, after which he hopes to go to grad school and eventually teach English. As this piece indicates, he'll be a wonderful teacher someday. He's a fabulous writer already. I'm so grateful for his hard work this week.  Enjoy!

"Grass" by Carl Sandburg

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work--
          I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor:
          What place is this?
          Where are we now?
          I am the grass.
          Let me work. 

I’ve decided to write about the short poem “Grass” by Carl Sandburg. This poem is neither a particularly inspired choice, nor an example of poetry that I try to look for (read: not written by a dead white guy). However, I simply love this poem for what it does in the context of the poetry that was being written at the same time. Academics place Carl Sandburg amongst the “modernist” poets, who are not only famous for being dead, white, and sad, but also for writing about such uncharted subjects as dying, being white, and being sad. Although there is a lot to support this argument, I think it misses a complexity about Sandburg’s work that is not only intellectually stimulating but emotionally stirring, and my entry is going to mainly be about what makes this poem so unusual in comparison to the work of Sandburg’s contemporaries.
            At first glance, the poem appears to be asking the same questions about the value of human existence that poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were asking. It personifies grass, which takes a rather unsympathetic approach to those who have died in some of the bloodiest battles and massacres in European and American history by disregarding them and saying, “Shovel them under and let me work— / I am the grass; I cover all.” This seems particularly in line with the modernists, who were shocked and horrified at the sheer number of the dead after World War I and were beginning to question whether or not human experience really mattered. With only this context, it is pretty easy to interpret Sandburg’s work to be as equally pessimistic as his fellow poets.
            However, such an approach also misses a few things; in particular, it fails to recognize the significance of the individual words within the poem. This is especially important, considering that this poem has a very small economy of language to work with. Of particular importance, though, is the verb “work.” The grass in this poem is not only growing, but “working.” In this case, “work” is a particularly strong and active verb, particularly in opposition to the typical word choice of “grow.” It also holds a potential connotative meaning to the working class, which Sandburg has shown sympathy towards in such poems as “Chicago” and “Child of the Romans.” Here, he is in almost direct opposition to his contemporaries. One of the frequent criticisms of modernist poets, especially Ezra Pound, was their special brand of elitism. By using this simple verb alone, Sandburg seems to be expressing empathy towards what is “working” rather than what is dying and decaying. This simple word choice alone allows for greater meaning and optimism than one would immediately expect from a typical modernist poet.
However, the most important thing to consider in getting value out of this poem is to understand the shift in perspective it asks for. Even the simple move of personifying grass and using it as the speaker of the poem asks the reader to look at the battles mentioned in the poem in a different light. Many critics interpret the speaker’s attitude towards these battles as a trivialization of human experience. It is hard to argue against such an interpretation, but it limits its focus on the battles mentioned. The poem ends with passengers aboard a train asking their conductor, “What place is this? / Where are we now?” Even though bodies are being piled as the result of massacres, grass is still growing, human existence continues, and, as they say, life moves on. It is a powerful testament to the human ability to forget pain and flourish even after the worst times. The poem might trivialize some extent of experience, but it places a value in growth that makes it hard to consider the poem outright pessimistic.
             But really, the thing I like the most out of this poem is that how I’m managing to extrapolate such an optimistic interpretation on a poem that could simply just be an outright pessimistic condemnation of the human existence by a sad, dead, white guy. If there is any real value in poetry, I think, it is that it is almost always open for interpretation. It can serve a whole variety of purposes for the reader. I love this poem dearly because simply trying to find the complications in its supposed bleak outlook has pulled me through some recent events where things seemed pretty darn bleak. Most importantly, though, I love the poem for its shift in perspective. I know fully well that I need to look at things in a more positive light than I think they are being presented from time to time, and I highly doubt that I am the only person to have that thought.

1 comment:

  1. For some reason what you wrote here reminds me a bit of Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts." The subject isn't really the same, but the result is--the juxtaposition of suffering with the ignoring/erasing of that suffering.