The first poem I can remember returning to of my own free will, meaning I read the poem on my own time apart from any requirement for a test or homework, was Robert Frost’s classic, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
BY ROBERT FROST
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
I still love this poem even though I rarely take well to rhyming poetry. I was in grade school, fourth or fifth grade I think, and it would be years before I ever experienced the utter quiet of snow in the dark. And yet when I read the poem over and over again as a child it was somehow future evocative. When I finally sat alone in the snow at night, perhaps six years after first encountering the poem, it was exactly what I expected because Robert Frost had already told me what it would be like.
This may have been the first poem I ever loved but the first poet I ever loved was Carl Sandburg. In high school I began to seek poetry outside of school assignments. The first book of poetry I ever paid money to own was Poems by Richard Thomas (the actor who played John Boy Walton), which you can buy now for a penny on Amazon, or $44 for a “like new” copy. What I remember about the poetry of Richard Thomas, who no longer writes poetry, was the accessibility, which is not to say it was bad or less than good. I was exploring poetry and the memory of John Boy, who inspired in part my desire to write, was still fresh in my mind so the poetry of Richard Thomas was my midwife. I had written poems on occasion since junior high but it wasn’t until I read Richard Thomas that I understood there were fewer constraints than I’d imagined.
The second book of poetry I paid to own was Harvest Poems by Carl Sandburg, a thin volume of “greatest hits” covering 1910-1960. I didn’t know it at the time but Sandburg was like a brother from another poet mother to Frost. They were very different, and were never great friends, but Frost was only four years older than Sandburg, they both lived into their late 80’s.
One of Sandburg’s greatest long form narrative poems was titled The People, Yes (a series of poems actually). He believed in the people. If Robert Frost had produced a mirror series of poems it might have been titled The People, Maybe. Frost was a rural New Englander, suspicious and insular. Sandburg was a Midwestern urban dweller and a Chicagoan above all else, open and extroverted to a fault. Though he relocated to a farm in North Carolina later in life, Sandburg remained a voice for the working class and the city dwellers while Frost remained introspective and studied in a way that could be misunderstood as elitist. Although a modernist for mostly technical reasons, Frost was not an innovator and experimenter and compared to Sandburg was formal. Sandburg was wild and unpredictable, if also at times undisciplined, as a poet. So, of course I fell in love with him.
Frost had the presentation of an academic but it was Sandburg who wrote the first comprehensive and excruciatingly meticulous multi-volume history of Abraham Lincoln. He was a poet but it was history in the form of Lincoln that was his totem.
Such was my love of Sandburg that my best friend in college bought me his complete works for my birthday, for which he paid a hefty sum for a poor college student. He inscribed the book with a demand that I pay him back with my first born child.
Like Frost, Sandburg wrote some poems that made their way into school text books, the most well-known probably being Fog (remember the little cat feet?). Another is Grass, which has been on my mind a lot lately and in my imagination stands in parallel to Frost’s Stopping by the Woods on a Snowing Evening.
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 passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
The contrast between these two poems is found not only in the subject matter but the style and form, the line breaks and spaces. The poetry of Robert Frost often touches my heart. The Poetry of Carl Sandburg often reaches further down.
The poem, Grass, has been on my mind lately because the grass has a lot of work to do lately and Sandburg has been on my mind because he was a socialist democrat. He was also honest, I believe, in a way that is hard to find in the public sphere right now. I know this is likely narcissistic nostalgia because every age has its liars and crooked politician. But every age also has it’s people who stand up and declare that we are holding the wrong things sacred right now and that people who deserve nothing more than any of us are profiting from the sorrows of the world as if they are too high and mighty now to suffer too. I don’t know how to fight these crooked people but I cling to words and I remember the first three lines of Sandburg poem titled The Eastland, referring to a touring boat that rolled over in the Chicago river in July 1915, killing 844 passengers.
Let’s be honest now
For a couple of minutes
Even though we’re in Chicago.
The reason I was brought back to these words was the simple plea, which was naive, even silly, 100 years ago when Sandburg wrote it. If we could agree for just a few minutes about what the honest words are… but boats full of people keep sinking, oil keeps spilling, wars keep being profit centers, freedom is still defined mostly by armaments.
And the snow and the grass remain constant and true, at least for now.