Friday, April 9, 2010

Brian Turner on Carl Sandburg's "Grass" (from Poetry Daily)

This is from Poetry Daily--Brian Turner's reflections on Carl Sandburg's "Grass":

by Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)

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.

Brian Turner Comments:
Sandburg’s “Grass” was published in his 1918 collection Cornhuskers, in the shadows of WWI. It may be useful to note that Sandburg volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War twenty years earlier, in 1898, with the 6th Illinois Infantry (when he must have been about 29 or 30 years old). Still, all of this lies ancillary to the poem, which is timeless and speaks with a voice that resounds through the centuries. It is the voice of the grass itself which compels me, reinforcing the theme through repetition of phrase (Pile them high / And pile them high / And pile them high; Shovel them under / Shovel them under; and so on) as well as individual notes within the music (the middle syllables of Austerlitz and Waterloo repeated in under, cover, Verdun, conductor, for example).


The poem finishes in the reader. And what’s more—it actively engages the reader to become a part of the poem, even if only through the oblique angle created by the passengers. It opens up the possibility that we might be complicit in the erasure of history. That is, we all might be passengers on that train—passing by the obscene waste, the accumulated turpitude and ruins of war, battlefield by battlefield, war by war. Sandburg recognizes that in order for the grass to do its work the act of witnessing itself must be erased. Silenced.

An awful silence exists between the passenger’s dialogue (“What is this place? / Where are we now?) and the final couplet (“I am the grass. / Let me work.”) And the silence which follows this admonishment is even more devastating. This is what I mean when I say the “poem finishes in the reader.” And between the silences, when the Grass does speak—Is the tone sardonic? Is it a tone of resignation? A combination of these? And the work of the grass itself—Is it a grim effort toward healing? Or the mortician’s inexorable duty? …Nature seems to be exhausted from the work we humans offer it, again and again. The poem leaves us with much to consider.


I’m reminded of when I was in Basic Training in Ft. Benning, Georgia, and we practiced bayonet drills. We were taught the following call and response:

Drill Sergeant: “What makes the grass grow green?”

Recruits: “Blood. Blood. Bright red blood makes the grass grow green.”

Sandburg’s “Grass” seems to ask of us all—Well? Will you let me do my work?

About Brian Turner:
Brian Turner served for a year in Iraq with the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Second Infantry Division. His book Here, Bullet (2005) won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books and a New York Times “Editor’s Choice” selection. Turner received a Lannan Literary Fellowship in Poetry in 2006 and an NEA Fellowship in 2007. He is also the recipient of the Northern California Award for Poetry, the Maine Literary Award for Poetry, and the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Poetry.


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California Writer said...

I also love Whitman's Section 6 from "Song of Myself' which he asked what is the grass and answered grass "is the handkerchief of the Lord/..../And now it seems to be the beautiful uncut hair of graves/Tenderly will I use you curling grass,/It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men/...../What do you think has become of the young and the old men? And what do you think has become of the women and children?/They are alive and well somewhere/The smallest sprout shows there really is no death./

Anyway, Whitman's meditations on grass probably inspired Sandberg. Praise both of them.

Philip Metres said...

Cali, definitely Sandburg is building on Whitman, who is building on Isaiah.

Lyle Daggett said...

When I was 14, a teacher showed my four or five poems by Carl Sandburg -- "Grass" was one of them -- and it was either that day or that week, because of having read Sandburg's poems, that I decided to be a poet and started writing poems myself. That was a little over forty years ago...

There's also the haiku of Basho, of which I've seen many translations -- here's Rexroth's translation:

Summer grass
Where warriors dream.

Thanks for posting this.

Taylor said...

My English class is studying contemporary poetry and I chose to research Carl Sandburg. I just analyzed "Grass" and I thought it was interesting how Sandburg personifies, and gives the grass a voice. I think that it makes the poem stand out more than others. After reading this poem, I was left thinking for a while. It seems like Sandburg is good at forcing people to think and consider things through his poetry.

Philip Metres said...

I like how the grass can be read as a little frustrated (or confident?) with human grief. "Let me work" is the sort of thing that an annoyed dad might say to an impatient child.

R. Sonoff said...

I'm writing my Phd thesis on war and poetry and, being a veteran of war myself (although not from the US) I find both Sandburg's poem and Turner's comments to be equally beautiful.

This is a great blog, I'll be sure to check it out more.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks, R. Sonoff. Please do read the book, BEHIND THE LINES: WAR RESISTANCE POETRY ON THE AMERICAN HOMEFRONT, while you're dissertating, for another voice, and other voices on war.