Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Barrett Watten & Carl Sandburg's "Buttons"

A few years ago, when I interviewed Barrett Watten, the headily avant-garde poet who is part of the network of poets known as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school, I was a little surprised when he mentioned Carl Sandburg's "Buttons" as part of the trajectory of war resistance poems that he saw himself influenced by. Along with the usual suspects (folks like Zukofsky and Ginsberg), Sandburg seemed a little odd as an influence for Watten's project Bad History (1998), a haunting series of poems written "through" and alongside the Persian Gulf War. In retrospect, I can imagine how Watten might see in "Buttons" a humble model of war resistance poetry, one that mediates the distance between the homefront and battlefront--and how the blithe abstractions of war planning wreak horrific consequences.

"Buttons" by Carl Sandburg

I have been watching the war map slammed up
for advertising in front of the newspaper office.
Buttons—red and yellow buttons—blue and black buttons—
are shoved back and forth across the map.

A laughing young man, sunny with freckles,
Climbs a ladder, yells a joke to somebody in the crowd,
And then fixes a yellow button one inch west
And follows the yellow button with a black button one inch west.

(Ten thousand men and boys twist on their bodies in
a red soak along a river edge,
Gasping of wounds, calling for water, some rattling
death in their throats.)
Who would guess what it cost to move two buttons one
inch on the war map here in front of the newspaper
office where the freckle-faced young man is laughing
to us?

Online text © 1998-2007 Poetry X. All rights reserved.
From Chicago Poems | Henry Holt & Company, 1916

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