Hamlet and Me – Inside Out for Grown Ups

1996. I was sitting alone in a movie theater…well, not alone; I mean I was without company. I mean nobody I knew came with me to the theater. It was a movie house in the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Back then I knew San Francisco well, living just outside the city. I didn’t know it like a native but I knew it like a friend who has never invited you to their home but asks you to drinks regularly and seems generally interested in your life. So, I felt at home, is what I’m trying to say. I wasn’t a tourist so I don’t think I have over sentimentalized the event.hamlet1

I was in the theatre to see Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. It’s a four hour beast, the full text of the play, and the only movie I remember seeing, aside from Gone With The Wind, that requires an intermission. The works of Shakespeare, it turns out, do not come in neatly wrapped and tied packages. Like most holy texts, there are multiple versions, bits here and there. Branagh, the screenwriter, director and lead, pulled from every source available and used every last drop of it and I hung on every word. I was enthralled because Branagh made every effort to bring the text alive and help us interpret Shakespeare through action and emotion. My blog is titled “By These Pickers and Stealers” after a line in Hamlet that I didn’t understand until I watched Kenneth Branagh say it while wiggling his fingers. He made the play bigger and smaller at the same time. It’s a simple story with complex characters and language but a simple story still, and Branagh trusted the easy truth of it beneath all the staging and language and crowded stage.

It’s one of my favorite movies. Already a sucker for Hamlet I reveled in the full text presented without apology and I appreciated Branagh’s production, lovely and precise and visually respectful of the poetry within the play while being something new. I watched it two more times while it was still in theatres (that’s a total of 12 hours) and I have watched it three or four times since. Nobody has ever sat through the entire movie with me.

Ten years later I was disappointed to hear one of my heroes (and a Shakespearean-like character in his own odd and private way), Ray Bradbury, say he preferred Mel Gibson/Franco Zifferelli’s more traditional and truncated 1990 version of Hamlet over Branagh’s. The movies cost about the same to make (Branagh’s 18 million against Gibson’s 20 million), though Gibson’s was half as long.

But I was talking about Bradbury. He liked Mel Gibson’s movie better (Ziffirelli was the director and co-writer but I’m calling it Gibson’s Hamlet out of laziness and focus). It was hard for me to understand Bradbury’s preference.

Though Ray Bradbury recognized me at book signings and speaking engagements and we corresponded occasionally (he answered everybody, by the way), by the time I heard him talk about Hamlet he was in a wheelchair and they didn’t allow people to chat with him much at events because he would tire quickly. So, in 1986 when I first met him we could have talked about Hamlet but in 2006 he no longer had the energy to do more than sign books.

My guess is that Bradbury liked the visceral, crazy, Mel Gibson Hamlet more than the intellectual, crazy, Kenneth Branagh Hamlet. And that would be a good point. You can read Hamlet as broken at the core of his being or you can read him as broken in his ability to process his current reality (and other ways too, I’m not presenting any false dichotomies here). Does Hamlet break from the inside out or the outside in? There you have Gibson and Branagh, in my mind, their Hamlet’s and maybe the actors as well. I am no scholar and an amateur reader at best, but here you also have a central question in the play. What kind of crazy is Hamlet?

Hamlet-hamlet-2646629-997-453Even if you have not seen their depictions of Hamlet, all you need to do is imagine Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh (as they are displayed for better or worse in other movies and in public) and there you see before you the embodiment of the question. Did Hamlet’s madness move north or south from his broken heart?

 

hamlet-mel-and-skullTo ask what kind of crazy is Hamlet is to ask, What sort of crazy am I? That’s sort of what I’m up to here. It’s not my intention to write an analysis of Hamlet. Even if we just count the very good books and essays on Hamlet, they are countless, like Bible commentaries or Chess books. I’m trying to write about why Hamlet as a story and Kenneth Branagh’s movie in particular—even singularly—is so meaningful to me.

Shakespeare, whoever he was, does not need me to vouch for his genius. In the case of Hamlet, I think that genius is most evident while looking at efforts, movies or plays, to present the Hamlet story using only bits and pieces of the original work, as with every other movie version except Branagh’s. I’m not exactly sure why I’m doing this other than to say I just started wondering why I love Branagh’s Hamlet so much.

 

I am fond of the idea that we need stories because all stories are about us. It’s a small twist on the Gestalt method of dream interpretation in which everything within a dream is you. (Warning, giant aside): I’m not a big believer in understanding or interpreting symbols in dreams because I think it misses the point and causes us to act as if the dream came from somewhere else or is a coded message from our subconscious that requires a kind of Orphan Annie decoder ring to understand. If you really want to extract value from a dream simply speak (write) from the point of view of every person, place, or thing within the dream. If you dream of a chair skipping down a street made of green taffy while the Bee Gees sing Staying Alive from their perch on a cloud high above, start with the chair. Write, “I am a chair…” Answer all the basic questions as the chair. Why are you skipping? Where are you going? What are you thinking and how do you feel? Do the same for the taffy street, the clouds, the Bee Gees, and even the song Staying Alive.

Stories work in the same way, I think. But it goes beyond how we identify and empathize with the main character. We are all of the characters in every story if we want to understand, even a little, about why any of them make an impression on us, why we laugh and cry and wish the movie would not end or are grateful when it does.

Yes,  you are Batman.

I like Hamlet because, perhaps like you, I am a little broken in places and a little insane at times. I love Branagh’s Hamlet because he makes me look so stunningly poetic while I slip off the cliff of reason. In the mirror of my personal madness Mel Gibson makes me look like I’m tripping over a rock whereas Branagh makes me look like I’m performing a beautiful swan dive as I descend into the abyss. One is likely and one is aspirational.

We are Hamlet as we are the dead king and traitorous uncle and passionately ambivalent mother. We are the lost and drowning Ophelia, the angry Laertes, the ambitious and angry Fortinbras. We are even the dumbstruck ambassador from England who at the end of the play wonders who he should tell that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.” Maybe most of all we are Horatio, the friend, survivor, witness, and surely the teller of the tale.

Hamlet and me. I don’t know for sure why these things come to my mind when thinking about Hamlet more than other stories. I think maybe it’s because within Hamlet one finds so many aspects of personality and the play itself presents a complete picture of being human. And in full text you even get the boring parts to complete the picture.

The best example of the full text providing a full length mirror reflection of being human is the presence of Fortinbras, the prince of Norway. When Hamlet is staged or filmed Fortinbras and his entire subplot are often the first thing to be cut out because he is easily removed without disturbing the central plot and action. He is absent from both Olivia’s and Gibson’s Hamlet. Though he speaks the final words of the play these are sometimes given to Horatio in his absence. But to me it completely ruins the story or, at best, turns it into something else. Fortinbras is the Bizarro World Hamlet. He is a Prince named after his father who was killed (by Hamlet’s father). So they are not just contrasting characters they are entwined.

Hamlet without Fortinbras is incomplete because without Fortinbras, who seeks revenge for his father’s death by any means with determination and without hesitation, we have only Hamlet’s maddening deliberation and self-examination. Hamlet tells the travelling actors visiting the castle to perform the play “Gonzago,” in a way that will cause his murdering Uncle Claudius to display guilt.

Young Fortinbras would not play such games (even if he could conceive of them). If Fortinbras was the main character, it would be a very short play because he would slit his uncle’s throat before the end of Act One, probably in the second scene.

Mel Gibson’s Hamlet is not only without Fortinbras but Horatio is pushed into the background. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are removed, eliminating yet another part of “my personality” from the story. (Oddly enough, the play and movie Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is my second favorite version of Hamlet.)

The Disney Film Inside Out gave us an glimpse inside the emotions of an 11 year old by personifying aspects of her personality. I could have saved you a lot of time by just saying this up front, but I think Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is basically “Inside Out” for my personality, and I don’t think I’m alone. Hamlet has been turned into a movie more than any other Shakespeare play (beating Romeo and Juliette by at least 10 films) and by almost any measure it is his most popular play. Thinking about Hamlet as Inside Out for adults helps me understand why I had enjoyed and appreciated the play but was not stunned by it until I saw Branagh’s full text movie.

It’s easy enough to say Hamlet is a troubled soul but outside of the full text I don’t think he’s troubled enough, or he is troubled in a way that makes the story a different story about a different Hamlet, alternative universe versions, maybe. Hamlet with or without Fortinbras? Spock with Vulcan destroyed or with Vulcan intact?

Well, Hamlet might be in the eye of the beholder, a mystery, an adventure, an Oedipal puzzle and I’m sure my love for the play had different reason at one time than it does now and will change in the future. Nevertheless, there is me in 1996, going to the movie alone and even after four hours remaining in my seat while the credits rolled, my mouth open, forgetting where I am and wondering what just happened. I think I’m just keep trying to explain it to him.

Reflection in a Pond

My sometimes friend, a lady slayer I suppose

A man with notches on his gun

A chalk’em-up lover with rope in his bed

Confided in me once

 

He said

I’ve lived them all

Every one of my reality based

Non-paranormal sexual fantasies

 

Of those remaining, my favorite will require

A witch, or at least, witches work

And maybe the selling of a small portion

Of my big blond soul

 

He told me he wished to inhabit

The body of his lover while he loved her

 

I didn’t bother asking if he knew

The story of Narcissus

And I didn’t tell it

This would have spoiled some great and ancient

Secret between Devine powers

And every healing tear that’s ever been

 

But I did say

Knowing your desire you’ll understand

It is only your best interest I have at heart

If I tell you to go fuck yourself

 

Not long after this

In the high lust of spring

He disappeared

 

I found growing from his mattress

A single proud daffodil

And cared for it as I could

When it died, I buried it on a low hill

Next to an old dead river

Under a wooden marker on which I carved:

 

God is a magician

With imperfect speckled doves

Hidden under his tattered coat

And flowers up his sleeve

 

single_daffodil-wallpaper-480x800

Pennies from Heaven

 

At a donut shop near the sea

At a donut shop so close to the ocean

they sell surf wax

I’m picking out chocolate

Along side construction workers

And coffee hungry long distance commuters

 

I pick an old fashion compared-to-what-I-don’t-know

But the little happy-man clerk frowns at my money, he wants

Something smaller

Something less

Something not so large

Something more poetic

Like pocket change

Next time, he mumbles

I said, he mumbles these words: “next time”

 

The sun is rising and I am still high from dark room

half awake sex

It is a small throw-away-by-nine moment I cannot forget

A bubble gum wrapper moment stuck to my shoe in a parking lot

full of people who thought I was cool yesterday

When my poems didn’t have trite shinny endings like

 

There is no free lunch but occasionally

A donut sneaks through

Archeology

They will eventually fit together

the lonely pieces

into a whole map.

Being smarter, being the future,

being devoted to their work they

will consult available experts and

reach a consensus.

They will eventually figure us out.

 

This is my left hand waving to strangers,

my right hand touching your cheek.

Don’t tell me

you were expecting red-ruby slippers.

These are my eyes.

Look at them and keep one

if you need.

Or don’t.

But never say I didn’t offer

to go blind

at the first sign of surrender.

 

Your favorite love-disaster metaphor

is: ripping the heart out. Violence.

I’ve been impressed by this.

Your are easy with absence or

never quite motionless or

never caught waiting with your face exposed.

 

These are just samples,

hairline fractures.

 

Without a fist we circle each other.

Famously non-combative

we avoid the throat.

The path worn in the grass is our witness,

explaining each incomplete moment.

Exhale.

This is how they will find us.

The only mistake they will make

is in naming our reason.

A Desert Tent

Isaac

Blind

He waits for me in a desert tent

The wind with sand needles my face

I squint crows feet

I am the son

My mother wraps me in deception

My father waits in a desert tent

I smell the lie that is on me

 

He is old, like the womb that grew him

He is blind

He is my father

His name means laughter

I am still a clinging thing, without a wound

 

I carry the lie in a bowl

I feed it to my blind father

His name means laughter

The lie is heavy with spice

It is a strong lie

That my mother has prepared

 

jacob_esau

Who Am I if Trump Wins?

Politically I have felt like I was in the minority most of my adult life. Even when the presidents for whom I voted have held office they were either too conservative too much of the time (for me) or in constant deadlock with congress (or being impeached). Generally speaking, I didn’t whine too much. The country waxes and wanes, yes? When Clarence Thomas was confirmed as a justice to the supreme court I turned to a friend and said, “a Democrat was just elected president.”

At the time, I think I was hoping it would be Jerry Brown.

On election day in 2004 I had no plans to vote. I knew Kerry couldn’t win and I was absolutely despondent aside from my confidence that in 2008 we would elect a Democrat. I was walking home from the bus stop when I noticed a hand written sign stapled to a telephone pole, just high enough that it couldn’t easily be torn down, that read: “Terrorists for Kerry.” I shrugged it off but then I saw another one. I changed my route and headed for my polling station to vote, passing four more signs along the way. At that point, I didn’t feel like I was in the minority, I felt like I was part of the opposition. For the last six years I have felt like I belonged to the opposition party. But that was fine. That’s what we do, despite the fact (okay, my belief) that our country was, as George Carlin said, bought and paid for a long time ago, our job was just to keep the money from ruling absolutely.

Looking at the current crop of Republican candidates I’ve had to rethink how I would refer to myself if one of them became president.

As much as I dislike Jeb Bush as presidential material or Chris Christie as human material, if either of them, or several other candidates, became president, I would soldier on as part of the “opposition.”

Even if Ted Cruz became president, I would still think of myself as part of the opposition. I would be more active but I would think of myself as standing in opposition to an extreme interpretation of our democracy. If Ben Carson were elected, I wouldn’t be happy but I wouldn’t worry too much. I’d become a Paul Ryan supporter overnight and I would pay close attention to the White House staff and we would survive. If Nixon couldn’t control the bureaucracy, Carson won’t be able to get out of bed without permission. He wouldn’t win a second term.

But if Donald Trump were elected president, that’s a horse of a different color entirely. If it happened, how would I think of myself? To me it seems like “opposition” is too tame, woefully inadequate.

I mean, I can throw fits pretty good (no surprise) and be good and angry and spout off with a fair degree of steam and a little poetry mixed in, but what do I do, who am I, with a Donald Trump in the White House. I wasn’t sure until recently.

If Donald Trump were elected president of the United States of America, I would then be part of the resistance. What does that mean? Well, I don’t know yet. Elect Trump and we’ll find out, but be certain that if the rules change enough to put a Trump in the White House then the rules change everywhere and in every way.  The day Donald Trump is sworn in as president of the United Sates is the day that all bets are off and precedent, tradition and expectation are flushed down the toilet. You will no longer be allowed to expect me to play nice or adhere to any convention whatsoever.  I will resist. I will resist. I will resist.

And finally, I think what it means is I will rebel. And maybe it’s time anyway.

CVyJNWfWUAEdRtL

The Trumpoll Problem

The history of political polling is rife with examples of polls being wrong. To be sure, they are often right, or right enough, but there are many examples of polls being dramatically wrong and so we understand that polls are not votes. The emergence of online environments and all that they add or subtract from opinion making must, one can imagine, have an impact on the nature of polling. I’m speculating.

I should acknowledge that I have long been more interested and attracted to the failures inherent in social research, including polling, than I am its success as a tool for understanding humans. In fact, I have been guilty of spending more time explaining why a piece of research I have conducted might not be helpful than I spend talking about what we can learn from it.

(“So, are we paying you to tell us why you can’t really tell us anything?”)

So and then it will come as no surprise to you, because you have been thinking the same thing, that I wonder about the polling numbers for Donald Trump. At this point we should pause and take a moment to remove all the energy we now experience around Donald Trump, or set it aside, tie it to a helium balloon, whatever works for you. Whether your energy is negative or positive or simply confused, that is not the thing I am interested in right now.

People lie to pollsters, or tell half formed truths, maybe. It happens. For example, it is well established, though not without caveats, that conservatives are sometimes reticent in offering their true opinions (this is called the “Shy Tory” effect). Another problem is that people might not answer truthfully when one of the candidates is a minority (the “Bradley Effect”). These are relatively exotic problems with polling. Others are more common and mundane, the most common being the sample error relative to size, which polls attempt to correct for by offering a margin of error. The margin of error is a statistical recognition of the fact that you cannot ask everyone the question. If you cannot ask every single adult in America, you are obliged to acknowledge the potential for inaccuracy, which is greater the smaller the sample size.

There are other errors and many of them have to do with how well the sample that is standing in for the general population serves as a microcosm of that population. These can be really interesting because randomness requires discipline, ironically maybe. If you are stopping people on the street to ask them questions, how does your personal preference not become part of the sample? People who look like they’ll kill you if you ask them a question are part of the population, but may not be accurately represented in a sample group.

The biggest problem to my mind, and the one I think is most relevant when it comes to looking at Trump’s poll numbers, is the assumption, both necessary and flawed, that the people who refused to answer your silly questions would have answered them in the same way as those who agreed to answer them.

We know that people who agree to participate in polling are not necessarily accurate representations of everyone. Generally speaking, the reluctance to speak with a pollster is not considered a statistically relevant variable or one that is corrected in the margin of error related to sample size.

Simply put, it is my opinion, based on nothing whatsoever beyond my own personal observations, that Trump supporters, much like their candidate, are very eager to share their opinion; whereas, your average Republican, more thoughtful, has not yet formed an opinion because they are not yet sure what has become of their party or where to assert their support. Trump is simply a more extreme example of how the Tea Party minority has taken a seat at the table just by being consistently vocal.

I live in the most conservative county in the state of Georgia, which is saying something, and yet I can count on one hand the number of Trump bumper stickers I have seen. By this time in the last election I was seeing Romney bumper stickers by the dozens. They were everywhere, at every stop light.

My opinion, and I will not be surprised if I am wrong, is that we are seeing polling anomalies that pace Trump’s incongruence as a candidate. I mean, how many Trump supporters have you met personally and how does that number compete with how many Republicans you know?

I have not met one Trump supporter. I keep thinking about what advertising innovator David Ogilvy, a real life madman, said about focus groups 30 years ago. He said talking to seven of his friends was as good as a sample group. I’ve always believed that was true. If Donald Trump was really going to be relevant in any meaningful way, I think he would have come up in one real world conversation with a supporter by now, or more than two bumper stickers in the most conservative county in Georgia.

It is my opinion that Trump supporters are eager, excited, assertive and want everyone to know what they think and are disproportionately represented in polls at a time when most Republicans don’t know what to think.

And this is not taking into account numerous other issues such as how questions are written or how pollsters contact people. Landlines (inexpensive to reach) will skew Republican. Cell phones (expensive to reach) will skew democratic. Fewer and fewer people are willing to sit through a 30 minute set of polling questions (more questions, more accuracy) so how do people who are willing to sit through 30 minutes skew the results. Are they more passionate? More decided?

Look, I’m not a statistician or a professional researcher or a pollster. But I’ll tell you what, Donald Trump’s seeming popularity does not square with my daily experience. I have this feeling that we’re looking at smoke and mirrors. To what end I cannot even guess. If Trump turned out, as Jeb Bush has suggested, to be a spoiler on behalf of Hilary Clinton, I honestly would not be surprised. Everything is too out of whack not to expect the unexpected.

Finally, any one candidate’s actual chances are difficult to define in a crowded race. There is a large peloton behind Trump. I use this bike racing term as a metaphor because if Trump is truly in the lead then he is winning as Lance Armstrong.

 

 

 

Final Trumpettes

On the eve of his destruction he calls you to his table he
Remains proud and defiant full of the strength you
Suckled like an angry lamb kicking at air and empty dirt

His face is bright and still full of the promise though
Everyone can hear the demons in the jungle having
Finally caught his scent and now drooling over the hunt

As if the day was his as if his hands did not tremble he
Insists everyone lift their glass to glory and nobody
Looks down they know their drinks are red like blood

Like Kool-Aid

Looking Up

Born in 1963, I am at the tail end of the Baby Boomers. No matter how much medicine advances over the next few decades, most of us boomers will be gone in 50 years and I wonder about things that are lost. I mean, when it comes to The Greatest Generation, one no longer runs across people, very often anyway, who fought in WWII. But when I was growing up, I met and spoke with WWII veterans all the time. They were my teachers and neighbors and all my friend’s granddads.

Well, the list is endless, isn’t it? One day there will be no one left who remembers a time before personal computers. I fully expect, should I have any geeky grandchildren (what are the odds?), to watch their mouths drop open as I describe using an Apple IIc, or playing pong, not in exactly the same way I held my grandfather in awe because his ship sank at Pearl Harbor, but you get the idea.

And this is the way of things. I do not lament it, but I am curious. I have realized that one thing that will be lost with Baby Boomers is looking up. I’m not being flippant.

My father and second dad (both of the Silent Generation) look up more than half the time when a plane flies overhead. When I was a kid, my dad looked up at almost every plane. He may have looked up more than most because he was working for an airplane manufacturer, but all my friends’ dads did it too. My grandfathers looked up at planes too. And I look up at anything that is not a high and distant passenger jet, and even then I look up often.

The Xers and Millennials, they don’t look up so much. A few months ago I was taking to a young man in his early 20’s and we were standing under the flight path for a nearby Air Force base. As various transports and miscellaneous aircraft flew over, I was looking up at every single one. I mean I can ignore passengers jets, but military aircraft, c’mon. And then I realized that he didn’t understand what was going on and he was getting impatient with my inattention.

I explained about the planes. I explained how, when my dad was growing up, the skies were transforming from propellers to jets. The sky was full of wonder and planes moved across the sky at ever increasing speeds. My grandfathers grew up at a time when planes were still a marvel. The nose of the Greatest Generation was born before Kitty Hawk. The Millennial kid understood and accepted what I was saying, but he had no empathy.

I inherited the habit of looking up, but it is a habit that will not survive being twice removed from the jet age fascination of my father. Perhaps, when things begin to hover and float and generally defy our current understanding of gravity, kids will start looking up again.

It is a small loss, I know. It’s not the last Civil War soldier (1956 if you can believe it), or the last WWII veteran (more than 500 die every day and we will dip below the 1% remaining mark this year). It’s a random and low impact loss, the generations who looked up. The generations that follow will be those who looked elsewhere, and perhaps with unimaginable results when all is said and done. But I thought it deserved a mention. Here’s to looking up.

The Snow and the Grass

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 FROSTRobert 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 who41I80Z2YOwL._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_ 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 andCarl_Sandburg_NYWTS the city dwellers while Frost remained introspective and studied in a way that could 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.

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 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 much 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.