Poetry Friday: Bronzes

Tonight, under 5-6 inches of new snow in Chicago (on top of what remains from last week), it seemed like a good night to post and ponder a poem about Chicago in winter.  Who better than the city’s most ardent lover, Carl Sandburg, to lead the way?  This is “Bronzes” in two parts, from his 1916 book, Chicago Poems:

I

The bronze General Grant riding a bronze horse in Lincoln Park
Shrivels in the sun by day when the motor cars whirr by in long processions going somewhere to keep appointment for dinner and matinees and buying and selling
Though in the dusk and nightfall when high waves are piling
On the slabs of the promenade along the lake shore near by
I have seen the general dare the combers come closer
And make to ride his bronze horse out into the hoofs and guns of the storm.

II

I cross Lincoln Park on a winter night when the snow is falling.
Lincoln in bronze stands among the white lines of snow, his bronze forehead meeting soft echoes of the newsies crying forty thousand men are dead along the Yser, his bronze ears listening to the mumbled roar of the city at his bronze feet.
A lithe Indian on a bronze pony, Shakespeare seated with long legs in bronze, Garibaldi in a bronze cape, they hold places in the cold, lonely snow to-night on their pedestals and so they will hold them past midnight and into the dawn.

A few thoughts arise.  The two halves are in an odd tension for me.  In the first, Grant is a sort of bully, his statue issuing schoolyard dares to passers-by.  In the daylight, in the bustle of a living city, he is a shrinking figure, but when the shadows lengthen he is empowered somehow.  Maybe Sandburg is drawing a sort of symbolic connection here—the shadowy parts of our own minds are where our more violent thoughts tend to remain.  But I think all in all the first half doesn’t reach me (am I misreading it?).

The second half, on the other hand, is so much more poignant.  I can imagine what it would be like for Lincoln to stand there, fixed in place as a world grows up to find itself so much more efficient at killing than he could have dreamed in 1862, even in his worst nightmares.  I feel like there’s a really rich subtext here—Sandburg gives me a lot to draw together.  Lincoln mute in the snow along with a Native American.  Garibaldi, Italy’s Lincoln (and no stranger to war), and the Bard of Stratford.  I wonder what it means that they all keep vigil through the long night.  What does that night signify, and what will they see in the dawn?  It feels very centered to me, as though the statues tie us to some of our noblest aspirations, and that in some way they will guard what is best and brightest about humanity.  It will survive this winter, the war and the darkness.  But why and how, I cannot say.

Recently I’ve been posting a lot of poems where I knew what I wanted to say, and where I wanted to take them.  Obviously tonight I’ve gone a different road, and I hope it will encourage at least one or two of you (if not more!) to offer your own thoughts.  Am I making too much out of a very simple (and maybe mediocre) poem, simply because I like some of Sandburg’s other stuff?  Or, conversely, am I too limited in my reading, especially of the Grant section—are there thoughts here I haven’t sorted yet?  And either way, why am I not seeing a more Chicago-specific read of a poem explicitly set here, and published in a book called “Chicago Poems”?  Even if you think I have it just right, I hope you’ll chime in.  Always good to know somebody out there still reads these, after all.  Peace to you tonight, wherever you are on a winter’s evening.

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Thanksgiving: The most American holiday

I hope you and yours are enjoying whatever Thanksgiving festivities you engage in.  For us in our new city, Thanksgiving has been both different and the same: like any holiday, there are certain rituals surrounding Thanksgiving that provide that comfortable sense of familiarity almost no matter where you are.  As I sit to digest an excellent meal (and, like many other Americans, ask myself the annual question “why is it always the Lions and the Cowboys on Thanksgiving?”), I’m also pondering Thanksgiving as America’s holiday, and thought I’d share thoughts about it here, on this blog that attempts to make sense of my country.

I think of Thanksgiving as the most American of holidays—unlike Independence Day (another competitor for the title), which most other countries celebrate on their own day of founding/independence/revolution, Thanksgiving as a formal annual celebration is a North American thing.  And I like that: I think it in many ways spotlights some of the things that are best about America.  It’s a holiday that reaches across all ethnicities and religions (or lack thereof).  Unlike most other days of celebration, which can alienate some group of people (large or small), it’s pretty hard to come up with anybody who will feel excluded by a national intention to feel thankful.  It is a day to acknowledge how lucky we have been—and America has certainly had its fair share of luck.  It is a day to remember with gratitude that we have been more fortunate that we strictly deserve.  As the prototypical First World nation, I’m glad that our distinctive national holiday is one that essentially asks us to admit our humility in the face of all we have to enjoy.  It’s a holiday of hospitality, the one holiday I can think of where I hear of people observing it by feeding the hungry or clothing the needy (though not enough of us do these things).  When people around the world envision the good qualities they associate with Americans, I think a lot of them are lived out today.

Yes, it’s a holiday devoted to gluttony and family argument and the glorification of materialism, too.  We can rag on Thanksgiving if we want to.  But the beautiful thing about Thanksgiving is that it’s almost impossible to observe it without in some way touching the goodness in it.  We can celebrate the 4th of July in ways that make a mockery of true love for our country.  We can celebrate Christmas in ways that totally subvert the message of that story.  But I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone on Thanksgiving who hadn’t taken at least 30 seconds that day to say they were grateful for something.  Thirty seconds isn’t much, but it’s no less beautiful, being brief.

The other thing I want to mention about this marvelously American holiday is that I think we need to remember more of where it comes from.  No, not the “Pilgrims”—they get more than their fair share of air time (and the implicit anti-Native American racism in their story is the only off-note in an otherwise great holiday for me).  They deserve to be thought of, of course—they didn’t invent the idea of a day of thanksgiving, but we’re certainly inspired by them in some ways today.  If you haven’t read Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates (and you should!  it’s a very brief and easy read, and you’ll be surprised how much you learn, both unexpectedly good and unexpectedly unwelcome, about the Puritans), I don’t think I can adequately summarize it here.  Suffice it to say we should remember them with some gratitude, as well as with a determination not to commit the same mistakes.  But they’re not really where we get our national days of thanksgiving.

The national Thanksgiving begins sporadically when our early Presidents (Washington, Adams, Madison, etc.) declared them.  They weren’t always every year.  There had to be something to be thankful for.  I wish, in some ways, it was still like that.  That Thanksgiving would happen only because we really said to ourselves “Whoa! You know, we’re really grateful for X this year, and we should take a day and acknowledge it!”  But in other ways I’m glad it’s every year, like clockwork, because that too is an acknowledgment.  It acknowledges that no matter how bad the year, we have much to be grateful for.  We have so many people to thank in our lives on a daily basis, spending one day out of 365 to be thankful is almost embarrassingly small as a gesture, in truth.  If there was some way to balance both ideas—the certainty that we’d be thankful with the spontaneity of the bold and surprising proclamation of Thanksgiving—I’d be a fan.

When did we make the shift?  What great year, what year of Jubilee, was so auspicious in America’s history that from that year forward we have observed Thanksgiving every year?  1863.  The mid-point of the Civil War, a year in which thousands upon thousands were killed and maimed, and in which the country remained broken, shattered in two pieces.  From our vantage point we know 1863 was the turning point in the war, but if you look at the newspapers from November 1863, you won’t see it.  They still looked for victory, and had some cause for optimism, but also many reasons to doubt.  But in the midst of all that death and uncertainty, Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation is a work of remarkable hope.  If he had skipped that year, no one would have been shocked.  Plenty of years had been skipped in the country’s history to that point, including the year previous.  So why did 1863 mark a change?

I have no idea.  But I’d like to think this.  I’d like to think it’s because 1863 was the year of the Emancipation Proclamation.  I’d like to think it’s because 1863 was the year of the Gettysburg Address, where Lincoln hailed the new birth of freedom.  I’d like to think it’s because Lincoln knew that the war was not a mindless bloodbath—that the valiant sacrifices made by American soldiers were forging a new country in their blood.  The “last measure of devotion” was the final ingredient needed to move the United States one vital step closer to realizing the promise of the Declaration—that all are truly equal from their birth, and that this country is sincerely and vitally dedicated to that confident belief.  You’ll notice from his words that Lincoln does not regret the war.  He is thankful that peace has been preserved in every way with every nation and among all people, with the important exception of the military conflict.  Thanksgiving isn’t just a day to be thankful for the easy times in our lives.  It’s a day that offers up thanks for the crucibles in which we are refined.  It’s a day where we can express gratitude that we are moving towards something greater, and that even some of our most painful passages are seeing us through to something better.

So today, I hope we can carry a little of that around with us—the knowledge of what it means to be a part of this country that annually pauses for the sake of gratefulness, for the sake of the words “thank you”.  Somewhere amid the food and the football and the frantic shopping outings, let’s be thankful not just for what happens on a personal scale, but also for the strides we have made and will make as a country striving for an ideal of justice.  And then let’s get back out there Monday and keep our feet moving in the right direction.

Poetry Friday: The People, Yes

A strange synchronicity operates in my life (in many of our lives, I’d guess), so this week I saw something that reminded me of Carl Sandburg’s lengthy poem “The People, Yes”, and when I went looking for excerpts of it, I hit a section about whether or not Abraham Lincoln was a poet. And that combines nicely with the ongoing conversation I’ve been having with David Hirsch ever since I posted in February arguing that Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural was a poem. So I basically have to give you a little bit of Sandburg here. I’m not sure if this will set your thoughts a-thinking or inspire much commentary (my luck in that regard is very hit and miss), but hopefully it does a little something for you this fine Friday: an excerpt from Carl Sandburg’s “The People, Yes”

Lincoln?
He was a mystery in smoke and flags
Saying yes to the smoke, yes to the flags,
Yes to the paradoxes of democracy,
Yes to the hopes of government
Of the people by the people for the people,
No to debauchery of the public mind,
No to personal malice nursed and fed,
Yes to the Constitution when a help,
No to the Constitution when a hindrance
Yes to man as a struggler amid illusions,
Each man fated to answer for himself:
Which of the faiths and illusions of mankind
Must I choose for my own sustaining light
To bring me beyond the present wilderness?

Lincoln? Was he a poet?
And did he write verses?
“I have not willingly planted a thorn
in any man’s bosom.
I shall do nothing through malice: what
I deal with is too vast for malice.”

Death was in the air.
So was birth.

Why Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address is poetry…

The title’s not as ambitious as I promised, of course, but sometimes it’s best to keep one’s hubris below the fold.  In case you’re lost right now, I posted to this blog several days ago two “poems” for Poetry Friday: one of them a short ode to Abraham Lincoln by Vachel Lindsay, and the other was the full text of Lincoln’s remarkably brief speech given after he took the oath of office for the 2nd time, in March of 1865.  I acknowledged going in that calling it a poem was daring but defensible.  I commented afterwards that by Monday I’d explain why I think it’s his best speech—better even than the Gettysburg Address—and perhaps the best speech ever given.  I’m going to make that attempt now.  I want to say at the outset that I recognize this is an unresolvable question.  I’m not even sure that I’d agree with me on this 100% of the time—there are a lot of great speeches in the world, and in different moods they affect me in different ways.  So all I’m really doing is trying to explain why this reaches me, why I think it deserves higher acclaim than it gets, and why at the very least it is one of the great prose poems that expresses America at her noblest and best.  I’m not including the whole text here (as it’s accessible by scrolling down a bit), but will quote from time to time.

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln from the Library of Congress

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln in 1863

I want to start with his humility.  This is a public address on an immensely important occasion.  Lincoln has been re-elected by a country that knew his first election had caused the war.  His dedication and unconventional thinking had helped steer a course to victory.  As recently as the fall of 1864, leading up to the election, it was unclear if the war could end in any reasonable time, and many Northerners thought suing for peace would be best.  But startlingly by March 1865, the war is essentially over.  Lee is weeks away from surrendering at Appomattox. The Union is victorious.  And Lincoln begins this triumphant opportunity by telling the crowd he doesn’t want to talk long.  He calls the course of the war “reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all” and refuses to predict anything about its imminent conclusion.  He’s a man who literally had been sneaked into the capital through the shadows for his first inauguration because there were mobs waiting to kill him, and he’s unwilling to take a bow until the last shot is fired.  He would rather not linger on the stage.  Nothing he has to say is important.  This is characteristic of him—the Gettysburg Address is in exactly the same vein—and there is something pure and unfeigned about his shyness.  He recognizes the greatness of his time and the inability of any human being to look prominent by comparison.  In the modern era, where politicians never pass up a chance to give a long stirring speech with lots of applause lines, where our leaders look for chances to declare victories with banners and fanfare, Lincoln is a mystery.

Lincoln acknowledges the contrast with March 1861, noting the anti-Union forces at the start of the war (though saying nary a word about their personal hatred of him, or their attempts to do him violence).  And then the first of the great moments in the speech arrives: “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”  Lincoln uses 19th Century American language the way Shakespeare used Renaissance English—their command and confidence, in both cases, is really beautiful.  In one sentence, that slips by us like a rider in the night almost before we can hear it, Lincoln draws the lines between North and South in a way that does not demonize, but does distinguish.  The irony in that sentence—of the peoples who would have rejected war had there not been a more terrible evil to conquer—is at just the right level for me.  Lincoln was an unwilling warrior—strangely, the President we most associate with a war was, as far as I can tell, one of our least warlike and most pacifist leaders—and the phrasing of that clause “would accept war rather than let it perish” must be exactly what he said to himself the night that Sumter was fired upon.  It’s how he justifies to himself the years of blood and smoke that follow—the death and horror that live in those four slow syllables, “and the war came”.

Lincoln begins to walk directly into the topic of slavery, unblinking, fully aware that his Maryland audience is tense about the end of the war because it will bring with it an end to slavery—slavery which had been legal in the Union state of Maryland throughout the war.  He does so because he wants to show them that the course of history gives them no alternative.  He reminds them that both sides tried their best to avoid this outcome—to seek, in his beautifully phrased prose, “an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding“.  But it could not have been.  Lincoln here reveals a personal perspective on slavery, in saying that it “may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces“, but he immediately steps back from this as a policy statement: they are not to judge, lest they be judged themselves.  There is a wonderful balance here, in which Lincoln simultaneously reminds the audience that the Bible and their faith has been used by both sides against the other, while using the language of the Bible and of faith himself to present his own perspective on the war, a perspective he knew in his heart was “right” in a way the Confederacy could not be.

We are not far into the speech—a handful of sentences, really—but are already past the half-way point, and everything from here on out is shocking.  Lincoln accepts the war as a punishment to both the North and South for slavery: he presents this simply enough, but think of the even-handedness of this.  He does not present the North as the white knight, having vanquished the iniquitous Southern villain.  Both sides are brothers, kinsmen in a house that must suffer for its sins.  Lincoln, who grew up and lived in an emancipated North, believes so firmly in the unity of his country that he will not excuse the North for having allowed the South to go its own way for so long.  Think of the daring of that from any political leader at any time—the willingness to share blame equally between your friends and your foes—and then think of a President doing this on the day of his triumphant inauguration, on the brink of victory after a long and bloody war.  The kind of character it takes to say this is remarkable.

Patients in Ward K, Armory Square Hospital, 1865

And then he says “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”  The epic scope of this overwhelms me every time, and sometimes pushes me to the brink of tears when I read it.  The Civil War had been the country’s bloodiest conflict—over 600,000 Americans dead, hundreds of thousands more wounded and maimed for life.  Every community in the country had felt loss, every neighborhood had at least one young man who would not come home (and many who came home were never the same).  And at this moment, when that long national nightmare seems at an end, when the light is beginning to dawn, Lincoln looks squarely in the eyes of his nation and tells them that this war has been the mercy of God.  That the evils they have undeservedly visited upon a whole race of human beings are so terrible that only the destruction of the American society, only an ocean of spilled American blood, could expiate their guilt.  At a time when he could easily have saluted his followers for their victory “in the cause of freedom”, he instead looks back on the gruesome past of a country built on the backs of an enslaved people and can hardly believe that divine justice will allow his land to escape with a mere million casualties.  His bravery in facing this truth has never, I think, been paralleled by any national leader in the history of democracy.

And I haven’t even gotten yet to the best sentence he ever penned.  “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”  The war is on the verge of ending, but as he continues to remind them, it is not quite over yet.  So, how does he envision the next four years?  Retribution against the traitors who destroyed his country?  Punishments that ensure no such rebellion will ever again arise?  No, he reaches out into the bleeding wounds of the South with charity and not malice—with a love that aches for his American brothers and sisters even as they continue to deny his leadership, even as a few of them are plotting to kill him and his closest friends in a night of assassinations.  Lincoln reminds his people, as both a benediction and a call to service, what work they are engaged in: not the work of warfare, of brutal force and blood.  There has been enough of that—a necessity forced on Lincoln by the war he could not avoid, but not the path of his choosing.  No, the work for Americans is to bind up the nation’s wounds, the whole nation’s and not merely part of it.  To care for soldiers and for those left behind by the dead, regardless of the color they wore as they fell or the flag they saluted when they enlisted.  To take every step, to leave no stone unturned, until the nation is at peace with the world and at peace with itself.

It’s not the greatest speech ever if you want to inspire modern people to action—it’s not timeless in the way that some speeches are (Martin Luther King comes to mind as a better example).  But as a speech of its time, especially of that particular context of the 2nd inauguration at the end of a difficult war, I think it shows an unmatched willingness to confront the truths no one would have asked to hear.  Lincoln is a great leader and a great man because of what he manages in speeches like this one—to humbly and simply put before the nation the truth about itself, that America has never lived up to its ideals, that America has built itself on injustice and exploitation, that in facing hardship America is only facing the consequences of fate and divine retribution that would befall any nation so unwilling to do what is right.  And he says all of this without condescending, without pulling rank or moral authority, and without shifting the focus away from what is most important—that revenge is unthinkable and that peace will only come from kindness and goodness, from the open love offered by a charitable heart.  Lincoln is our greatest President, and this is his greatest speech, because he shows us that under all his canny political instincts (there’s no denying he was skilled, and crafty at times) his devotion to truth and justice is unflinching even when it aims the sword at his own heart.  How our nation was fortunate to elect, not once but twice, a man who ultimately refused to glory in victorious battle, refused to keep honest criticism from his allies, refused to take vengeance on those who threatened the safety of himself, his family, and the nation he swore to protect, I cannot possibly imagine.  If he were a politician in the United States today, he might never rise above the office of local dogcatcher.  That is our century’s shame, and should be all the incentive we need to re-examine our politics.

This is an immense post, and may well be rambling (though I hope not).  I think at the very least it conveys my enthusiasm for Lincoln and for this speech, and I hope I did so in a way that touches you also, even if not in the same way.  If you’ve never read anything by him, I urge you to track down whatever you can—even in short letters to people he was unacquainted with, the character and the vision I’ve been praising are very evident.

Poetry Friday: President’s Day Edition

Today, for the three day weekend, I offer two works of poetry.  One is a short poem about Abraham Lincoln by Vachel Lindsay.  The other is a longer poem by Abraham Lincoln that he gave as his 2nd Inaugural Address, in March of 1865, a few weeks before he died.  He didn’t call it a poem, of course.  Maybe you won’t either.  But if you don’t think it’s poetry, I’d like to hear why.  For me, it does all that poetry does, and can do.

First, Vachel Lindsay’s “Lincoln”:

Would I might rouse the Lincoln in you all,
That which is gendered in the wilderness
From lonely prairies and God’s tenderness.
Imperial soul, star of a weedy stream,
Born where the ghosts of buffaloes still dream,
Whose spirit hoof-beats storm above his grave,
Above that breast of earth and prairie-fire—
Fire that freed the slave.

I chose this today largely because it opens with just what I would say to you, to any of you, to all Americans. Would that we could raise the Lincolns in ourselves this year, not because he was a saint or a demi-god or a man who could do no wrong, but because more than maybe any other American before or since, Lincoln perceived who we were and who we could be, and lit the pathway there. Lincoln, as Lindsay interprets him, is about frontier and fire, about optimism and energy. Lincoln, despite his many faults, managed to tell America more about itself than it had ever known—he saw in the founders’ documents a call to a nobler destiny than they had forged. And he said it to us in the simplest possible language, so that even when his words have grown tired with overquotation and overapplication they still claw their way through to us and shake us awake to ourselves. In the passage below, I hope that happens for you. Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address:

Fellow-Countrymen:

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war–seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

I think it will take a whole post to say why I think this is perhaps the best speech he ever gave (better than the more famous Gettysburg Address), and why it may be the best speech ever given, especially if I consider how much he gets done in how few words (what you see above is the entirety of his remarks). So I will try to write that post on Monday, on Presidents’ Day, and I hope that between now and then a few of you will offer your reflections here in the comments.