Last episode I presented Ezra Pound’s rant about the society that lead so many to their deaths in WWI, deaths that included several of his own modernist artistic circle. Taking it personally, Pound exclaims that their “fortitude as never before” for change and their “frankness as never before,” lead only to equally great “disillusions”. He sees lies and liars leading others into the war and their sacrifices, and only liars as triumphing.
Speaking repeatedly about liars and lies and illusions, Pound’s “These Fought” would not be a very popular choice for a Memorial Day speech then, just as it probably would not be one now. If you agreed with him, you might enjoy his precise inventory of folly. If you didn’t, you’d say he was unappreciative of his friends (and so many others) sacrifice, and that his disbelief in the stated high motives for the war could be mere cynicism. I can hear what some voices must have said then (and would say now): “You can complain about what is imperfect, perhaps even foolish, but what’s your solution other than to stand to the side and write poems?”
Alas for Pound, he did propose a solution. It was a solution chosen by many others disappointed after WWI, a fresh “modernist” conflation of race hate, nationalism, technology and authoritarianism, the fascism that lead to WWII.
Today’s episode: “Grass” by Carl Sandburg is just as pure a modernist, imagist poem as any by Pound, but it’s statement about the sacrifices of war is more indirect.
Sandburg wrote this poem during WWI, and he starts with carnage, but it’s not the dead bodies of his present war—it’s the bodies of past wars, past great battles.
Sandburg has a reputation as a clear-spoken poet who makes his points straightforwardly, as if plain words mean simple thought. I believe this is mistaken. Sandburg’s mind was not a simple, unicameral mind. Sandburg was leading multiple lives at once during this time. He was writing, sometimes under a pseudonym, for radical leftist/labor IWW publications, while writing for the mainstream Chicago dailies, while writing modernist, Imagist poems. While Sandburg was protesting the jailing of IWW antiwar activists, and writing today’s compressed, Imagist, “Grass,” Sandburg had also published a long, Whitmanesque populist and blood-thirsty poem “Four Brothers” lauding the urge of Americans to go overseas and put German Kaiser’s head on a pike. “Grass” too has its echoes of Whitman—not the martial revolutionary Whitman, but the Whitman who wrote of grass as “the beautiful, uncut hair of graves.”
So, this is a complicated and perhaps self-conflicted man who is writing this, and when we move in “Grass” from the catalog of deadly battles, ending with two great battles of WWI, Sandburg’s poem takes a turn.
In two years or ten years, what is this sacrifice? In “Grass” the places of these battles become nowhere. Is this a hopeful statement, that after this “War to End All Wars,” we will now be able to forget war? Is this an anti-war statement that would say, as the radical Sandburg or Ezra Pound would have said: that after all such strife, the liars and those that run things will continue to run things anyway, as if the war settled nothing? Is it a statement of reconciliation to come, when elderly soldiers from opposing sides meet and speak of their common experience and equally lost comrades? Is this a statement of the democratic socialist Sandburg, that the forces of inevitable Marxist proletarian revolution will come and obsolete all that was before? Or is it a cool and detached statement that all human effort is transient?
I don’t think it’s an accident that this divided man wrote a poem about the sacrifice of war that lets it be all those things.