In ninth grade English we were introduced to Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg as the two great poets of the American experience. (They were both still alive then, such is my advanced age.) Frost is the more literary; Sandburg, the populist, the poet of the people.
I recently began reading Jay Parini’s life of Frost, when, purely coincidentally, a day or two later PBS presented a review of the life and work of Carl Sandburg as a part of their excellent American Masters series. (You can view the program here.)
When I say Frost is the more literary, I wouldn’t want that to be taken as off-putting. What I mean is that, compared to Sandburg, he was more interested in and careful about classic poetic form and structure. But he, too, was a poet of the people in one important sense: He was devoted to (and almost invented) the poetry of natural speech. (He would agree with his literary successor, R.S. Thomas, who said of the rural Welsh farmers among whom he worked, "I know, as I listen, that your speech has in it the source of all poetry....") Frost hides the refinement of poetic structure under what sounds like real people really speaking. In "The Death of the Hired Man" an unreliable farmhand, nearing the end of his life, has come seeking work once again:
“What did he say? Did he say anything?”
“Anything? Mary, confess
He said he’d come to ditch the meadow for me.”
“But did he? I just want to know.”
“Of course he did. What would you have him say?
Surely you wouldn’t grudge the poor old man
Some humble way to save his self-respect.
He added, if you really care to know,
He meant to clear the upper pasture, too…"
I considered suggesting to whom these two might be compared, but they are both almost incomparable. Although there are certainly literary paths that lead to their work, they are, nonetheless, creative originals. If I had to summarize, I’d say that Frost writes exquisite poetry which elevates common speech to art; Sandburg writes of common people and common stuff, and it becomes exquisite in the reading.
Sandburg and Frost (and, I think, most poets) benefit from being read out loud. This poem by Sandburg, with which I conclude, certainly should be. Read it to a child, read it to someone you love. Ham it up. (It's long, but fun to read.)
'Little Word, Little White Bird"
Love, is it a cat with claws and wild mate screams
in the black night?
Love, is it a bird--a goldfinch with a burnish
on its wingtips or a little gray sparrow
picking crumbs, hunting crumbs?
Love, is it a tug at the heart that comes high and
costs, always costs, as long as you have it?
Love, is it a free glad spender, ready to spend to
the limit, and then go head over heels in debt?
Love, can it hit one without hitting two and leave
the one lost and groping?
Love, can you pick it up like a mouse and put it in
your pocket and take it to your room and bring it
out of your pocket and say,
O here is my love,
my little pretty mousey love?
Yes--love, this little word you hear about,
is love an elephant and you step out of the way
where the elephant comes trampling, tromping,
traveling with big feet and long flaps of
drooping ears and straight white ivory tusks--
and you step out of the way with respect,
with high respect, and surprise near to shock
as you say,
Dear God, he's big,
big like stupendous is big,
heavy and elephantine and funny,
immense and slow and easy.
I'm asking, is love an elephant?
Or could it be love is a snake--like a rattlesnake,
like a creeping winding slithering rattlesnake
with fangs--poison fangs they tell me,
and when the bite of it gets you
then you run crying for help
if you don't fall cold and dead on the way.
Can love be a snake?
Or would you say love is a flamingo, with pink feathers--
a soft sunset pink, a sweet gleaming naked pink--
and with enough long pink feathers
you could make the fan for a fan dance
and hear a person telling their lover,
Speak, my chosen one,
and give me your wish
as to what manner of fan dance
you would have from me
in the cool of evening
or the black velvet sheen of midnight.
Could it be love is a flamingo?
Or is love a big red apple, and you don't know
whether to bite into it--and you knock on wood
and call off your luck numbers and hold your breath--
and you put your teeth into it and get a mouthful,
tasting all there is to it,
and whether it's sweet and wild
or a dry mush you want to spit out,
it's something else than you expected.
I'm asking, sir, is love a big red apple?
Or maybe love is goofer dust, I hadn't thought about that--
for you go to the goofer tree at midnight
and gather the leaves and crush them into fine dust,
very fine dust, sir, and when your man sleeps
you sprinkle it in his shoes and he's helpless
and from then on he can't get away from you,
he's snared and tangled and can't keep from loving you.
Could goofer dust be the answer?
And I've heard some say love is a spy and a sneak,
a blatherer, a gabby mouth,
tattling and tittering as it tattles,
and you believe it and take it to your heart
and nurse it like good news,
like heaven-sent news meant for you
and you only--precious little you.
Have you heard love comes creeping and cheating like that?
And are they after beguiling and befoozling us
when they tell us love is a rose, a red red rose,
the mystery of leaves folded over and under
and you can take it to pieces and throw it away
or you can wear it for a soft spot of crimson
in your hair, at your breast,
and you can waltz and tango wearing your sweet crimson rose
and take it home and lay it on a window sill and see it
until one day you're not careful
and it crackles into dust in your hand
and the wind whisks it whither you know not,
whither you care not,
for it is just one more flame of a rose
that came with its red blush and crimson bloom
and did the best it could with what it had
and nobody wins, nobody loses,
and what's one more rose
when on any street corner
in bright summer mornings
you see them with bunches of roses,
their hands out toward you calling,
Roses today, fresh roses,
fresh-cut roses today
a rose for you sir,
the ladies like roses,
now is the time,
fresh roses sir.
And I'm waiting--for days and weeks and months
I've been waiting to see some flower seller,
one of those hawkers of roses,
I've been waiting to hear one of them calling,
A cabbage with every rose,
a good sweet cabbage with every rose,
a head of cabbage for soup or slaw or stew,
cabbage with the leaves folded over
and under like a miracle
and you can eat it and stand up and walk,
today and today only your last chance
a head of cabbage with every single lovely rose.
And any time and any day I hear a flower seller so calling
I shall be quick and I shall buy
two roses and two cabbages,
the roses for my lover
and the cabbages for little luckless me.
Or am I wrong--is love a rose you can buy and give away
and keep for yourself cabbages, my lord and master,
cabbages, kind sir?
I am asking, can you?
And it won't help any, it won't get us anywhere,
it won't wipe away what had been
nor hold off what is to be,
if you hear me saying
love is a little white bird
and the flight of it so fast
you can't see it
and you know it's there
only by the faint whirr of its wings
and the hush song coming so low to your ears
you fear it might be silence
and you listen keen and you listen long
and you know it's more than silence
for you get the hush song so lovely
it hurts and cuts into your heart
and what you want is to give more than you can get
and you'd like to write it but it can't be written
and you'd like to sing it but you don't dare try
because the little white bird sings it better than you can
so you listen and while you listen you pray
and after you pray you meditate, then pray more
and one day it's as though a great slow wind
had washed you clean and strong inside and out
and another day it's as though you had gone to sleep
in an early afternoon sunfall and your sleeping heart
dumb and cold as a round polished stone,
and the little white bird's hush song
telling you nothing can harm you,
the days to come can weave in and weave out
and spin their fabrics and designs for you
and nothing can harm you--
unless you change yourself into a thing of harm
nothing can harm you.
The little white bird is my candidate.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you
the little white bird you can't see
though you can hear its hush song
and when you hear that hush song it's love
and I'm ready to swear to it--
you can bring a stack of affidavits
and I'll swear to it and sign my name
to every last one, so help me God.
And if a fat bumbling shopworn court clerk tells me,
Hold up your hand, I'll hold up my hand all right
and when he bumbles and mumbles to me like I was
one more witness it was work for him to give the oath to,
when he blabs, You do solemnly swear so help you God
that in this cause you will tell the truth,
the whole truth and nothing but the truth,
I'll say to him, I do, and I'll say to myself,
And no thanks to you and you could be more immaculate
with the name of God.
I am done.
I have finished.
I give you the little white bird--
and my thanks for your hearing me--
and my prayers for you,
my deep silent prayers.