Some Sandburg

19624868_sRecently, I came home with several books picked from a local rummage sale, including some selected poems by Carl Sandburg.

My previous exposure to Sandburg was limited to the bits and pieces included in various anthologies and literature textbooks, and I don’t believe I ever gave them much thought or credit.  This time, however, I was drawn in, eating up every word.  I’m not sure what made the difference–whether it was reading so many of his poems consecutively, or maybe I feel more of a connection having lived in the Chicago area for a while–but I basically devoured the whole book in one sitting.

I found the writing to be honest, human, occasionally gritty, deliberate without feeling contrived, relevant, and just fun to read.

This one was a favorite:


The working girls in the morning are going to work–
long lines of them afoot amid the downtown stores
and factories, thousands with little brick-shaped
lunches wrapped in newspapers under their arms.
Each morning as I move through this river of young-
woman life I feel a wonder about where it is all
going, so many with a peach bloom of young years
on them and laughter of red lips and memories in
their eyes of dances the night before and plays and
Green and gray streams run side by side in a river and
so here are always the others, those who have been
over the way, the women who know each one the
end of life’s gamble for her, the meaning and the
clew, the how and the why of the dances and the
arms that passed around their waists and the fingers
that played in their hair.
Faces go by written over: “I know it all, I know where
the bloom and the laughter go and I have memories,”
and the feet of these move slower and they
have wisdom where the others have beauty.
So the green and the gray move in the early morning
on the downtown streets.

I love the contrasting descriptions of the two groups of people, the “green and the grey”: the young working girls living in the present, marching forward in the morning–and the “others” who have been “over the way” and have the answers, the memories, the wisdom.

I also thought that while Sandburg’s poems are not necessarily “pretty” (they were, at the time, a departure from the “elevated” themes and forms of contemporaries) his writing is not without grace.


     Under the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Drips shimmering
Over the garden nights,
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you
As a beautiful friend
Who remembers.

     Under the summer roses
When the flagrant crimson
Lurks in the dusk
Of the wild red leaves,
Love, with little hands,
Comes and touches you
With a thousand memories,
And asks you
Beautiful, unanswerable questions.

Needless to say, I am glad I grabbed the book, and am once again reminded that most things deserve a second look.

Ballet and Better Writing

A while ago a friend and I went to see Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet perform a contemporary collection called “American Legends.” I spent most of my childhood dancing ballet, just quitting before high school to focus on other interests.  Yet, while I had seen my share of classical ballet and contemporary (modern) dance, this was the first time I had been to a contemporary ballet, and I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. The highlight of the show (and frankly, the reason we chose to attend this particular performance) was the final ballet, Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs.”

I loved it; smiled the whole time. And, once I got past the fact that the women were in heels, and the men in tuxes, it occurred to me that in spite of the obvious costume and music departures, when it came right down to it, contemporary ballet was still, essentially, ballet.  The steps, the form, the structure were all there under the long skirts and spinning mirror ball.

During my dancing years I can’t remember how many times I heard someone preach, “if you can dance ballet well, you can dance anything well.”  Which was true, at least for me. Once I had a basic mastery of the discipline of ballet; jazz, modern, tap, street funk (yes, I grew up in the 80-90s, and yes, I danced a mean “running man”) were a breeze.  And, I can’t help but think that writing well is not dissimilar.

The argument about whether or not to teach grammar was rolling around when I was studying education, and I imagine it still rages.  Some of my English classmates at Utah State used to argue that really good writers can write around the grammar and usage areas they are unfamiliar with, and while I definitely see their point, I also think that, like dancing ballet, if you can master the structure, the discipline of writing, then the rest is a breeze.

That is not to say that I have always felt this way.  In fact, I was vehemently annoyed with much of the grammar instruction during my school years and received middling to poor grades on many papers before I began to give in to direction on how to structure an essay.  My general disinterest in details has made me inclined to be very excited about whatever point I wanted to make, or story I wanted to tell—often at the expense of telling them well.  I specifically remember sitting down with an English professor to talk about a paper and having him tell me that my ideas were fantastic…but that it might be a good idea to print out my paper and actually read through it once before handing it in.  As the years have passed, however, I have seen firsthand the benefits of understanding what makes good, clean, clear writing and applying it.

Make no mistake, the idea is essential, but in order to express it, to really communicate the thought or the story, it is crucial that a writer knows, technically, how to write it with skill.  After all, knowing what you want to dance is only as important as knowing how to dance it, and dance it well.

On Journeys

I first read Thoreau as a high school student, and while I have heard the teaching of Walden to high school students criticized (as the text is apparently un-relatable for teenagers), I found, being slightly off-center myself, that I related to his odes to nonconformity, and many have made a lasting impression.

“The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men,” he writes, “and so with the paths which the mind travels.  How worn and dusty, then must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”  I think I often find that my mind tends to travel the same rutted paths, and that occasionally I need opportunities to step out of them.

Recently, I made a weekend trip to Salt Lake City to attend an author dinner hosted by my publisher.  It was a short, pleasant trip and afforded me an opportunity to enjoy the familiar faces of family and friends, as well as to make new acquaintances.  I returned to Chicago feeling refreshed, especially in my perspectives, and have spent a few days thinking about the value of a journey.

I can think of several times in my life when a change of locale—the actually physical walking in different places—has offered a release from my usual thought patterns and perceptions, and I would assert that sometimes if not always, in order to change as a person, a journey of some kind is required.

Journeys in fantasy novels are nothing new; a “noble quest,” is something of a standard, and the genre is rife with examples.  In fact the greater “archetypal pattern”—as illustrated by Plato’s allegory of the cave—suggests that in order to gain a new view and see what the world really is, you have to leave your current position.  The characters in Journey to the Fringe, in order to see the true nature of their land and of themselves, have to leave the kingdom behind.  When they ultimately return to face what threatens Lyria, they come armed with the new knowledge and power.

So, this week as I am getting “back in the Chicago groove,” I am feeling glad of a chance to return with new eyes, and find that while I don’t believe that a “journey” necessitates a plane ticket or a perilous sea voyage, I do believe that I just might need one on occasion.  For the earth, as always, “is soft and impressible by the feet of men.”