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This article is taken from PN Review 169, Volume 32 Number 5, May - June 2006.

The Green Man: Walt Whitman and the Civil War David C. Ward

In 1918 Carl Sandburg wrote a poem called 'Grass'. It begins:

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 -

The poem continues, 'Shovel them under and let me work' and Sandburg concludes with:

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
                                         What place is this?
                                         Where are we now?

Writing in the shadow of the Great War and out of that war's bloody futility, Sandburg anticipates, in his roll-call of forgotten battles, a bitter sense of how time will wipe out the memory - let alone comprehension - of past horrors, thereby dooming us to an endless cycle of 'wars to end all wars'. Sandburg is especially biting about the human capacity for passivity: with the naturalisation of the will so inevitably we will behave bestially again.1

Sandburg's poetry is literarily derivative, sometimes slavishly so, of Walt Whitman. In 'Grass', he recalls and plays off a passage early in Leaves of Grass that begins, 'A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands.' Whitman's answer to the child is not conclusive but deliberately open-ended and euphoric in its celebration of an all-embracing, never-ending generative cycle. Whitman guesses 'it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful/green stuff ...


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