Barack Obama has chosen a poet to read at next Tuesday’s inauguration, but should she suffer writer’s block, here’s a worthy back-up from the great Illinois poet (and former Maywood resident and Frank Lloyd Wright buddy) Carl Sandburg. “The People, Yes,” was published in 1936. Of his poem, Sandburg wrote, “Only time will tell whether what I have put down has the element of true history and valid memoranda. … True democracy is as mystic in its operations as true religion or true art. One of my theses hovers around the point that the masses of people have gone wrong in the past and will again in the future-but in the main, their direction is right.” Here’s the last section of this longer work, which is worth contemplating as an execrable president departs and a promising new one is sworn in. I had to condense a bit to fit this space:
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it.
The mammoth rests between his cyclonic dramas.
The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic, is a vast huddle with many units saying: “I earn my living. I make enough to get by, and it takes all my time. If I had more time I could do more for myself and maybe for others. I could read and study and talk things over and find out about things. It takes time. I wish I had more time.”
The people is a tragic and comic two-face: hero and hoodlum: phantom and gorilla twisting to moan with a gargoyle mouth: “They buy me and sell me … it’s a game … sometime I’ll break loose …”
Once having marched over the margins of animal necessity,
Over the grim line of sheer subsistence
Then man came to the deeper rituals of his bones,
To the lights lighter than any bones,
To the time for thinking things over,
To the dance, the song, the story,
Or the hours given over to dreaming, once having so marched.
Between the finite limitations of the five senses and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond, the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food while reaching out, when it comes their way, for lights beyond the prism of the five senses, for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death. This reaching is alive. The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it. Yet this reaching is alive for lights and keepsakes.
The people know the salt of the sea and the strength of the winds lashing the corners of the earth. The people take the earth as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope. Who else speaks for the Family of Man? They are in tune and step with constellations of universal law.
The people is a polychrome,
A spectrum and a prism
Held in a moving monolith,
A console organ of changing themes,
A clavilux of color poems
Wherein the sea offers fog
And the fog moves off in rain
And the labrador sunset shortens
To a nocture of clear stars
Serene over the shot spray
Of northern lights.
The steel mill sky is alive.
The fire breaks white and zigzag
Shot on a gun-metal gloaming.
Man is a long time coming.
Man will yet win.
Brother may yet line up with brother:
This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers. There are men who can’t be bought. The fireborn are at home in fire. The stars make no noise. You can’t hinder the wind from blowing. Time is a great teacher. Who can live without hope?
In the darkness with a great bundle of grief, the people march. In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people march:
“Where to? What next?”
Humanity is a long time coming. Humanity will yet win. It’s time to ask, “Where to? What next?” It’s time to move on.