In Middle America men are awakening. Like awkward and untrained boys we begin to turn toward maturity and with our awakening we hunger for song. But in our towns and fields there are few memory haunted places. Here we stand in roaring city streets, on steaming coal heaps, in the shadow of factories from which come only the grinding roar of machines. We do not sing but mutter in the darkness. Our lips are cracked with dust and with the heat of furnaces. We but mutter and feel our way toward the promise of song.
From: Mid-American Chants (1918)
I am mature, a man child, in America, in the West, in the
great valley of the Mississippi. My head arises above
the cornfields. I stand up among the new corn.
I am a child, a confused child in a confused world. There
are no clothes made that fit me. The minds of men
cannot clothe me. Great projects arise within me. I
have a brain and it is cunning and shrewd.
I want leisure to become beautiful, but there is no leisure.
Men should bathe me with prayers and with weeping,
but there are no men.
Now — from now — from to-day I shall do deeds of fiery
meaning. Songs shall arise in my throat and hurt me.
I am a little thing, a tiny little thing on the vast prairies.
I know nothing. My mouth is dirty. I cannot tell what
I want. My feet are sunk in the black swampy land, but
I am a lover. I love life. In the end love shall save me.
The days are long — it rains — it snows. I am an old man.
I am sweeping the ground where my grave shall be.
Look upon me, my beloved, my lover who does not come.
I am raw and bleeding, a new thing in a new world. I
run swiftly o'er bare fields. Listen — there is the sound
of the tramping of many feet. Life is dying in me. I
am old and palsied. I am just at the beginning of my life.
Do you not see that I am old, O my beloved? Do you
not understand that I cannot sing, that my songs choke
me? Do you not see that I am so young I cannot find
the word in the confusion of words?
SONG OF THE SOUL OF CHICAGO
On the bridges, on the bridges — swooping and rising, whirling
and circling — back to the bridges, always the bridges.
I'll talk forever — I'm damned if I'll sing. Don't you see
that mine is not a singing people? We're just a lot of
muddy things caught up by the stream. You can't fool
us. Don't we know ourselves?
Here we are, out here in Chicago. You think we're not
humble? You're a liar. We are like the sewerage of our
town, swept up stream by a kind of mechanical triumph
— that's what we are.
On the bridges, on the bridges — wagons and motors, horses
and men — not flying, just tearing along and swearing.
By God we'll love each other or die trying. We'll get to
understanding too. In some grim way our own song shall
We'll stay down in the muddy depths of our stream — we
will. There can't any poet come out here and sit on the
shaky rail of our ugly bridges and sing us into paradise.
We're finding out — that's what I want to say. We'll get
at our own thing out here or die for it. We're going
down, numberless thousands of us, into ugly oblivion.
We know that.
But say, bards, you keep off our bridges. Keep out of our
dreams, dreamers. We want to give this democracy thing
they talk so big about a whirl. We want to see if we
are any good out here, we Americans from all over hell.
That's what we want.
NOTE: I have only begun to read a bit of Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio), but I must admit - so far I don't get him. Regarding the above two poems, one naturally will compare them to Carl Sandburg's, "Chicago," but in my humble evaluation there is no comparison. Anderson confuses me. Am I missing something? Please, enlighten me!
For more information on Sherwood Anderson, see his Chicago History Online links page.
Photo credit: Ohioana Library