This & That

Story published: 07-16-2014 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Sandburg's poetry inspires patriotism

By Jack Swift

Carl Sandburg’s poetry impressed me when I was a student at Johnson County High School. Since we’re just past Independence Day, a time when folks tend to show their patriotism perhaps more than at any other time in the year, my theme for this column is freedom.

One of Sandburg’s poems titled Buttons shows what freedom costs and considering the cost, why it is so important. That poem had a tremendous impact on me as a high school student and even today I still sometimes take that old literature book down from the shelf and reread it. Once again I am captivated by Sandburg’s poetic genius. Now, I don’t pretend to be able to analyze the poem from the expert’s viewpoint, but I know what it means to me.

Carl Sandburg wrote in a literary style called free verse in which there are no restrictions as to rhyme or meter. Surprisingly, a number of famous poets used free verse in their work.

My wife and I visited friends in Hendersonville, North Carolina some years ago. While there, we visited the village of Flat Rock, North Carolina home of Sandburg. His house was open to the public. It had been preserved much as it was during his occupancy. It was a very interesting visit. Needless to say, it was a fascinating experience for me.

Written in 1916, Buttons is a stark reminder of the hardship and fear soldiers often have to endure.

The poem follows:

Buttons

I have been watching the war map slammed up for advertising in front of the newspaper office.

Buttons—red and yellow buttons—blue and black buttons are shoved back and forth across the map.

A laughing young man, sunny with freckles,

Climbs a ladder, yells a joke to somebody in the crowd,

And then fixes a yellow button one inch west

And follows the yellow button with a black button one inch west.

(Ten thousand men and boys twist on their bodies in a red soak along a river edge,

Gasping of wounds, calling for water, some rattling death in their throats.)

Who would guess what it cost to move two buttons one inch on the war map here

In front of the newspaper office where the freckle-faced young man is laughing to us?

Sandburg is also noted for his six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. He also won two Pulitzer Prizes during his prolific career, one for the second part of his Lincoln biography Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939) and one for his Complete Poems in 1950.

Freedom is not free. Sandburg in Buttons successfully showed war for what it really is—a horrible thing. There are times when war is justified, but in my opinion, it must be initiated only when absolutely necessary. Of course, with so many bad guys in the world, you never know when the next war will come.