Sunday Night Journal, October 21, 2018
Sunday Night Journal, October 28, 2018

52 Poems, Week 43: Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind (Carl Sandburg)


The past is a bucket of ashes.


The woman named Tomorrow
sits with a hairpin in her teeth
and takes her time
and does her hair the way she wants it
and fastens at last the last braid and coil
and puts the hairpin where it belongs
and turns and drawls: Well, what of it?
My grandmother, Yesterday, is gone.
What of it? Let the dead be dead.


The doors were cedar
and the panels strips of gold
and the girls were golden girls
and the panels read and the girls chanted:
  We are the greatest city,
  the greatest nation:
  nothing like us ever was.

The doors are twisted on broken hinges.
Sheets of rain swish through on the wind
where the golden girls ran and the panels read:
  We are the greatest city,
  the greatest nation,
  nothing like us ever was.


It has happened before.
Strong men put up a city and got
a nation together,
And paid singers to sing and women
to warble: We are the greatest city,
  the greatest nation,
  nothing like us ever was.

And while the singers sang
and the strong men listened
and paid the singers well
and felt good about it all,
there were rats and lizards who listened
  … and the only listeners left now
  … are … the rats … and the lizards.

And there are black crows
crying, “Caw, caw,"
bringing mud and sticks
building a nest
over the words carved
on the doors where the panels were cedar
and the strips on the panels were gold
and the golden girls came singing:
  We are the greatest city,
  the greatest nation:
  nothing like us ever was.

The only singers now are crows crying, “Caw, caw,"
And the sheets of rain whine in the wind and doorways.
And the only listeners now are … the rats … and the lizards.


The feet of the rats
scribble on the door sills;
the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints
chatter the pedigrees of the rats
and babble of the blood
and gabble of the breed
of the grandfathers and the great-grandfathers
of the rats.

And the wind shifts
and the dust on a door sill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints
tells us nothing, nothing at all
about the greatest city, the greatest nation
where the strong men listened
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.


We've discussed this poem here before. I read it in high school and although I don't think it's exactly a great poem its basic idea and imagery have stayed with me. The applicability to our own civilization is perhaps greater now. Or perhaps not. In the mid''60s our cultural confidence was considerably higher than it is now. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


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This poem was close to life-changing for me when I first read it. I had just never seen the United States from that perspective before. I didn't read it, that I know of, in the 60s. I read it with one of my children when homeschooling--probably in my the late 80s. I say, probably, because it was in a HBJ textbook that I might have used in high school, but if I read it then, I don't remember.


That's interesting. I don't know how you maintained your innocence for that long. :-) I really don't remember for sure whether I connected it with American pride or not when I read it in high school. I may have, or it may have just been the picture of doom in general. I certainly got very anti-American for a while a few years later.

I was a late bloomer.

The thing is that even though in the 70s I was unhappy with the government, I thought it was fixable. It never occurred to me that the whole thing could fall apart.

I was really surprised one day when I started thinking about how powerful England had been, and how much of that power they had lost. That may have been when I started thinking that one day we might not be a world power. I also kind of think it would be a relief.


With WWI being in the news a lot for the past few years because of its centennial, I've been struck by how quickly England went from world-ruling empire to has-been. Really not much more than 50 years. Now that my own memory easily reaches back more years than that, it's sort of mind-boggling to me.

On the other hand the Roman Empire hung on for centuries of slow decay.

I'm sure you've heard that line that goes something like "What cannot continue will not." I don't know exactly what's going to happen with us (obviously) but that seems to be operative in some way.

There was a Simon and Garfunkel documentary in 1974, and one of them said to the other, "You know the 200th anniversary of the United States is in 2 years," and the other answered, "Do you think we'll make it?" So, I'm not making any predictions, but I know we're slip-sliding away.


Indeed we are. It will be seen in the future as tragic self-destruction--because it doesn't have to be this way.

That's a *great* song, btw--"Slip-sliding away."

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