Isn’t it odd that early 20th century Modernists used the locomotive as one of their talismans? After all the railroad train wasn’t particularly new at the time, though like buildings and the airplane it eventually became a fine armature upon which to sculpt the curved Streamline Moderne style—but that was later in the century, and before it arrived the train was already the nightingale of the make-it-new crowd.
“…Shining, just like gold. Don’tcha hear me cryin? Ah Wooo-Hooo,,,”
It probably comes down to speed and power. Much of America in the pre-1920 years was still held between walking and horse-saunter speed, trains were exceeding the magic mile-a-minute rate, a supersonic difference to then. The sight of a long train rolling through the countryside must have been a majestic contrast of speed, noise, and human-constructed momentum.
Even back in the 19th century, the father and the mother of modern American poetry each wrote a train poem. Walt Whitman with his somber “Locomotive in Winter”, and Emily Dickinson* at her most playful with “I like to see it lap the Miles.” The strength of the train ideal is such, that without motion or even presence its gravity is silently impressed onto two classics of early 20th century poetry: “In a Station of the Metro” and “Adlestrop.”
Even poets later in the century could have a train poem in them somewhere.
Limited. Shortly before he died, my father told my son and I that he recalled one thing from his childhood visit to the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1933-34, the Zephyr streamlined train. That year we visited it, exhibited in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and sent him a picture of us by the train.
But today I want to celebrate Carl Sandburg during America’s National Poetry Month, and to advocate once again for this forgotten Modernist, the son of an immigrant, born in the Middle West of our continent. The poem I use today isn’t particularly difficult or full of samples and beats from everywhere like “The Waste Land,” or subtle in its questions like much of Emily Dickinson. Sandburg gets into it, drops its Imagist payload in a sentence, and then makes its point. As Harriet Monroe said in reviewing Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, in which “Limited” appears: “His book, whether you like it or not, whether you call it poetry or not, is fundamental in the…majestic sense.”
And a poem like “Limited” is fundamental. What it says isn’t novel, but what it says is low enough down beneath our florid lives to be overlooked. We often ask great poetry to tell us something we don’t know, to surprise us, but there may be a place for it also to tell us something to which we can say, dismissively, “Well, yes, I know that!” and for the poem to remain, silent at its ending, saying “If you know that, why haven’t you acted like it’s something you know?”
20th Century musicians loved the train too and its rhythms, that rattling phrasing and doppler marcato. For this performance of “Limited” I tried to touch on that and let some guitar tracks run out. You can hear it with the player gadget below. Not a long text today, but for those who like to see as well as hear the words, click here.
*One of the interesting side-lights I picked up in Genevieve Taggard’s Emily Dickinson biography, one of the first full-length treatments of her life and work, and written early enough that she could talk to people who overlapped Dickinson’s life in Amherst, was that her domineering father, who looks so stern and austere in his photograph was well known in the community for always wanting the fastest team of horses in for his buggy. I see Vin Diesel et al in a prequel Fast and Amherst, but Drift it Slant. Hollywood, call me, I can put the blog aside….