We can thank the inauguration for the spotlight that poetry has enjoyed these past two weeks. Richard Blanco's excellent inaugural poem has rightfully attracted most of the attention, but the promise of the President's second term had a lot of people feeling poetic. I wrote last week about The Takeaway's fascinating crowd-sourced inaugural verse (you can take a look at the result here). Even ever-literary Hollywood A-lister James Franco wrote a poem for the occasion.
But another poem came to light that speaks to a challenge that the president will face in his second term, and to an issue that sharply divides us. Ernie Gullerud, a retired professor, found the previously unknown poem by Carl Sandburg while volunteering in the University of Illinois Library. It turns out that Sandburg, who once said of poetic form: "If it jells into free verse, all right. If it jells into rhyme, all right," had far stronger feelings about guns.
"Here is a revolver" the poem begins. "It has an amazing language all its own."
Gullerud was so struck by the poem's power and timeliness that he made sure it got some attention. The national media has started to take notice, but the best discussion of the poem might be posted on the University of Illinois' website, where Valerie Hotchkiss, the head of the University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, describes how Sandburg viewed the power of the revolver's "language":
"I think it's so interesting that Sandburg says poetically what we all know about guns: that they are the final word. But he takes the idea one step forward to meditate on the effect of guns on freedom of speech -- how the First Amendment is watered down by the Second Amendment. If somebody has a gun to your head, you can't speak freely."
Here's how Sandburg, in the poem, describes the power of a revolver's "speech":
When it has spoken, the case can not be appealed to the supreme court, nor any mandamus nor any injunction nor any stay of execution in and interfere with the original purpose.
He ends the poem with the poignant line:
And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the old belief that God is always on the side of those who have the most revolvers.
Sandburg wrote an immensely popular (and just plain immense) biography of Abraham Lincoln, and some have speculated that Lincoln's assassination may have inspired the poem. Here's hoping Sandburg's poem can inspire some sensible debate about addressing gun violence. At least, in a week of new beginnings, it's a good place to start.
You can read Sandburg's entire poem here.