Carl Sandburg’s poem “The Grass” was published in 1918 in the volume Cornhuskers, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize.The poem’s brevity and simple, quiet language evoke the aftermath of all wars: piles of bodies that are gradually erased and forgotten by the natural processes of landscape and the forces of historical amnesia.
Austerlitz, Waterloo, Gettysburg, Ypres, Verdun, and Stalingrad are all battlegrounds that resulted in particularly horrific carnage – a total of nearly four million dead, and an uncountable number wounded. (One textual note: Stalingrad, the site of a major battle in World War II, was added to the poem in a recorded recitation that Sandburg made in 1957. His reading can be found on YouTube; it is fascinating.)
In this musical setting, a serene wordless chorus portrays the slow, relentless action of the grass, undisturbed by the human history and suffering that it covers. The rapid newsreel delivery of the text highlights this profound unconcern. The lack of interplay between these two musical forces was suggested by Charles Ives’s "The Unanswered Question."
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun, Stalingrad.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.