Lifesaving Poems: Carl Sandburg’s ‘Buffalo Dusk’

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Apart from e e cummings and the genius Anon, one of my chief discoveries in the Voices and Junior Voices series that I wrote about yesterday was Carl Sandburg

I loved his long lines, his casual-sounding chattiness and his use of repetition to build hypnotic rhythms that suddenly made you realise he was deadly serious all along. I also loved what he wrote about: being stuck in traffic, lying, not being good at mathematics and the wind:

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.

-from Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind

Like Les Murray and Pablo Neruda, he seems to have written a poem about absolutely everything. One day (I have been promising myself to get round to this for about twenty years) I will copy out each of his poems from the Voices and Junior Voices series into my own private anthology.

The poem of Sandburg’s which really knocked me sideways, however, is from Gerard Benson‘s great anthology This Poem Doesn’t Rhyme.

‘Buffalo Dusk’  is a short poem of epic regret and deep mourning. You can read it once and get it straight away; you can read it a thousand times, as Robert Frost said you should, and still have your breath taken away by the suddenness of its closing, a bookend of its opening.

Most of the poem does indeed seem to be made of repetition. A child once remarked to me that the effect of this was ‘like the hooves of the buffaloes thundering’ across the prairie. And I am unable to resist the assonantal chiming of ‘dusk’ and ‘dust’, ‘prairie’ and ‘pawing’, ‘great’ and ‘pageant’, ‘sod’ and ‘pawed’.

It is a great poem of witness. The key line seems to me ‘And those who saw the buffaloes are gone’. The poem is a lament for the passing of a  mythological and actual beast, at the same time as it is the telling of that passing. Reading it we become complicit in the process of how this came about, as we are challenged to keep the myth alive in future tellings.

It is about buffaloes, of course. But walk into an empty room in your house, or a classroom, or a hospital ward, or a disused factory and say it into the silence and it will change the complexion of your day completely. Suddenly anything you have loved and do not want to lose seems to be here.

Read ‘Buffalo Dusk’ here

Read Carl Sandburg’s poems here

Lifesaving Poems

13 comments

  1. Ellecee

    this poem speaks to me of my own losses, a partner who died, a person my family hadn’t met,,I am the only one who “saw” him, everyone else is gone too,,one way or another. The poems you choose always leave me with some kind of gift,,,I am so glad to have found your pages,,,

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  2. mommam

    Thank you. I gave my 8 year old son this poem to read and discuss with me. It was the first time I read this poem and the emotions it evoked made my stomach clench. After explaining the context and intent of this poem I came across this page and read it aloud to him. I love your analysis and I am sure it not only gave him (and me) food for thought, but hopefully made him realize that poems are powerful because they can convey, evoke and make us feel deeper emotions without saying very much.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Thank you for stopping by on my blog page and for taking the time to comment on Buffalo Dusk. It is a wonderful thing to think readers as young as eight-years-old are accessing what I have written about. I hope your son continues to enjoy and be sustained by the poems he finds through your help and encouragement.
      Yours with many thanks and best wishes

      Anthony

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  3. reema

    hi. I am a English teacher and i am teaching this poem in 4th grade. Even though the poem is short, the message it conveys is indeed worth noting. It takes us back to old times of North America as wel as relives them. Anthony, thank you for the analysis which i found very useful. Can you tell me as to why the poem is called ‘Buffalo dusk’ ?

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Hi there, it is kind of you to look at my blog and leave a comment. I think it is called Buffalo Dusk because dusk represents the end of the day, as light is fading. I think the poem is a prophecy of the end of the buffalo population as well as a hymn to it. Plus Buffalo and dusk chime off each other with assonance in the ‘u’ sounds. Yours as ever with best wishes and thanks
      Anthony

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