Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Death Snips Proud Men

Dear Everyone:

Here’s your folksy poem du jour. How folksy is it, you ask? It’s by Carl Sandburg

Death Snips Proud Men
by Carl Sandburg

DEATH is stronger than all the governments because
the governments are men and men die and then
death laughs: Now you see 'em, now you don't.

[Rest of poem removed because it’s probably still in copyright]

So you see Sandburg’s basic trick here? He starts out with serious diction, “Death is stronger than all proud men,” say, and follows it up with “Read ‘em and weep.” The latter is called (useful word!) demotic speech. “Demotic” means of or pertaining to the common man. The demotic, as we call it (eliding - another useful word! - the word “speech” entirely) is simply language as she are spoken, as opposed to book-language. Similarly but not identically, “demotic Greek” is the language spoken in Greece today, as opposed to the classic Greek of bygone millennia.

So does it work? Well, the language has shifted underfoot. You don’t hear people speaking like that anymore, though it was common back when the poem was written, and so it sounds to our ears kind of cornball. Because the only places we’ve encountered it before are in books and on television. And usually cornball books and TV.

This sentimental man-of-the-people thing is Sandburg’s Achilles heel. There’s a famous story that one time, when he was late for a panel with the notoriously surly Robert Frost and somebody wondered aloud where he could possibly be, Frost snarled, “He’s probably in the lavatory, combing his hair to look wind-blown.”

More soon.



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