Good and great poems, though occasioned by particular moments in time, ultimately transcend their historicity, their parochial context. Bad poems cannot do this. They remain forever bound to and by their particular time, place, and occasion.
Regular readers of MontanaWriter know that I am currently in the process of working through Carl Sandburg’s Collected Poems. Since my way of reading poetry is to read each poem through twice, reading a large volume of poetry takes me much time. When I was young and had time to spare and space enough in my life to sit and reflect, this was a much quicker process.
But I cannot change the way I read poetry. I like to spend time with the poems I am taking the time to read. I like to try to give them my full attention… or as much of my attention as I can. Reading each poem twice, and aloud at least once, gives me my best chance of doing this. And so I continue my work through Sandburg. Savoring each moment. Wondering again and again why I did not do this with his work earlier.
Today’s featured Sandburg poem is not one of his better known ones but is not wholly unfamiliar either. It is an earlier one, from Chicago Poems. “To a Contemporary Bunkshooter” is a poem with a very specific historical context: A poem obviously occasioned by a particular historical personage and experience… some hell-fire-and-brimstone preacher of Sandburg’s time. When approaching a poem such as this, the question naturally occurs: What specifics, if any, do we as readers need to know about the person(s) and the occasion to read/appreciate the poem?
For me… the answer to this question is always the same: we do not need to know anything beyond what is in the poem. Nothing else.
Can reading about a poet, learning the nuances of their life and time, their experiences and ways of looking at poetry and the world help us appreciate individual poems more? Of course. Is such background necessary? Of course not.
One of the many things that I think makes reading poetry so daunting to so many people is the mistaken belief that there is a library of hidden meanings and references in every poem that readers need to tease out of and tease into each word, line, and stanza. If you are looking at poetry that way, who would ever want to read a poem like “To a Contemporary Bunkshooter.” You would need to spend hours googling references and chasing down footnotes for just one poem. And to what end?
I know little about music. I cannot read notes or play an instrument. But I can close my eyes and listen to Coltrane and feel delight. My ignorance of musical modality and composition does not exclude my enjoyment in any way. Would I enjoy Coltrane more if I did know and understand all those things? Probably. But it is not necessary. In the same way, I can enjoy “To a Contemporary Bunkshooter” without knowing anything beyond the poem itself. And so can any reader.
To a Contemporary Bunkshooter
You come along. . . tearing your shirt. . . yelling about
Where do you get that stuff?
What do you know about Jesus?
Jesus had a way of talking soft and outside of a few
bankers and higher-ups among the con men of Jerusalem
everybody liked to have this Jesus around because
he never made any fake passes and everything
he said went and he helped the sick and gave the
You come along squirting words at us, shaking your fist
and calling us all damn fools so fierce the froth slobbers
over your lips. . . always blabbing we’re all
going to hell straight off and you know all about it.
I’ve read Jesus’ words. I know what he said. You don’t
throw any scare into me. I’ve got your number. I
know how much you know about Jesus.
He never came near clean people or dirty people but
they felt cleaner because he came along. It was your
crowd of bankers and business men and lawyers
hired the sluggers and murderers who put Jesus out
of the running.
I say the same bunch backing you nailed the nails into
the hands of this Jesus of Nazareth. He had lined
up against him the same crooks and strong-arm men
now lined up with you paying your way.
This Jesus was good to look at, smelled good, listened
good. He threw out something fresh and beautiful
from the skin of his body and the touch of his hands
wherever he passed along.
You slimy bunkshooter, you put a smut on every human
blossom in reach of your rotten breath belching
about hell-fire and hiccupping about this Man who
lived a clean life in Galilee.
When are you going to quit making the carpenters build
emergency hospitals for women and girls driven
crazy with wrecked nerves from your gibberish about
Jesus–I put it to you again: Where do you get that
stuff; what do you know about Jesus?
Go ahead and bust all the chairs you want to. Smash
a whole wagon load of furniture at every performance.
Turn sixty somersaults and stand on your
nutty head. If it wasn’t for the way you scare the
women and kids I’d feel sorry for you and pass the hat.
I like to watch a good four-flusher work, but not when
he starts people puking and calling for the doctors.
I like a man that’s got nerve and can pull off a great
original performance, but you–you’re only a bug-
house peddler of second-hand gospel–you’re only
shoving out a phoney imitation of the goods this
Jesus wanted free as air and sunlight.
You tell people living in shanties Jesus is going to fix it
up all right with them by giving them mansions in
the skies after they’re dead and the worms have
You tell $6 a week department store girls all they need
is Jesus; you take a steel trust wop, dead without
having lived, gray and shrunken at forty years of
age, and you tell him to look at Jesus on the cross
and he’ll be all right.
You tell poor people they don’t need any more money
on pay day and even if it’s fierce to be out of a job,
Jesus’ll fix that up all right, all right–all they gotta
do is take Jesus the way you say.
I’m telling you Jesus wouldn’t stand for the stuff you’re
handing out. Jesus played it different. The bankers
and lawyers of Jerusalem got their sluggers and
murderers to go after Jesus just because Jesus
wouldn’t play their game. He didn’t sit in with
the big thieves.
I don’t want a lot of gab from a bunkshooter in my religion.
I won’t take my religion from any man who never works
except with his mouth and never cherishes any memory
except the face of the woman on the American
I ask you to come through and show me where you’re
pouring out the blood of your life.
I’ve been to this suburb of Jerusalem they call Golgotha,
where they nailed Him, and I know if the story is
straight it was real blood ran from His hands and
the nail-holes, and it was real blood spurted in red
drops where the spear of the Roman soldier rammed
in between the ribs of this Jesus of Nazareth.