Wednesday, April 11, 2018

I Hear That Train a Comin’—Railroad Poems

Cheyenne, Wyoming's Union station from the yards in the 1950's.  A Big Boy steam locomotive, the largest engine ever built and a modern diesel in Union Pacific yellow livery line up with their freight trains headed west.

I grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a place that only existed because a great railroad was built from here to there.  This was back in the 1950’s and  early ‘60’s when the Big Boy steam engines on the Union Pacific still hauled miles long trains over the Great Divide.  The grand old Union Station with its tower dominated downtown and was a bustling place where Red Caps hustled the bags of tourists and other travelers.  Over at the more modest Burlington Depot you could catch a sleek stainless steel wrapped Zephyr.  On starry nights you could hear the train whistles from when they broke over Pine Bluffs to the East until the crested Sherman Hill on the way to Laramie on the west.
Trains were a huge part of daily life.  It was the same for the rest of the country and had been for more than 100 years.  Now many of the great railroads have vanished, lines abandoned, passenger service withered with whole regions left without service.  The great majority of the American people has never ridden at train and never will.  If they have, it is probably on a commuter line.  Freight trains are only annoyances that block traffic when they rumble past.
Not so in most of the rest of the world.  Even with cars and highways and airlines many still travel by rail.
Since they first started belching smoke and lurching clumsily across country sides in the early 19th Century trains have inspired poets.  Here are some outstanding examples.
Henry David T.horeau.
Many poets were passionate about trains.  Henry David Thoreau was indifferent.
What’s a Railroad to Me?
What’s the railroad to me?
I never go to see
Where it ends.
It fills a few hollows,
And makes banks for the swallows,
It sets the sand a-blowing,
And the blackberries a-growing.

—Henry David Thoreau

Robert Louis Stevenston.
Robert Louis Stevenson used catchy rhythm and rhyme to mimic the sound of a train in his  poem From a Railway Carriage from his 1885 collection A Child’s Garden of Verses.
From a Railway Carriage
Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.
Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And there is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill and there is a river;
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!
—Robert  Louis Stevenson

W.H. Auden

Another Brit, W.H. Auden, nails the clickety-clackety steady rhythm of the train.  It’s practically irresistible to take this trip to Scotland.
Night Mail
This is the night mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door.

Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she's on time.

Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,

Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.

Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from bushes at her blank-faced coaches.

Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.

In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.

Dawn freshens, Her climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends,
Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs
Men long for news.

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from girl and boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or to visit relations,
And applications for situations,
And timid lovers' declarations,
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled on the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring,
The cold and official and the heart's outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

Thousands are still asleep,
Dreaming of terrifying monsters
Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s:

Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
But shall wake soon and hope for letters,
And none will hear the postman's knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

—W.H. Auden

Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Edna St. Vincent Millay perfectly captured the longing and allure of passing trains felt by those passed by.
The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn't a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it’s going.
Edna  St. Vincent Millay

Carl Sandburg.

Was Carl Sandburg too smug about the fate of a ruthless railroad baron?  Of course not!
Southern Pacific
Huntington sleeps in a house six feet long.
Huntington dreams of railroads he built and owned.
Huntington dreams of ten thousand men saying: Yes, sir.

Blithery sleeps in a house six feet long.
Blithery dreams of rails and ties he laid.
Blithery dreams of saying to Huntington: Yes, sir.

Huntington, Blithery, sleep in houses six feet long.

—Carl Sandburg

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath may not be the first poet whose name leaps to mind in connection with trains.  Unlike others here, she was not interested in mimicking an experience.  She was interested in something darker within her soul.  Her train is part of her nightmare, being simultaneously lost and trapped in a journey to a bitter end.
Getting There
How far is it? How far is it now?
The gigantic gorilla interior
Of the wheels move, they appall me ---
The terrible brains Of Krupp, black muzzles
Revolving, the sound Punching out Absence!
Like cannon. It is Russia I have to get across, it is some was or other.
I am dragging my body
Quietly through the straw of the boxcars.
Now is the time for bribery.
What do wheels eat, these wheels Fixed to their arcs like gods,
The silver leash of the will ----
Inexorable. And their pride!
All the gods know destinations.
I am a letter in this slot!
I fly to a name, two eyes.
Will there be fire, will there be bread?
Here there is such mud.
It is a trainstop, the nurses
Undergoing the faucet water, its veils, veils in a nunnery,
Touching their wounded,
The men the blood still pumps forward,
Legs, arms piled outside
The tent of unending cries ----
A hospital of dolls.
And the men, what is left of the men
Pumped ahead by these pistons, this blood
Into the next mile,
The next hour ----
Dynasty of broken arrows!
How far is it?
There is mud on my feet, Thick, red and slipping.
It is Adam’s side,
This earth I rise from, and I in agony.
I cannot undo myself, and the train is steaming.
Steaming and breathing, its teeth
Ready to roll, like a devil’s.
There is a minute at the end of it
A minute, a dewdrop.
 How far is it?
It is so small
The place I am getting to, why are there these obstacles ----
The body of this woman,
Charred skirts and deathmask
Mourned by religious figures, by garlanded children.
And now detonations ---- Thunder and guns.
The fire’s between us.
Is there no place Turning and turning in the middle air,
Untouchable and untouchable.
The train is dragging itself, it is screaming ----
An animal Insane for the destination,
The bloodspot,
The face at the end of the flare.
I shall bury the wounded like pupas,
I shall count and bury the dead.
 Let their souls writhe in like dew,
Incense in my track.
The carriages rock, they are cradles.
And I, stepping from this skin

Of old bandages, boredoms, old faces
Step up to you from the black car of Lethe, Pure as a baby.

—Sylvia Plath

Utah Phillips on a Big Boy engine.

My old friend and Fellow Worker Utah Phillips was a beloved folk singer, story teller, humorist, and repository of working class wisdom.  But above all, he was an extraordinarily gifted writer.  Like a handful of others his song lyrics can stand alone as great poetry.  And no round-up of railroad verse could be complete without him.  If this piece about a vanishing tradition doesn’t make you tear up, you are either way too young or heartless.
Daddy What’s a Train
Daddy, What’s a train? Is it something I can ride?
Does it carry lots of grown up folks and little kids inside
Is it bigger than our house? - oh, how can I explain
When my little boy asks me, “Daddy, what’s a train?”

I remember when I was a boy living by the track
Us kids’d gather up the coal in a great big gunny sack
And then we’d hear the warning sound as the train pulled into view
And the engineer would smile and wave as she went rolling through

She blew so loud and clear
That we covered up our ears
And counted cars as high as we could go
I can almost hear the steam
And the big old drivers scream
With a sound my little boy will never know.

I guess the times have changed and kids are different now
Some don’t even seem to know that milk comes from a cow
My little boy can tell the names of all the baseball stars
And I remember how we memorized the names on railroad cars
The Wabash and TP
Lackawana and IC
Nickel Plate and the good old Santa Fe
Names out of the past
And I know they’re fading fast
Everytime I hear my son look up and say.

Daddy, What’s a train? Is it something I can ride?
Does it carry lots of grown up folks and little kids inside
Is it bigger than our house? - oh, how can I explain
When my little boy asks me, “Daddy, what’s a train?”

Well, we climbed into the car and drove down into the town
Right up to the depot house but no one was around
We searched the yard together for something I could show
But I knew there hadn’t been a train for a dozen years or so.

All the things I did
When I was just a kid
How far away the memories appear
And it’s plain enough to see
They mean a lot to me
‘Cause my ambition was to be an engineer.

Daddy, What’s a train? Is it something I can ride?
Does it carry lots of grown up folks and little kids inside
Is it bigger than our house? - oh, how can I explain
When my little boy asks me, “Daddy, what’s a train?”

—Utah Phillips

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