The morning fog lifted near Indian School Road and toyed briefly with the sun for a moment. Then it drifted back down onto the glistening pavement. I thought of poet Carl Sandburg.
Carl Sandburg and the frustration he inadvertently caused me and the countless others who attempt to emulate him in situations like this. Sandburg knew about fog. He knew how it felt and what it looked like. And how to magnificently describe it using only plain, everyday words. Once Sandburg wrote about the fog, the bar was elevated too high, far beyond the reach of the mortals who followed.
Because, in comparison, all other attempts to explain, glorify or otherwise preserve the fog are futile. Sandburg had set the standard, and it was, and still is, unapproachable.
We still try, of course. We arm ourselves with fancy words, then wander into the fog and seek to make it our own with phrases, metaphors, similes and clichés. But we fail. The fog’s essence forever eludes us.
It dances around, teases, reminds us of other times and places, and dares us to record our feelings. Shackled by a tremendous inability, we write anyway. But they are scribbles. Whistles in the wind. Pebbles on the beach. Inadequate, superfluous.
Oh, there have been some noble attempts, to be sure. Most of them try to convey an impression of eeriness because we like to make the fog mysterious. So we make our feeble efforts:
“The fog drifted across the valley and swallowed it.”
“The fog converted the entire village into shadow and silhouette.”
“A poorly defined form emerged from the fog and drew closer.”
Or, we turn to fog words. “Loom” is a fog word. A figure looms, a barren tree looms, an old mansion looms. They’re the mailman, a dead elm and that old rundown house on the corner on a clear day. But there’s magic in fog, and it reshapes the common and elevates the ordinary into the unknown.
Also, a fog never covers anything. Nor hides, nor conceals. A novice might say it obscures, but the veteran knows that the fog only shrouds because “shrouds” is a fog word. In times of great and desperate need, some can use it in other descriptions, but it belongs to the fog.
Sometimes, writers reflect upon our contacts with the fog and try to inject credibility into our words by dwelling upon an incident or an instant in the mist that altered or restructured our lives. We have all been touched by fog, in one form or another.
Some of us have even been kissed by it. Others have been immersed, enslaved, or enraptured by the fog. It always sounds good while standing in the mist, surrounded by grayness and listening for distant footsteps or the wail of a ship’s horn. Or a cockney-accented greeting. But all attempts to convey these images from mind to paper meet the same obstacle: Carl Sandburg.
On this matter, we will never achieve equality with him. We are, and will always be his inferiors because one day in 1916, perhaps while being held a willing prisoner of the fog, Sandburg combined these 22 words that have made all other references mere utterances:
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
The fog grew more intense as I neared my journey’s end. The vehicles bearing us to our respective destinations slowed in begrudging respect. The traffic signals were green, red and amber outlines suspended in the haze as reminders of the real world. I turned into a parking lot, and my reverie was over. As usual, Carl Sandburg had won. As usual, it was no contest. In the extended time that has elapsed between 1916 and today, there have been many challengers to Sandburg’s words, and all have failed.