July 2021: Sharon Olds’s “Ode to Dirt” & Bad Religion’s “Against the Grain”

This month I want to discuss Sharon Olds’s “Ode to Dirt.” I didn’t start reading Sharon Olds until I was a grad student; the first book I read of hers was Blood, Tin, Straw and I thought it was really good. Her work has a special kind of energy to it that I still haven’t quite figured out how to describe—her voice just drew me in and I immediately wanted to read more. Luckily, at that time, Odes (2016) came out and she gave a reading at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Houston, so I went. She wore all black (which I loved) and as she read poems from the new book, I felt very glad to be there, to be able to hear her voice and feel the energy of the work circulating throughout the room. I began to wonder why I hadn’t been reading her and decided that I would start collecting her books.

“Ode to Dirt” is the first poem of hers that I fell in love with. The subject matter resonated with me on a deep level. I was really interested in the idea of praising dirt not only because it’s a substance that is often overlooked, but because of its metaphorical power. Dirt represents what’s most basic and essential; it represents life and death and transformation. Dirt is about connection to the earth, to the universal forces that operate in magical ways. Here is the first half of the poem:

Dear dirt, I am sorry I slighted you,
I thought that you were only the background
for the leading characters—the plants
and animals and human animals.
It’s as if I had loved only the stars
and not the sky which gave them space
in which to shine. Subtle, various,
sensitive, you are the skin of our terrain,
you’re our democracy.

What is interesting about this first part is the way in which the speaker talks directly to dirt as a beloved aspect of nature that she had previously ignored. But what I love so much in this part of the poem is the comparison she makes between dirt and sky: “It’s as if I had loved only the stars / and not the sky which gave them space / in which to shine.” Dirt is reimagined as an integral part of plant growth, the way the sky is an integral part of how we view aspects of the universe that we can’t physically touch, namely stars. Here is the second part of the poem:

When I understood
I had never honored you as a living
equal, I was ashamed of myself,
as if I had not recognized
a character who looked so different from me,
but now I can see us all, made of the
same basic materials—
cousins of that first exploding from nothing—
in our intricate equation together. O dirt,
help us find ways to serve your life,
you who have brought us forth, and fed us,
and who at the end will take us in
and rotate with us, and wobble, and orbit.

Here, the speaker realizes not only her connection to dirt, but the fact that she and dirt are essentially the same: “but now I can see us all, made of the / same basic materials.” This discovery grounds the speaker and humbles her in a way that causes her to feel reverence for dirt: “O dirt, / help us find ways to serve your life, / you who have brought us forth, and fed us / and who at the end will take us in / and rotate with us, and wobble, and orbit.” The entire poem builds up to those last lines which describe the tangible ways that dirt is not only one aspect of nature, but the principal force in nature because it allows for life to take root and it assists in the death process for every form of life on the planet.

The song I wanted to talk about this month is Bad Religion’s “Against the Grain,” from the group’s fifth album Against the Grain (1990). Bad Religion is my favorite punk band; I’ve been listening to them since I was eighteen and they’ve literally been my favorite punk band for that long. What I love so much about Bad Religion is that they’re transcendent and intellectual but they manage to stay rooted in the punk mindset—they’re rebellious and primal and anarchic. “Against the Grain” is my favorite song by the band; my website is named in honor of the song. It consists of four verses with the main chorus sung between them, accompanied by a simple melodic guitar riff: “Against the grain / That’s where I’ll stay / Swimming upstream / I maintain against the grain.” Here are the first two verses:

Three thousand miles of wilderness, overcome by the flow
A lonely restitution of pavement, pomp and show
I seek a thousand answers, I find but one or two
I maintain no discomfiture, my path again renewed

Here, labeled as a lunatic, sequestered and content
There, ignored and defeated by the government
There’s an oriented public whose magnetic force does pull
But away from the potential of the individual

Like most Bad Religion songs (and most punk songs), this one is fast-paced. However, what sets Bad Religion apart from other punk bands is the lyrical content. This particular song was written by Greg Graffin who is highly educated and is a proponent of atheism, anarchism, and evolution from a humanist perspective. As a vocalist and a lyricist, Graffin is brilliant: his principal strength is the way in which he is able to say so much so quickly in such a clear and musical way. In these first two verses there is a push-pull tension between society and the individual. There are “Three thousand miles of wilderness,” “A lonely restitution,” and “a lunatic sequestered and content” who is “ignored and defeated by the government”—all of these phrases speak to the idea of what it means to be self-empowered in an oppressive environment. The lunatic is labeled as a lunatic because they are a truth-seeker who insists on being a truth-seeker. This concept of individual resistance is reinforced by the chorus. Here are the last two verses:

The flow is getting stronger with small increments of time
And eddies of new ideas are increasingly hard to find
You need all that the other has, it’s your right to seize the day
But in all your acquisitions you will soon be swept away

There’s a common consensus and an uncomfortable cheer
A reverberating chorus that anyone can hear
It sings, “Leave your cares behind you, just grab tenaciously”
This lulling sense of purpose will destroy us rapidly

With each verse Graffin’s voice becomes more passionate and uplifted and this works particularly well in the last verses because they describe what it feels like to want to follow the uncharted path of the uninhibited self: “You need all that the other has, it’s your right to seize the day / But in all your acquisitions you will soon be swept away.” The last verse is a plea to abandon society for utter freedom: “It sings, ‘Leave your cares behind you just grab tenaciously’ / This lulling sense of purpose will destroy us rapidly.” To live by society’s rules is to subscribe to the concept of a life purpose which is ultimately destructive because it places the logical self above the instinctive self. I love “Against the Grain” not just because it’s a punk song about going against the flow—it’s about following the intuitive self with total abandon.

What I think “Ode to Dirt” and “Against the Grain” have in common is their shared sense of what it means to be rooted in a natural form of existence. Both speakers are coming from a place of logic and intellect and their conclusions are the same: what feels most natural should be at the center, whether it’s dirt (a life-giving force) or the self (intuitive and free-thinking). For me, Olds’s work and Bad Religion’s music fuse the intellect with the primal self in ways that are truly liberating. “Ode to Dirt” and “Against the Grain” propose better ways of encountering the natural world that isn’t reliant on structural forces that cause humans to act against their own instincts. The speaker in Olds’s poem had overlooked dirt and as a result became worshipful of it; the speaker in the Bad Religion song struggled against societal notions of the self and ultimately decided that to go against the oppressive flow was more life-affirming than to succumb to it. On a personal level, these concepts are incredibly important to me as a poetry reader and a music listener; they inspire me to be as holistically authentic as possible.

July 5, 2021