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Chicago (poem)

"Chicago" is a poem by Carl Sandburg, about the U.S. city of Chicago. It first appeared in Sandburg's first published collection of poems, Chicago Poems (1916).

Sandburg moved to Chicago in 1912 after living in Milwaukee, where he had served as secretary to Emil Seidel, Milwaukee's Socialist mayor. Harriet Monroe, a fellow resident of Chicago, had recently founded the magazine Poetry at around this time. Monroe liked and encouraged Sandburg's plain-speaking free verse style, strongly reminiscent of Walt Whitman. Chicago Poems established Sandburg as a major figure in contemporary literature.

The Chicago Poems, and its follow-up volumes of verse, Cornhuskers (1918) and Smoke and Steel (1920) represent Sandburg's attempts to found an American version of social realism, writing expansive verse in praise of American agriculture and industry. All of these tendencies are manifest in "Chicago" itself. Then, as now, the city of Chicago was a hub of commodities trading, and a key financial center for agricultural markets. The city was also a center of the meat-packing industry, and an important railroad hub; these industries are also mentioned in the poem.

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Bareheaded,
Shoveling,
Wrecking,
Planning,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people, Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

Interpretation

The first part of the poem talks about the jobs people of Chicago had. The second part, starting from "They tell me..." indicates the problems Chicago faced-- prostitution (painted women), crime (gunman) and poverty (wanton hunger). The third part of the poem, with the line "fierce as the dog...", indicates the aggressiveness of the citizens of Chicago to work.

The section that starts with "Shoveling,/Wrecking,/Planning,/Building, breaking, rebuilding,..." illustrates the city's ability to reinvent itself over and over again. No matter what it becomes famous for, it always seems to want more, and is willing to destroy its most cherished accomplishments for the sake of its future.

References

  • Sandbug, Carl. Chicago Poems. New York : Henry Holt and Company, 1916.
  • Alexander, William (1973). "The Limited American, the Great Loneliness, and the Singing Fire: Carl Sandburg's "Chicago Poems"". 45 (1): 67-83.

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