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.
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.
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