Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago”

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“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.”1

Tough and triumphant, corrupt and alluring, defiant, imperfect, brutal, and thriving—if any of these words fit the notions people have of the city of Chicago, it’s likely Carl Sandburg is the writer most responsible. Sandburg’s poem “Chicago” was first published in the March 1914 edition of Poetry, along with five of his other poems. In 1916, Sandburg released a full collection called Chicago Poems that name-drops places familiar to Chicagoans even today—such as “Halsted Street Car,” “Clark Street Bridge,” “Harrison Street Court,” and “Graceland” (after a cemetery on the city’s north side). While Sandburg’s poetry is noted for its realism, many of the poems in this collection have a romantic tone. Even the title poem, describing Chicago as “this my city…so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning…a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities,” presents a view so determinedly realistic and extremely subjective it crosses over into romanticism. Sandburg actually captured the city’s reputation so well that some modern critics regard the poem as little more than a collection of clichés about Chicago, forgetting that it was in this poem where the clichés originated. Such misguided criticism only underscores how successful Sandburg was in marrying poetry with place and how one writer’s creative innovation can so deeply shape a collective imagination.

Chicago has changed much since 1914, yet the Chicago of Carl Sandburg’s poem is still recognizable over a century later. The stockyards referenced in the poem’s opening lines are long gone, but Chicago’s agricultural commodities exchange is still the largest (and oldest) in the U.S. Chicago is also still the country’s railroad hub, and its O’Hare Airport is the world’s busiest. A place described by Sandburg as constantly “[b]uilding, breaking, rebuilding,” modern Chicago features some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, and the city is a mecca for students of architecture. Chicago today is as troubled by high crime, corruption, police brutality, and racial segregation as it was in Sandburg’s day, yet it also claims world-class universities, museums, restaurants, music events, and theaters. “City of the Big Shoulders” is still one of its common nicknames. Long the 2nd largest city in the U.S., Chicago fell to 3rd place (after New York and L.A.) by the 1990s. Yet it still flaunts another of its nicknames, the Second City, which is also the name of a pioneering theater and school in the heart of Chicago dedicated to improv comedy—only fitting for a city that Sandburg immortalized as “Laughing!/ Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth.”

Read more about Chicago on Wikipedia. Find The Complete Works of Carl Sandberg at a local library or on Amazon.

1Sandburg, Carl. “Chicago.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. January 28, 2015. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/2043.

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