Poetry Friday: Chicago

Yes, yes, I know: Carl Sandburg has, in 2 years of Poetry Fridays (and given my lapses, we’re only talking maybe 50 or so posts), been given the stage thrice.  And that’s at least twice more than a number of other poets I like better than him.  But for crying out loud, if the first Poetry Friday from Chicago is not “Chicago” from Carl Sandburg’s 1916 anthology entitled Chicago Poems, Carl himself would rise from his grave (which, for all I know, is nearby) and throttle me with his zombiehands while reciting stark couplets about my grim demise.  As is now customary, I offer my thoughts below 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,
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 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.

I have always liked this poem—it taps into the “raw energy” I mention in my post below about Chicago, although I wonder now if I’m imposing on the real city what Sandburg’s city sounds like in the poem. Anyway, the relentlessness of those opening lines, bold and blunt, captures me right away. This is a poem about a prosaic city—a city that is unapologetic, loud, bubbling over with life, bloody-handed and sweat-stained. And Sandburg can’t get over the fact that he loves it in spite of its obvious faults: it reminds me of Shakespeare’s “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun”. In both cases, poets take conventions of the time—Elizabethan love poems and the kind of propaganda/advertising verse a lot of late 19th Century poets wrote about their booming hometowns—and invert them curiously, as they strip away all the compliments and somehow the love shines through all the more. Maybe that’s a fault in Sandburg: he excuses the brutality, the cruelty, the depravity of Chicago because it’s so freaking charismatic in its exuberance that he can’t take his eyes off it. I can’t quite tell what he means by it, to be honest—whether he’d accept that Chicago in the early 1900s is a bad place but a fascinating one (like a Iago, it becomes a villain more fascinating than any hero you could put on stage), or whether he’s arguing that the fascination redeems the badness. Or perhaps that both are true and that either way the city is a city to be reckoned with.

Maybe that’s the clearest image I take from the poem: Chicago can’t be overlooked, and is not about to be forgotten. Whatever history is made in the land will be made in part by Chicago. And that’s too bad for the neighbors but it can hardly be helped. The way you shake the world is to take hold of it as roughly as Chicago does, and with the same ignorant adolescent strength.

It’s a famous poem, and many of you will have already known it (some of you because I made you read it in 11th grade). What do you think Sandburg’s up to? I can’t put my finger on it and I want to — I don’t live in his Chicago, but his Chicago shaped my city, and for that reason I’d like to see through his eyes. I think his poem is one of the most “American” poems I’ve ever read, for the way it combines the language and the topic, but again I may be on a Chicago “high” right now. I remember more than one student telling me back in the day that I was too enthusiastic about this poem, come to think of it! I’m hoping it inspires some reaction in you, and that you’ll share it. Regardless, have a great weekend.

3 comments on “Poetry Friday: Chicago

  1. Emily Thompson says:

    That’s an amazing poem. In the first few lines it caught me in it’s net, in the very early morning, pre-coffee. Now I feel like I need a shower and a nap. Relentless, heartbreaking and gorgeous at the same time. LOVE IT!

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Excellent! 🙂 I like knowing other people are struck by it too. It’s definitely a really physical poem — I know what you mean about the shower/nap combo!

  2. […] time to explore the poetry of my new home—much as I went to Carl Sandburg to see Chicago through a poet’s eyes, I must find some Inland Northwest poets to help me […]

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