Carl Sandburg's "Chicago"

Updated on March 15, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Carl Sandburg

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Chicago"

Carl Sandburg's "Chicago" behaves on the page very differently from most poems, depending on who is publishing it. The first five lines usually remain stable, but the rest of the poem varies as prose paragraphs would vary depending on the page width. In some publications, the poem appears in three sections and others only two, and in others it is not sectioned at all. To experience one of those variations, please see "Chicago."

In a tribute to the city of Chicago, the speaker, while admitting it has flaws, attempts to elevate the city's value and strength above other "little soft cities."

This commentary will consider the poem in movements based on theme and content.

Chicago

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.

Reading of "Chicago"

Commentary

In a tribute to the city of Chicago, the speaker, while admitting it has flaws, attempts to elevate the city's value and strength above other "little soft cities."

First Movement: Big City as a Big Man

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

The speaker reels off several appellations that describe his city. As this list indicates—hint: "Big Shoulders"— the speaker's main device is personification. The city appears to be a huge, laboring man, and that metaphor appears again as the poem proceeds.

Second Movement: Unflattering Qualities

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;

In the second movement, the speaker recounts the accusations that have been hurled at his city, and he does so in order to refute them.

However, his refutation, at first, appears to be anything but refutation, for example, he says, "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." Not only does the speaker have to agree with the accusation, but he also offers his own evidence to support it.

And the speaker continues to do this two more times: "And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes" to which he again offers the supporting evidence, "it / is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to / kill again"; and finally, "And they tell me you are brutal," to which he answers, "On the / faces of women and children I have seen the marks / of wanton hunger."

But then for the rest of the poem, the speaker slugs back with a brutal repudiation that makes all those ugly characteristics seem like badges of honor. The speaker snaps, "And having answered so I turn once more to those who / sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer."

The speaker then demands of those who accuse his city of unseemly behavior, "Come and show me another city with lifted head singing / so proud to be alive." The speaker's city is proud to be "coarse and strong and cunning." His city is proud to be "[f]linging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on / job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the / little soft cities."

Third Movement: Saving Grace Pride of Labor Taking No Guff

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.

The speaker's Chicago is a city that knows how to work, and it is the pride of labor that the speaker celebrates through all of this grit and dirt and corruption. The speaker's city works "fierce as a dog" and "cunning / as a savage." His city behaves as a hulking man "Bareheaded, / Shoveling, / Wrecking, / Planning, / Building, breaking, rebuilding."

That hulking laborer struggles in smoke and dust all the while "laughing / with white teeth." Even as the young man who toils "under the terrible burden of destiny," his city persists in its own destiny of labor. His city laughs like an "ignorant fighter." But this ignorant fighter has never lost a fight. This fighter, this laboring man, brags and then "laughs that under his wrist is the pulse." He claims his vitality and is not ashamed that he is alive and able to fight and win.

This city, this laboring man also has a heart "under his ribs." He is proud to be of the people. And the poem finishes with the continuation of laughter: this big, dirty, hulking man of a city goes on "laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of / Youth." In this city's savage, half-nakedness, it is proud to be that "Hog / Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with / Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation," and it will take no guff from anybody.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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