“Chicago Poems” Essay, Research Paper
Carl Sandburg, one of America’s most beloved poets, was born in 1878 in Galesburg, Illinois. Born poor to Swedish immigrants, Sandburg grew up to live the American dream. In 1951, Sandburg won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Complete Poems, which is a collection of six volumes of poetry including a New Section of seventy-four poems not previously included. He moved to Chicago in 1913 and began to write a series of poems about the Chicago life style. His first poem to gain recognition was “Chicago,” which appeared in the magazine Poetry in 1914. “Chicago,” one of Sandburg’s most celebrated poems, portrays the faults of mid-western metropolis while depicting the everyday urban experience. He went on to write many more poems focused on the society of Chicago. This group of poems came to be known as Chicago Poems. In this section, Sandburg uses the techniques of unrhymed free verse and imagism to establish himself as a realist concerned with the energy and brutality of urban industrial life.
” they tell me you are brutal 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.” (Sandburg pg. 3) Through this exert from the poem “Chicago,” Sandburg clearly shows his deep concern for the reputation of the city of Chicago. He is able to portray both the positive and negative views of the city, thus establishing himself as a realist. The realists tried to write truthfully and objectively, which Sandburg is able to do in most all of his work.” Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action ” (Sandburg pg. 3) This image of a dog, created by Sandburg to represent Chicago, clearly shows his usage of imagism throughout his work. This imagism makes the poem even more readable than it is already. Such vivid and descriptive words as “fierce” and “lapping” give the poem an interesting and clear overall effect on the reader. Through Sandburg’s imagism we are also presented with descriptions of the city of Chicago. By using the image of a fierce dog Sandburg is displaying the energy as well as brutality of the city of Chicago.
“Chicago, along with the poem Skyscraper, which proclaims that buildings have souls, initiated what was to be called the “Chicago Myth,” or the belief that Chicago was somehow tougher than other cities ” (Biographical Articles pg. 1) This statement shows us that Sandburg is giving Chicago the image of a tough and brutal city. We also discover that through his Chicago Poems, he shows the reputation of true urban industrial life, yet proving once again the fact that Sandburg is a realist. The majority of Sandburg’s poetry contains the usage of unrhymed free verse. He uses the unique technique of unrhymed free verse because when he writes poetry, his manner is without restrictions and totally original. “Souls of them all are here, even the hod carrier begging at back doors hundreds of miles away and the brick layer who went to states prison for shooting another man while drunk.” (Sandburg pg. 32) This quote from the poem Skyscraper is a typical Sandburg line in unrhymed free verse form. The quote has no set pattern making it free and it also does not contain any instances of rhyme. This was known to be quite characteristic of Sandburg. He is quoted as saying, “If it jells into free verse, all right. If it jells into rhyme, all right.” (Overview pg. 1) Sandburg’s nonchalant attitude makes his work free to be “jelled” into any shape or from he wishes. His readers greatly enjoyed his writing style because he was a writer of the people. Sandburgs works contained the ideas, aspects, and feelings of the everyday person. “His language lives almost as fervidly as the life from which it is taken.” (Untermeyer pg.2) The language that Sandburg chose to write in was the language of the people; therefore it will live on forever.
“Jack was a swarthy, swaggering son-of-a-gun. He worked thirty years on the railroad, ten hours a day, and his hands were tougher than sole leather. He married a tough woman and they had eight children and the woman died and the children grew up and went away and wrote the old man every two years. He died in the poorhouse sitting on a bench in the sun telling reminisces to other old men whose women were dead and children scattered. There was joy on his face when he died as there was joy on his face when he lived-he was a swarthy, swaggering, son-of-a-gun.” (Sandburg pg. 22) The poem above by Sandburg entitled “Jack,” illustrates the typical life of the typical urban industrial worker. Jack worked ten hours a day for a total of thirty years without a wife by his side. He may have had tough times, but nevertheless lived a full life while taking care of eight children. Though there was “brutality” during his lifetime, i.e. the loss of his wife, the loss of his children, and a ten-hour a day shift, nonetheless Jack still was able to live life with “joy on his face.” By writing about a particular character, Sandburg is proving that he truly is a realist. The realists wrote about ordinary characters in ordinary situations, which Sandburg does through “Jack”.
“In western fields of corn and northern timberlands, they talk about me, a saloon with a soul, the soft red lights, the long curving bar, the leather seats and dim corners, tall brass spittoons, and the painting of a woman half-dressed thrown reckless across a bed after a night of booze and riots.” (Sandburg pg. 63) This poem called “Jungheimer’s” distinctly expresses the “energy” of the city of Chicago around the 19th century. Such words as “booze” and “riots” suggest the intensity of the urban industrial life. Also, Sandburg shows through this poem the image of a “woman half-dressed thrown reckless across a bed.” This image could possibly symbolize the attitude that Chicago held toward its women.
“It is unfair to pick bits out of a poem that owes it’s power to it’s mass” (Benet pg.2) In other words, this essay cannot reflect Sandburg’s true genius for writing poetry. It has only been able to capture an inkling of Sandburg’s timeless Chicago Poems. To understand the true meaning of his poetry we must read them all (There are a total of 150 Chicago Poems). Each and every one of his poems are connected somehow to one another. Sandburg’s poetry without a doubt contains imagism, and realistic views pertaining to the energy and brutality of urban industrial life.
Stephen Vincent Benet, “Carl Sandburg–Poet of the Prairie People,” in New York Herald Tribune Books, August 23, 1936, pgs. 1-2.
“Carl Sandburg.” DISCovering Authors. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.
“Overview of Author’s Works and Career” DISCovering Authors, 1993.
Sandburg, Carl. Complete Poems. New York: Brace And Company, 1950.
“Sandburg, Carl” Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. 1994.
Louis Untermeyer, “Strong Timber,” in The Dial, Chicago, Vol. LXV, October 5, 1918, pgs. 263-64.