Chicago Poems Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Chicago” started Sandburg’s literary rise, and many critics consider it one of his best poems. Certainly it is one of the most anthologized. “Chicago” contains most of the characteristics that made Sandburg famous: It breaks with conventional poetic versification, deals with the “unpoetic,” and expresses his lifelong faith in the American people’s resilience.

The opening verse imperatively addresses the city with brutal imagery and staccato lines. Sandburg personifies Chicago as a laborer by calling it “Hog Butcher for the World” and “City of the Big Shoulders.” The following long and prosy lines challenge the city on its reported evils, cataloging instances of cruelty and injustice. The speaker then defends Chicago for its pride, strength, and energy, implying that the aforementioned evils are by-products of its heartiness. Unconventional images describe the city’s vitality: a dog eager for action, an ignorant, undefeated prizefighter.

In “Chicago,” Sandburg demonstrates his love affair with the United States and its working class. This is evident in the image of Chicago as a brash prizefighter. The images of corruption of farm boys by prostitutes and of hunger on the faces of women and children also affiliate the city with the worker and the poor. Nowhere in its salute to Chicago’s vitality does it refer to its rich or elite.

Supporting the themes of raw energy in America’s working class is free...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Chicago Poems Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Chicago Poems, Carl Sandburg’s first published book of poetry, is a collection of nearly 150 poems. In it, Sandburg revitalized the subject matter and the form of poetry. His poetry is of the people and cities of the Midwest. The people of his cities, the laboring masses who migrated there in search of a better life, speak in the often slangy, colloquial words of the laboring classes. His nature images are taken from the wide rolling prairies.

Sandburg first attacks then praises the people about whom he writes. In “Chicago,” the opening poem, Sandburg is explaining that the city has a terrible side to it, with its prostitutes and its killers who are set free; it is a ruthless city that allows women and children to starve. Chicago also is a metropolis that affirms life by industriousness and joy in the face of destiny. It is a city that is made up of people who may not be well educated or have fine manners, but who exhibit energy and pride, and these, according to Sandburg, are the necessary foundations of a healthy society.

Social idealism is apparent on almost every page of Chicago Poems. An especially telling example is the poem “I Am the People, the Mob.” In it, Sandburg defines the masses as laborers and as witnesses to history. From the very beginning of the book, Sandburg focuses upon the concept of the ultimate power of the people, diminishing the position of the well-to-do in order to accentuate his...

(The entire section is 453 words.)