The publication of Chicago Poems created a furor characteristic of the introduction of material that is new both in subject matter and in style. The subject matter frightened and infuriated the conservatives, who insisted that Carl Sandburg’s topics were vulgar, indecent, and scarcely poetic. The poetry itself could not be scanned in the conventional way, was very free verse, and could not be called poetically beautiful. Liberal critics and readers, however, such as Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse who had “discovered” Sandburg as she had also “discovered” Vachel Lindsay, were convinced that Sandburg might be the great democratic poet called for by Walt Whitman and that his style of writing, his Whitmanesque barbaric yawp, was not only his own particular voice in poetry but also exactly the correction that conventional poetry needed.
Even Monroe’s first reaction to Sandburg’s totally new kind of writing was unsympathetic, so different was Sandburg from even the unconventional poets of the day. When Sandburg first submitted “Chicago,” the title piece in the later volume, and eight other poems to Monroe for publication in Poetry, her first response was one of shock. As she read on, shock turned to admiration. She published the poems and subsequently championed the author, defending him against the criticism leveled against him after the appearance of Chicago Poems.
The some one hundred fifty poems in the volume, although of the same style and content, differ rather sharply in quality. At their best they are powerful, harsh when covering harsh subjects, but astonishingly gentle when discussing gentle subjects. At their worst they are chopped-up prose, sometimes duller than spoken language.
In the title poem, “Chicago,” Sandburg looks at the boisterous capital of the Midwest, and with great love and admiration catalogs Chicago’s glories as well as its degradation; or rather, in recognizing its weaknesses and seeing through and beyond them, he arrives at its greatness: the muscular vitality, the momentum, the real life that he loves. He shows Chicago as the capital of the meatpacking industry, the great manufacturer of the Midwest, the crossroads of rail lines. All of these are its glory. He also sees it as the city of wicked people, of crooks and gunmen, of prostitutes. Chicago is fierce, but it is a city of builders, proud of being sweaty, bareheaded, of destroying and rebuilding. Chicago, like the poet who sings its praises, is proud of being all these things.
The volume continues in this vein. Sandburg sees the city from its underbelly, the tenderloin, looking at it through the eyes of the men and women on the streets, the lost, the underprivileged, the exploited, the lonely, and the hated. In these poems he is, as he was called, the “mystical mobocrat.” So comprehensive is his view that to read all the poems is to cover the whole seamy side of city life. Sandburg’s feeling about these people and the conditions of their lives is not, however, one of despair. Although he sees the terror of poverty and lack of privilege, he believes in the happiness, the present, and the future of the poor of Chicago. His treatment of the people is optimistic and romantic.
“The Shovel Man” is a good example of this two-sided view of the same man. The laborer, as the poet sees him, is merely a person working with a shovel, a “dago,” who works for very little money each day. This man’s lot, however, is not discouraging and does not fill him with despair. For to an Italian woman back in Tuscany, he is a much greater success than one could imagine.
Another successful man, glad to be alive and doing what he does for a...