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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 394

Chicago Poems (1916) was Carl Sandburg's first published book. This book is comprised of dozens of poems, including some of his well-known and lesser known verses: "Chicago," "Under the Harvest Moon," "Who am I?," "Fog," and so on. Some of his lesser know works include "Happiness" and "Mag." Sandburg is hailed for his ability to embrace a soulful and lyrical element in his writing. Many of his poems were written about the city he loved, Chicago. Sandburg writes about the people, events, and many other elements of the rawness of the city. He is able to convey a beautiful but honest and acrid ode to the city he loves. The format of most of the poems is free verse, but there are also some prose poems, ranging from short to intermediate length. The first poem of his book is, appropriately, titled "Chicago." An example of Sandburg's strong and acrid devotion to the city is written in the opening lines of this poem:

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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 . . .

Despite the speaker's not-so-flattering descriptors, there is a sense of pride in the city's dimensions. The first line is perhaps the clearest example of abrasive pride, as the speaker capitalizes on the prized title of "Hog Butcher for the World." Though this is maybe not a title sought by many, Chicago is known for its meat processing industry. The last line, "City of the Big Shoulders," relates to the first line and references the role of the city in relation to the country. Sandburg is praising Chicago and identifying its major industries.

Sandburg also includes intermittent poems addressing more sad elements and the struggles of the working class. "The Junk Man" is a sad poem that explores themes of death, poverty, and the working class. "Junk men" are those who buy, trade, or collect items with little to no value in hopes of reselling them for profit at scrap yards. The first two lines of "The Junk Man" are powerful odes to harsh realities for some:

I am glad God saw Death
And gave Death a job taking care of all who are tired of living . . .

Regardless of whether the reader is from Chicago, Sandburg will successfully provide the reader a glimpse of Chicago in all its forms.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

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 compassion for the laboring classes. No poem in the book exhibits any sympathy for the problems of the upper or middle classes. Other themes in Chicago Poems include the limitations of the written word, the certainty of change, and death as a final silence. For example, the people as a force might move on through the centuries, but as individuals they must undergo the same fate as their politicians and leaders. The theme of this burden of time permeates the entire book. It is especially apparent in “Losses,” in which a sweetheart, a child, and a strumming banjo all become a part of that inevitable river of time. Only shadows will be left.

Chicago Poems exemplifies Sandburg’s humanitarianism, his great empathy for and defense of the masses. It is his presentation of the profoundly sincere American: He demonstrates not only that people who are but a part of the masses have problems, but that within that mob of people each individual has his or her own set of problems, as well as pleasures and ecstasies. As a result of this, Sandburg is given the distinction of being the American poet who can speak clearly in an authentic voice for the American people.

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Themes