The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Chicago” is a poem in free verse, one without a set meter or rhyme scheme, running twenty-three lines. The title gives the name of the city that the poet is praising, which does not appear elsewhere in the poem. Without the title, this poem could refer to any industrial city, suggesting a universal love of place.

The poem, written in the first person so that the poet addresses the reader directly, celebrates both the virtues and vices of the city. It begins with a staccato list of occupations found in Chicago (hog butcher, tool maker, stacker of wheat), followed by three adjectives that attach an emotion to those occupations. Carl Sandburg calls them “Stormy, husky, brawling,” creating an aura of vitality. This first section of the poem is abrupt and rapid, like the city being portrayed.

The second section departs from the brief phrasing and turns to long, flowing, melodic sentences. Each of the first three sentences acknowledges a vice of the city in the first half of the sentence. It is wicked, corrupt, and brutal. The poet agrees to each accusation, supplying a specific detail that supports the charge in the second half of the sentence. There are “painted women,” “gunmen,” and “wanton hunger.” The city does, in fact, have its failings.

The poet more than accepts the failings of his city, however; he answers in the remaining lines with a list of positive attributes. His city is singing and loud, “proud to...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Sandburg wrote in free verse, but this does not mean that the poem lacks any structure. The structure supports the subject matter. A poem about a loud, brawling city would hardly be appropriately conveyed in a tightly constructed sonnet. Sandburg sought to capture the mood of the city in the arrangement of the poem’s language.

The short phrases in the first section are simply a list of occupations. This suggests that the city is primarily a place of industry, all efficiency and business. When the second section begins, the lines are long compound sentences that capture the depth of emotion the poet feels. The poet is in awe of the city even as he admits its weaknesses.

Sandburg was greatly influenced by the poetry of Walt Whitman. Both poets wrote of the common man, democratic society, and celebrations of the ordinary rather than the sublime. Sandburg utilizes the free-verse form that Whitman had made so popular in the nineteenth century, but Sandburg owes other debts as well—particularly to the Bible. The repetition of “and” in the first several lines, for example, is distinctly biblical. By using “and” rather than writing sentences with dependent clauses, Sandburg creates the effect that each independent clause is equally important. The poet’s emotions are equally significant regarding the city’s vices and its virtues.

This parallelism is one of the chief poetic devices employed. In addition to the repeated...

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The Poems

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Chicago. Illinois’s largest city and the industrial and commercial center of the Midwest. Sandburg’s poetry depicts Chicago as a mythic figure, a city personified as a kind of superman—optimistic, pugnacious, and indomitable. Ultimately, Sandburg celebrates the city’s unquenchable vitality and energy. The most familiar poem in his collection, “Chicago,” is most notable for its form, which, like a jazz composition or the expanding grid of the city itself, keeps going on its own momentum. The city and the poem are open-ended structures, and Sandburg’s “Chicago” is both utterly real and strangely mythological. The stockyards, railroads, skyscrapers, criminals, prostitutes, and marginal characters it describes are painfully accurate.

Many of Sandburg’s poems break Chicago’s massive cityscape down into comprehensible lives, in which frustrations, dashed hopes, and unfulfilled longings define the everyday existence of the working-class people, who make up the vast majority of the city’s residents. Sandburg’s poems are all telling examples of his socially conscious verse. He is also sensitive to the plight of the mushrooming ethnic populations, especially the Italians and Eastern Europeans, as shown in such poems as “Child of the Romans” and “Happiness,” the latter celebrating a family of Hungarians enjoying a picnic on the banks of the Des Plaines River.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Allen, Gay Wilson. Carl Sandburg. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972.

Callahan, North. Carl Sandburg: His Life and Works. University Park: State University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.

Crowder, Richard. Carl Sandburg. New York: Twayne, 1964.

Durnell, Hazel. The America of Carl Sandburg. Washington, D.C.: University Press of Washington, D.C., 1965.

Hallwas, John E., and Dennis J. Reader, eds. The Vision of This Land: Studies of Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg. Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1976.

Niven, Penelope. Carl Sandburg. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991.

Yannella, Philip. The Other Carl Sandburg. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.