Carl Sandburg was born in rural Galesburg, Illinois in 1878. He quit school after eighth grade, and did a variety of jobs throughout the Midwest, including traveling as a hobo, working as a fireman, and threshing wheat, eventually settling down as a journalist in the city of Chicago. Through his experiences, he observed the dichotomy between rich and poor and developed a strong sympathy for the “plight of the worker,” a sympathy obvious in his first book of poetry, Chicago Poems, first published in 1916.
While Sandburg’s poetry isn’t my favorite style nor does it focus on favorite subjects, I enjoyed reading Chicago Poems, and I loved the historical context of his poetry. He made the people of early twentieth-century Chicago real as he wrote of their plight. This was Chicago a hundred years ago: child factory workers, poor people dying of sickness and starvation, and the tragedy of every-day death.
His most well-known poem, “Chicago,” begins:
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of Big Shoulders.
Because he described the city by the people that lived and worked in it, and by the industry that was so prevalent in the early 1900s, Sandburg’s Chicago is completely foreign to the Chicago I see today, visiting from the suburbs for an occasional Saturday as I do.
Granted, I only visit Chicago for site-seeing, my husband for going to an office: the Chicago I experience is a sky-scraper city, a city of offices, a city of tourism, a city of events, a city of expensive parking and lots of traffic.
I’m certain there is still a “plight of the worker” in Chicago, and there still are poor people struggling and dying in Chicago. If a modern poet lived among the people, he or she might be similarly able to describe the city from the perspective of the workers; it might be just as foreign to me.
And yet, I highly doubt most people can relate Chicago to the “Hog Butcher for the World” title anymore.
Some of Sandburg’s poems are not about the plight of the worker, and these happened to be some of my favorites. Take, for example, this short poem:
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
I liked these short, small images. The subject is more general and so I relate to it better than the specific “plight of the worker” theme. But also, I like short poetry: it seems most poetic to me.
The majority of Sandburg’s poems in this volume were not easy to read, and not simply because of the painful subject matter. Many poems had lines that continued for three or four lines without a break. I struggle with poetry without adequate line breaks: I always wonder (and this is my ignorance of poetry speaking), what is it that makes a long paragraph without line breaks into a poem?
What do you think makes writing poetry?
While I appreciated reading all of the poems and the subject matter has historical significance, especially as I think of the metropolis I’m a part of, I still liked the shorter poems best.
Sandburg wrote many more volumes of poetry, earning a Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his complete collection in 1951. I wonder, then, if Chicago Poems, his first collection, is an adequate sample of his poetry: maybe reading his complete collection would help me to see his development as a poet. I look forward to revisiting his complete collection of poetry some day.
Carl Sandburg also wrote a few volumes of short stories, a novel called Remembrance Rock, and a biography of Abraham Lincoln, which won the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1940. He died in North Carolina in 1967. For more biographical information, see Wikipedia.
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