Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems were published in 1916, when he was 34 years old. “Chicago,” the poem that helped establish his reputation, was published in Poetry Magazine two years before that. (It contains the line Chicagoans love – “City of Big Shoulders.”)
Except for “Chicago,” I hadn’t read any of these poems before. As I read those collected with “Chicago” and the others grouped under the headings of “Fogs and Fires,” “Shadows,” and “Other Days,” the words and themes and ideas were oddly familiar. After searching my memory for a while, I realized two connections.
First was the obvious one. Sandburg’s Chicago poems are of the same root as Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. Sinclair was focused upon telling the story of the plight of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century and how they were exploited by employers, landlords and shopkeepers. And the novel did cause quite a stir when it was published, but not for reason Sinclair had hoped. Readers focused on the descriptions of the meatpacking industry, and national outrage led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, which established the Food & Drug Administration. Everyone overlooked or forgot about the immigrants.
In the Chicago Poems, Sandburg writes about the immigrants and laborers who helped turn Chicago into the economic powerhouse it became. And many of the poems clearly have a Sinclair kind of feel to them. Take “Onion Days,’ for example:
Mrs. Gabrielle Giovannitti comes along Peoria Street every morning at nine o’clock
With kindling wood piled on top of her head, her eyes looking straight ahead to
find the way for her old feet.
Her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Pietro Giovannitti, whose husband was killed in a tunnel
Explosion through the negligence of a fellow-servant,
Works ten hours a day, sometimes twelve, picking onions for Jasper on the Bowmanville road.
Jasper, as it turns out, sits in his Episcopal church service, enjoys the chanting of the Nicene Creed, and plans how to advertise the onion-picking jobs so he can attract even more applicants and drive wages down.
The second connection I made was that the Sandburg poems evoke the same kind of thoughts and feelings when I look at paintings by Edward Hopper. I‘ve written three poems about Hopper paintings and posted them at my own blog, and reading these works by Sandburg put the paintings back in mind. It may be that, chronologically, Sinclair, Sandburg and Hooper were of overlapping generations, and Sinclair and Sandburg both had a strong Chicago connection. And one of Hopper’s most famous paintings, Nighthawks, is in the Chicago Art Institute.
All said, I enjoyed reading Sandburg’s poems. They are of a period – some of them include language and ethnic nicknames that would be deemed politically incorrect today – but they are good stuff. And I read the Dover thrift edition of the Chicago Poems, which cost me all of $2. Can’t beat that price.