Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967) is another poet who, like Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, could qualify as “America’s Poet.” He has the distinction of receiving two Pulitzer Prizes, one for volume 2 of his biography of Abraham Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln: The War Years and one for his Complete Poems.
He is most closely associated with Chicago and the Midwest, and for National Poetry Month, I thought it fitting to include “Chicago” as one of his featured poems.
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:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your
painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: yes, it is true I have seen
the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women
and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my
city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be
alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall
bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted
against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his
ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked,
sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.
Poems Done on a Late Night Car
I am The Great White Way of the city:
When you ask what is my desire, I answer:
“Girls fresh as country wild flowers,
With young faces tired of the cows and barns,
Eager in their eyes as the dawn to find my mysteries,
Slender supple girls with shapely legs,
Lure in the arch of their little shoulders
And wisdom from the prairies to cry only softly at the ashes of my mysteries.”
II. USED UP
Lines based on certain regrets that come with rumination
upon the painted faces of women on North Clark Street, Chicago
In the rain and wind
Like mouths of women
Beaten by the fists of
Men using them.
O little roses
And broken leaves
And petal wisps:
You that so flung your crimson
To the sun
Here is a thing my heart wishes the world had more of:
I heard it in the air of one night when I listened
To a mother singing softly to a child restless and angry in the darkness.
I Am the People, the Mob
I am the people–the mob–the crowd–the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and
I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me
and the Lincolns. They die. And then I send forth more Napoleons
I am the seed ground. I am a prairie that will stand for much plowing.
Terrible storms pass over me. I forget. The best of me is sucked out
and wasted. I forget. Everything but Death comes to me and makes
me work and give up what I have. And I forget.
Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history
to remember. Then–I forget.
When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the
lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year,
who played me for a fool–then there will be no speaker in all the
world say the name: “The People, ” with any fleck of a sneer in his
voice or any far-off smile of derision.
The mob–the crowd–the mass–will arrive then.
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Feel properly introduced to Chicago now. He knows how to conjur up a picture.
Maureen Doallas says
I think no celebration of National Poetry Month would be complete without Sandburg. I like the “muscle” in Chicago and how Sandburg names it with all those capital letters. Used Up is quite beautiful, I think.
Thank you for the shout-out. What a nice surprise!
n davis rosback says
a man who knows chicago
a man who was made by the midwest
my husband is now flying
heading straight for the windy city
and also will drive to iowa
another midwest man
visiting the midwest
His words really do paint a picture of another time. More glamorous, more dangerous…fickle too.
Very good selection.
Ann Kroeker says
There’s a family story that my mom’s oldest brother, Uncle Jim, was visiting cousins in Chicago. They entered a bookstore where Carl Sandburg was doing a reading or something, and they grabbed my uncle and paid him a small amount of money to follow Sandburg around the store with an ash tray. Apparently Sandburg wouldn’t flick as he smoked or look for an appropriate container; he would just smoke it, letting the ashes lengthen until they’d drop off on their own in chunks. Uncle Jim was there to catch.
The story might not be true, but it’s fine to think that it’s possible.