At 100, Carl Sandburg’s Poem ‘Chicago’ still fierce, fresh
Steve Johnson — Tribune reporter – February 19, 2014
For its issue of March 1914, Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine accepted Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” and seven of his other poems about the city.
A family that had been struggling was on its way to prosperity. A literary career that would see popular adulation and critical scorn and an astonishing amount and range of work was born.
And a city — in the first five lines of the work of an obscure socialist poet in a 2-year-old magazine founded by a Chicago Tribune art critic — had found its enduring descriptors:
“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:”
“The poem was absolutely revolutionary when it first came out,” says Bill Savage, who teaches the poem as a distinguished senior lecturer in English at Northwestern University.
“I make a joke about how it’s a Chicago literary union regulation: You have to start with this poem,” Savage says.
Reading “Chicago” now, says the poet Robert Polito, president of the Poetry Foundation, which publishes Poetry Magazine, reminds him of the old joke about “Hamlet”: Great plot, great characters, but the dialogue is filled with cliches. They are cliches, of course, not because Shakespeare was weak-minded or lazy, but because he was original enough, and accurate enough, to invent phrases that would endure. Ditto for the “clichés” in Sandburg’s “Chicago.”
“They have a kind of omnipresence that makes it a little bit difficult for us to think and feel our way back to how original and daring this was,” Polito says. “You show something like ‘Citizen Kane’ to a group of young students. The techniques of that film have been imitated so many times, they don’t see what was startling about it. That’s a little bit true here. It’s a little bit hard for us a hundred years later to recapture. It’s almost as if it’s a combination of the Book of Genesis and the national anthem for Chicago. It’s the founding myth and the celebratory lyric.”
Or, as Savage says about the poem, “It created a groove that has become a rut.”
Sandburg was the son of Swedish immigrants, born in Galesburg in western Illinois. By the time he made his way to Chicago in the early 1900s, he had been many things, including a hobo, a traveling salesman (of stereoscopes), a public orator and a socialist organizer in Wisconsin.
The Chicago Poems published in Poetry established him as a writer of originality, muscular voice and an unrelenting concern for common people. His first poetry book, “Chicago Poems,” came out two years later.
He was a guitar player and singer, too, and he published “The American Songbag,” a herculean compilation of some 250 American folk songs, words and music, that he had gathered in his travels. The collection remains in print and has proved invaluable to scholars and folk singers.
In “The Day Carl Sandburg Died,” the 2012 documentary for PBS’ “American Masters,” Pete Seeger says the “Songbag” was a touchstone for the likes of him and Woody Guthrie. Bob Dylan’s website links to it, and a young Dylan, on a road trip in 1964, made sure to visit Sandburg at his North Carolina home, Polito says.
And as a day job, he wrote scores of movie reviews for the Chicago Daily News. Here is Sandburg on “Metropolis” in July 1927: “While everybody praises German movies when they are shown on this continent, nobody goes to see them.”
Sandburg in the 1920s also began a career as the precursor to Robert Caro, our era’s meticulous biographer of Lyndon Johnson. Originally conceived as a book for children, Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, much of it composed on a typewriter set on an orange crate outside of the Elmhurst home, would grow in ambition and length.
By the time he was done, it had reached six volumes and earned him a Pulitzer Prize for history.
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