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Dan Guillory
Historical Research and Narrative

In many ways Carl Sandburg lived the American dream. Born in 1878 to a Swedish immigrant couple in the prairie town of Galesburg, Illinois, young Carl worked a variety of jobs to help supplement the meager family income, His father, August Sandburg, worked ten-hour days, six days a week, for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad. Carl ultimately was forced to drop out of school and take to the road selling stereoscopes (a hand-held device to view photographic images). Briefly he experimented with the life of the hobo and was arrested once for riding a boxcar illegally. Then he decided to enlist in the Spanish-American War of 1898, serving in the Sixth Regiment of Illinois volunteers. His fame as a poet grew steadily after the publication of The Chicago Poems (1916), and by the late 1920s he was a national celebrity with the publication of The American Songbag (1927) and Abe Lincoln Grows Up (1928). Sandburg won many literary prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1940, awarded for his multi-volume biography Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939), and a Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1951, following the publication of the first edition of his Complete Poems (1950). Sandburg evolved into a complex figure, gaining fame as a poet, journalist, biographer, orator, folksinger, and performer. He also became a prominent film critic who counted Charlie Chaplin among his personal friends. Sandburg was even granted a private tour of the White House, conducted personally by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Yet, in spite of his great popularity and national stature, Carl Sandburg never shirked from espousing unpopular causes. Characteristically, he maintained a keen sense of social justice, taking powerful and unwavering stands on labor and economic issues in particular, as well as issues like war-profiteering, racism (as in his Chicago Race Riots, July 1919), capital punishment, and prostitution. This heightened social consciousness can be explained partly by the hardships of Sandburg's childhood and by the fact that he came of age at the turn of the century, an era when the political movements of Populism and Socialism attracted substantial voting blocs in local and national elections. The Populists, under the leadership of crusader and orator William Jennings Bryan, generally favored a silver-based currency, easier credit, and stronger support for the family farm and agrarian way of life. The Socialists, under Eugene Debs (a four-time candidate for the presidency), espoused a variety of social causes and political tactics. But Sandburg was attracted to a subgroup, the Social Democrats of Wisconsin, and he worked for them as a pamphleteer and political organizer at the grass-roots level. Notably, in 1910 he became the personal secretary of the Social Democrat mayor of Milwaukee, Ernie Seidel.

Social Democrats were influenced by European thinkers and by American "muckrakers" like Frank Norris (The Octopus) and Upton Sinclair (The Jungle), so they favored pure food and drug policies, as well as issues like safe working conditions and the control of runaway monopolies. Social Democrats supported a forty-hour week, with pay for overtime. They believed in



pensions, health benefits, and social security. They strongly endorsed educational innovation and condemned child abuse and child labor practices. All of these concerns find expression explicitly or implicitly in the poetry of Carl Sandburg, even though the young poet moved to Chicago in 1912 and by 1916 officially severed his ties with the Social Democrats—and all other political parties. The year 1916 also marked the publication of The Chicago Poems, the single book that launched Sandburg's career as a major American poet.

The title piece, "Chicago," is Carl Sandburg's signature poem, perhaps the most recognizable icon of the general arts movement known as the Chicago Renaissance. In format, theme, diction, and attitude, it shocked the readers of American poetry and changed the literary landscape forever. Sandburg and fellow avant-garde writers like Edgar Lee Masters, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Vachel Lindsay were all benefiting from the influence and support of Harriet Monroe, the visionary who founded Poetry magazine in Chicago in 1912. Written in vers libre (free verse), Sandburg's "Chicago" did not look or sound like a typical poem of the day: "Hog butcher for the World, / Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, / Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler." Sandburg, more than any of the other "modernist" writers, dealt the death blow to the prevailing style of the "Genteel Tradition" by evoking taboo subjects (urban life, prostitution, crime, and hunger). Sandburg adopted a form that was highly oratorical and relied on repetition instead of predictable iambic lines corralled into neat quatrains. Eschewing lofty language and uplifting sentiments, Sandburg forced his reader to confront the grim realities of prostitution ("painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys"), as well as rampant crime, hunger, and general impoverishment:

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.

Perhaps most upsetting to the conventional reader of 1916 was Sandburg's unmediated approval of the anthropomorphized city, the "tall bold slugger," who is "fierce as a dog" and "cunning as a savage." The most critical item in Sandburg's litany of praise for this heroic builder of skyscrapers is the single word "coarse," hardly an expected term of approbation for an epic hero. Sandburg, however, uses "coarse" as code for everything that is ennobling and humanizing in daily work. Coarseness is the badge of accomplishment and survival for the American worker, suggesting calloused hands and rough shoes but also indomitable will and an unconquerable spirit:

Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people.

This image of the pulse beating under the wrist occurs again in "Mill-Doors," where the workers are "tapped" like maple trees, drained of their vital sap:

I say good-by because I know they tap your wrists,
In the dark, in the silence, day by day.
And all the blood of you drop by drop,
And you are old before you are young. You never come back.

The workers are caught in a double-bind: work and be exploited like a slave or die of hunger like a beggar. The ditch-digging "Muckers," for example, feverishly pitch yellow mud with their shovels while trying to pull "their boots out of suckholes where they slosh." They justly complain that "mucking" is a "hell of a job," while ten unemployed onlookers sigh, "Jesus, I wish I had the job."

This focus on workers and their plight allows the poet to incorporate a number of concerns about class, ethnicity, and gender. In "Child of the Romans," for example, "the dago shovelman" eats a bologna sandwich by the side of the railroad track where he has been working. A passenger train "whirls by," carrying rich diners enjoying steaks, gravy, strawberries, cream, eclairs, and coffee. They are in a self-contained world of glass and steel, utterly inaccessible to the poor Italian. His humble job merely keeps the roses and jonquils from shaking on the tables of the speeding dining car— a telling example of the great divide in social class and ethnic status at the time. The "dago" resembles the thirty-two Greek workers in "Near Keokuk" who soak their aching feet in a cool stream after ten hours of shoveling rocks in the midsummer heat. This distancing of classes is shown literally in "People Who Must," as a man paints the roof of a skyscraper all day long while the people on the street below become "bugs" and "spots." In 'The Mayor of Gary," Sandburg draws a sharp contrast between the freshly shampooed mayor with his "cool cream pants"


and white shoes and the steel workers whose shoes are "pitted with little holes from running molten steel." This social gap closes only in death, as Sandburg wryly observes in "Southern Pacific," where the railroad magnate Huntington and the railroad worker named Blithery ultimately sleep underground in "houses six feet long."

The situation of the American worker receives close scrutiny in The Chicago Poems (1916) and its successors: Cornhuskers (1918), Smoke and Steel (1920), Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922), and The People, Yes (1936). In one way or another, Sandburg faithfully returns to the American worker as an anchor for his work, a benchmark against which he can reliably measure the success or failure of the American dream. Like Whitman, he is all-inclusive in his vision, as shown in this catalog from "The Windy City":

coal passers, taxi drivers, window washers, paperhangers, floorwalkers, bill collectors, burglar alarm salesmen, massage students, manicure girls, chiropodists, bath rubbers, booze runners, hat cleaners, armhole basters, delicatessen clerks, shovel stiffs, work plugs. . .

And of all the workers, Sandburg shows a special sensitivity to the plight of women whose little children are abused by the factory system. In "They Will Say," little children are forced

To work, broken and smothered, for bread and wages,
To eat dust in their throats and die empty-hearted
For a little handful of pay on a few Saturday nights.

But the mothers suffer worse fates. "Anna Imroth" is Sandburg's elegy to a factory girl who dies trying to escape from a fire because her employer had failed to install a fire escape. Sandburg pities the young women in "Working Girls" who walk to the factories by the thousands, all clutching "little brick-shaped lunches wrapped in newspapers." And in "Onion Days," he empathizes with the young Italian widow, Mrs. Pietro Giovannitti, who works all day picking onions at eight cents a box for Mr. Jasper, an upright member of the Episcopalian congregation. Jasper plans to lower her pay to six cents per box, even though her baby is due in less than three months. In the "Washerwoman" a fallen woman, now reformed, rubs underwear spotless as she "sings that Jesus will wash her sins away."

Sensitive to the change in mores, Sandburg depicts prostitution as an economically driven evil—the same way he sees racism in his prose work Chicago Race Riots, July 1919. Driven by poverty to take up life on the street, the prostitutes are cheated by their pimps and handlers as explained by the woman working "Harrison Street Court":

"A woman what hustles
Never keeps nuthin
For all her hustlin.
Somebody always gets
What she goes on the street for."

Like her sisters in the sex trade, the 'Trafficker"

. . . offers passers-by what they will
Of her beauty wasted, body faded,
claims gone,
And no takers.



Sandburg takes a radical-feminist view of prostitution, indicting as harlots all women who marry simply to acquire wealth, as he illustrates in "Soiled Dove":

Let us be honest; the lady was not a
harlot until she married a corporation
Lawyer who picked her from a Ziegfeld chorus.

In spite of his rock-solid marriage, and profound devotion to his three daughters (Margaret, Janet, and Helga), the first two of which had chronic, expensive medical conditions, Sandburg also takes a stand against the traditional marriage, which often resulted from immense social pressure and created despair for all involved. The sarcastic narrator in Section 49 of The People, Yes remarks that

Wedlock is a padlock.
Take a good look at the mother before
Getting tied up with the daughter.

These sentiments were dramatized earlier in "Mag," in which the husband whines,

I wish the kids had never come
And rent and coal and clothes to pay for
And a grocery man calling for cash,
Every day cash for beans and prunes.
I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish to God the kids had never come.

These desperate utterances echoed the poems about failed marriages that virtually dominated The Spoon River Anthology (1915), composed by Sandburg's friend Edgar Lee Masters. Divorce was still frowned upon, however, and Sandburg does not endorse divorce. But finding a legal exit to impossible relationships was one of the volatile issues of his day. And by his personal example Sandburg indicates that a good marriage is worth every sacrifice. His own spouse, the former Lilian Steichen (sister of the famous photographer Edward Steichen), remained his friend, lover, and editor for nearly seven decades, as recounted by their daughter Helga Sandburg in A Great and Glorious Romance (1978).

Besides the immigrant workers, child laborers, and women in the workplace, Sandburg also turned his attention to soldiers as specialized workers. Although his patriotic poem "The Four Brothers" (France, England, Russia, and America) supported the troops in their work of killing the Kaiser's troops, Sandburg more typically decried the carnage that inevitably ensued. In "Ready to Kill," he laments the fact that bronze statues honor dead generals who made the blood flow on "the sweet new grass" when there should be statues for the workers "feeding people instead of butchering them." And in "Smoke" the poet ironically juxtaposes the comfortable consume of newspapers who sits in chair while

Millions of men go to war, acres of them are buried, guns and ships
broken, cities burned, villages sent up in smoke. .
. .

Perhaps his most eloquent and most quoted pacifist poem is "Grass." All the great battlefield sites, Austerlitz, Waterloo, Gettysburg, Ypres, and Verdun are ultimately claimed by the simple, universal greenery, the life-force that outlasts death:

I am the grass.
Let me work.

When all the workers were threatened in 1929 by the Great Depression, and one of every four was put out of work, Carl Sandburg ever the champion of the working class, responded with The People, Yes (1936), taking his greatest stand and affirming the power of "Man the toolmaker, tooluser, / son of the burning quests" even in the face of a worldwide depression. The poet insists on "the destiny of man ... and the future of the human race."

All great art is interactive. It is nearly impossible for the reader to consider Carl Sandburg's poetic indictments of hunger, poverty, and the general abuse of power without also taking a stand. In a world that is shaped by global terror and multinational corporations, a world often plagued by war and broken families, his poetry still speaks eloquently. Like all great poetry, the poems of Carl Sandburg are timeless.



Rosemary Laughlin


Main Ideas

Carl Sandburg's poetry strongly reflects aspects of the extraordinary growth period in the United States after the Civil War through World War I. Economically and socially it shows immigrant workers dealing with both poverty and opportunity. Spiritually it shows that happiness lies in family bonds, generosity, music, and storytelling. Politically it shows the futility of war. Artistically it reflects the American Poetic Renaissance (sometimes called the Chicago Renaissance) through the establishment in 1912 of Poetry magazine in Chicago, which welcomed all poetic forms and subjects that had fresh imagery and rhythm. Overall, Sandburg reinvigorated Walt Whitman's affirmation of the American common man through colloquial language, realistic detail, haunting non-metric rhythms, and buoyant exaggeration.

Connection with the Curriculum

This material may be used to teach United States history, American literature, Chicago history, and poetry.

The activities as a whole or in part may be appropriate for the Illinois Learning Standards in Social Science 14.D.3, 4, 5; 14.E.3, 4, 5; 18.A.3, 4, 5.

The activities as a whole or in part may be appropriate for the Illinois Learning Standards in the English Language Arts 1.A. 3b, 4b, 5b; 1.B 3a, 4a, 5a; 1.C.3b, 4b, 5b; 1.C.3c, 4c, 5c; 1.C.3e, 4e, 5e; 2.A.3d, 4d, 5d; 2.B.3a, 4a, 5a; 5.C.3b.

Teaching Level

Grades 8-12

Materials for Each Student

• The narrative portion of the article

• Copies of the activity handouts:

1.  For Activity 1 the students will need a copy of the narrative portion of the article and a copy of the Activity 1 worksheet, "Woman's Club of Danville -Taking a Stand on Public Health."
2. Worksheet for "Contemporary Chicago."
3.  Passage from Willa Cather's Song of the Lark.
4.  Criteria for publication in Poetry magazine and submissions to be evaluated.
5.  Copies of World War I war-effort posters and of several Sandburg war poems.

Objectives for Each Student

•  Recite in chorus to feel the rhythm of the personified Chicago's a) defensive stance against accusations of immorality, b) pride in its work ethic and hard physical labor, and c) laughing defiance of gentility.
•  Analyze by discussion to understand the basic structure of the poem "Chicago." Is it a monologue? An implied dialogue? Who is "I"? Who is "you"? Who is "they"?
•   Realize what images Chicago has today for the members of the class.
•  Compare/contrast the poem "Chicago" with a literary text from another author and genre on Chicago circa 1916.
•   Respond critically in the role of an assistant editor at Poetry magazine (circa 1912-16) to submissions, following the manifesto of editor Harriet Monroe and the guidelines of the Imagist poets.
•   Identify images and words of persuasion in World War I government posters and in anti-war poetry by Carl Sandburg. Judge which are the most effective.


Opening the Lesson

Ask how many students have heard of Carl Sandburg. How many are familiar with the poem "Chicago" or its images in the opening stanza, particularly "Hog Butcher to the World," "Player with Railroads," and "City of the Big Shoulders."

Hand out narrative portion of the article and assign as homework. Then ask students what they learned about Sandburg, what strikes them as important, interesting, or relevant to Illinois history or life today.

Make it clear that "Chicago" is one of the most famous American poems and is the cultural heritage of every Illinoisan.

Developing the Lesson

The following activities may be mixed or matched as desired or as time allows.

Activity 1 calls for performance in the choral recitation of "Chicago," It should be taken seriously, and the teacher may point out that verse choirs have their roots in Greek drama. There is great power and bonding in unison recitation. Be sure to give the students the objectives of the recitation above.


These should be the basis for inflections and tones. The entire activity may take an entire class period.

Depending on the class size, some students will participate in several groups. The class is both its own performer and audience. Practice time should be allowed. The teacher may send groups off to work on their parts while s/he directs the shouting voices. Allow time to mesh each group with the shouters.

Each group must pause at the underlined bold phrases so that the shouting voices can fit in effectively.

Movement may be added if the teacher is ambitious and the class willing. An instrumental musical background can enhance, such as Scott Joplin's "The New Rag" (1912) or "The Magnetic Rag" (1914), composed shortly before "Chicago" was published in Poetry magazine (1916). Ragtime's saucy syncopatior reflects the swaggering independence of Sandburg's city.

Activity 2 — Contemporary Chicago! allows the students to create their Chicago. Using the simple form, they should jot down the first images that come to mind. Between 3 to 5 minutes should be allowed for this after the teacher gives them examples:

Example 1
Specific location: West Devon Avenue
Sights: Bolts of silk sari materials in bright colors and designs, edged in gold
Sounds: Bollywood songs; fragments of Hindi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujurathi
Smells: Indian fast food like jalabees, burfis, samosa, naan; incense
Person: A salesman calling the start of bargaining, "Only $350, Madam!"
Overall metaphor or summarizing image: Transplanted Indian marketplace

Example 2
Specific location: Wrigley Field
Sights: Ivy-covered walls, ball soaring into bleachers, slide into second base
Sounds: "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" loud organ celebrating hits and scores
Smells: Hot dogs, peanuts, popcorn, sunscreen
Person: Sammy Sosa
Overall metaphor or summarizing image: Gotta love the Cubs, World Series 1906

Activity 3 — Two Chicagos: Sandburg's and Cather's.

Published in 1915, Willa Cather's novel The Song of the Lark is about a Colorado girl who becomes an opera singer. Though a poor clergyman's daughter, at seventeen Thea Kronborg is given the opportunity to study music in Chicago. She has little money and is overwhelmed by the big city. She is homesick. She spends her time practicing the piano in her boardinghouse room and occasionally earning money singing at funerals.

After four months she visits the Art Institute at her landlady's suggestion. The art is like manna to her spirit, and she returns regularly.

Two months later she is given a ticket to a symphonic concert at the Auditorium, Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan's lavish concert hall with perfect acoustics, opened in 1889.

Provided in the handout for Activity 3 is an excerpt from the Auditorium concert experience. Students should read it and then compare it in small groups with Sandburg's "Chicago," using 15 to 20 minutes to write down points made within the group and 20 to 25 minutes to report to the class as a whole. For maximum effect, a secretary should record points on the board under the appropriate category. Each group should determine the tone of each work, the point of view, the three strongest images, the five most distinctive word choices.

Or, instead of discussion, assign a comparison/contrast essay for homework, two pages maximum. The essay should focus on the tone of each, the point of view in each, the specific images, vocabulary, and the student's personal responses (emotions, judgments, associations). Remind students to decide on a basic organization: whole-to-whole (one work at a time) or point-by-point (the assigned points applied to both works).


Activity 4 is based on the publishing context of Sandburg's Chicago Poems. In 1912  Harriet Monroe, a Chicago newspaper art and drama critic, founded Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, quite unlike magazines that published multiple genres. Monroe's manifesto revealed three basic purposes:

First, appeal to...a public primarily interested in poetry as an art, as the highest, most complete expression of truth and beauty. Second...all kinds of verse will be considered-narrative, dramatic, lyric—quality alone being the test of acceptance....Third...we shall pay contributors. (Harriet Monroe, A Poet's Life. New York: Macmillan, 1938. 251-52.)

Monroe's magazine introduced the work not only of Sandburg but of other poets whose work marked what is called the Chicago Renaissance or the American Poetic Renaissance. These include Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams. Works by Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot were also published in Poetry.

Playing the role of assistant editors for Poetry circa 1912-16, the students can—individually or in small groups—examine several poems by Sandburg (or any other poems of the teacher's choice) and advise publication or rejection. The handout offers poems with Sandburg's frequent subject—the working man or woman. You may tell the students at the outset that the handout poems are Sandburg's, or you may wait till the conclusion of the activity.

The criteria listed for the student are reduced from Imagist guidelines presented by Ezra Pound and F. S. Flint in Poetry, March 1913   (reprinted in H. Monroe, A Poet's Life. New York: Macmillan, 1938. 296-301.)

Activity 5 — "War Posters and Poetry" gives the opportunity to consider the power of pictorial and verbal images. The handout reprints three famous war effort appeals from the government: "I Want You," "Wake Up America!" and "Lest Liberty Perish" ( In small groups the students should identify connections between the symbolic images and the strong emotions they are intended to invoke. Which symbol is the most powerful today—Uncle Sam? Sleeping Liberty? or the Statue of Liberty against a background of burning New York City? Next give the groups the copies of Sandburg's war poem samples. Again the students should identify the chief images and compare or contrast these with those in the posters. Do the images contradict each other? Can Sandburg's be called pacifist? Anti-war? Do Sandburg's poems evoke more thought than emotion?

Concluding the Lesson

For Activity 1 the students should comment on which phrases of their recitation best reflected the pride, the swagger, the defensive stance against gentility.

They should then discuss who the "I" and "they" are in the poem. How many ways can these be interpreted? Would the poem be more effective if Sandburg had just personified Chicago speaking as "I"? How many students think he lessens the effect by having a defender between Chicago and its critics? The teacher should be appreciative of their judgments.

For Activity 2 the teacher should prompt them to comment on how their images are like Sandburg's. Any? Probably "Tall bold slugger" will be one. How diverse are the images of class members? You might do a quick tally on the board to see how many chose museums and famous sights, shopping, sports, ethnic neighborhoods, relatives, Lake Michigan beach activities etc. If there are any locales exactly the same, ask if these reflect parts of Chicago that have become prominent after Sandburg's time. The Sears Tower, O'Hare Field, and North Michigan Avenue stores will probably be named.

For Activity 3 the teacher should call attention to how similar or different are the responses to the two works independently arrived at by the small groups. Ask which author would they prefer to read more of. Did any of them perceive that Cather's passage marks the sudden realization (epiphany in literary terminology) of a young artist's identity with her art, the strength it will demand from her, and the ecstasy it will give?

For Activity 4 the teacher should note the common subject (working-class people) of the poems but the contrasting aspects of their lives that Sandburg has highlighted.

For Activity 5 the teacher may point out how the students in the class have differed in their responses or possibly have been in agreement. Whatever, it should be noted that Americans have usually protested wars, World War II being an exception. In World War I many German and Irish Americans criticized alliance with England.


The Viet Nam Conflict split American society with draft-resistance, building take-overs, and mass protests. Major protests marked the 2003 pre-invasion of Iraq. Poll the students for their opinion on the effectiveness of protest before a war begins and after a war has begun. Ask the students what guidelines or limits a government should make in its efforts to unify the citizens during a war. Referring to the Operation Iraqi Freedom war initiated by the Bush administration in 2003, ask students whether reporters embedded with soldiers in the field and correspondents reporting live from military headquarters make truth in war more possible. Less possible?

Extending the Lesson

Videotaping of Activity 1 or Activity 2 emphasizes the worth of the performance. Since all students are involved, it can be shown to parents at Open House or during conferences. One year's videotape also serves as a model for next year's class.

Further research may be done on Scott Joplin and ragtime music as part of the early-twentieth century American cultural renaissance.

After Activity 4 ask students if they know any poems that celebrate a hard-working person. Examples might be John Henry the Steel-Drivin' Man of folklore fame, or "The Waitress" by Billy Collins, as well as others in Sandburg's poetry such as "The Shovel Man," or Mrs. Gabrielle Giovannitti of "Onion Days." Allow later class time for these poems to be shared. Reserve a space on a bulletin board entitled "Fanfare for the Common Man" and arrange the poems under it. Students may be also encouraged to compose their own poems.

Following Activity 5 students may be asked to contribute to a wreath for Veterans Day or a wreath for Memorial Day. Each poem should 1) name the relative or identify the relationship; 2) give images to identify which war; 3) describe the relative's part or job; and 4) show the effect of the relative's participation on him or her, or on family members, or on the cause. If the student has no military relatives, a fictional or historical figure may be taken. You can read this as an example:

To my cousin Eric
Who so proudly stepped onto that bus waving goodbye;
Who so proudly stepped off six months later, a confident grin plastered on his face;
To my cousin Eric
who picked up so many bad habits at Paris Island like smoking and drinking and swearing;
Whose Jeep sported a Proud to be a Marine bumper sticker;
Who bought a Rottweiler because "That's a Marine's dog!"
To my cousin Eric whose hair finally grew back;
Who eventually stopped swearing but never gave up smoking;
Who traded in his Jeep for a Saturn;
Who put a You Can't Hug a Child with Nuclear Arms bumper sticker and a baby seat in his car;
To my cousin Eric
Who promised he'd never grow up
But did anyway.

All poems neatly penned or typed can be pinned on a bulletin board to a wreath of paper flowers cut from an old flower catalogue. Parents especially love to read these when visiting the classroom. Expect a spectrum of attitudes to be expressed in the poems, and point out that in America we are free to express differences and defend the right to do so.

Assessing the Lesson

All the activities may be graded for cooperation if the teachers desires. Ideally, they are their own rewards; the teacher may single out the successful aspects for praise to the class.

If the essay suggested in Activity 3 is assigned, it should be graded according to usual standards for organization, intellectual quality, and clarity.




Recited harmonies of the voice are no less impressive than sung ones. Careful articulation of consonants, unison, and rising or falling inflections as directed are essential for effectiveness.

In "Chicago" you should feel and should make listeners feel the physical power of a Chicago that is boastfully proud and joyful about its hard manual work and swaggeringly uncaring of the loose morality and seaminess that pervades it. To do this, first group the class accordingly and place the members of each group standing together:

•  4-5 deep, low voices which will speak the underlined, bold words throughout the poem. Their tone should be almost a shout, reflecting the coarse assertiveness of the city.
•  7 single voices chosen from different places in the class to recite quickly in a flowing manner the phrases of the introductory refrain (Stanza 1). Each voice goes only as far as a comma or semi-colon. All seven say in unison, "City of the Big Shoulders."
•  3-5 mixed voices to recite Stanza 2
• 3-5 light, high voices to recite Stanza 3
•  3-5 mixed voices to recite Stanza 4
•  2-3 mixed voices to recite Stanza 5
•  4 single voices, each to recite a single line of Stanza 6
•  incremental use of all voices in final Stanza 7 by starting with 2-3 standing next to each other. After each comma the next 2-3 should add their voices and continue. The volume and number should increase, so that the whole class will be reciting the last phrase, "Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation." A slight pause after "Railroads" should keep the voices in unison.



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.

(All Sandburg poems reprinted here are from The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg. Revised and Expanded Edition. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.)



Using the prompt below, quickly fill in what comes to your mind from your own experience of Chicago. If nothing comes to you for one category, that's all right; move on to the next. If you have never been to Chicago, think of a movie or TV program or song featuring Chicago, and respond to it. After several minutes, everyone will stand in a semi-circle and recite the images one student after another. The total will show what Chicago means to Illinoisans of your age today.

Specific location:




Overall metaphor or summarizing interpretation:



Read the excerpts below from Willa Cather's 1915 novel The Song of the Lark about a seventeen-year-old Colorado girl studying music in Chicago. Discuss in small groups the tone, point of view, three strongest images, and five most distinctive word choices. Then determine the same for Sandburg's poem.

Or write a two-page essay on the similarities and differences between the Chicago of Sandburg's poem and Thea Kronborg's. Consider tone, point of view, word choices, images, and personal responses.

Harsanyi had given Thea a ticket for the symphony concert that afternoon, and when she looked out at the white apple trees her doubts as to whether she ought to go vanished at once. She would make her work light that morning, she told herself. She would go to the concert full of energy. When she set off, after dinner, Mrs. Lorch, who knew Chicago weather, prevailed upon her to take her cape. The old lady said that such sudden mildness, so early in April, presaged a sharp return of winter, and she was anxious about her apple trees.

The concert began at two-thirty, and Thea was in her seat at the Auditorium at ten minutes after two—a fine seat in the first row of the balcony, on the side, where she could see the house as well as the orchestra. She had been to so few concerts that the great house, the crowd of people, and the lights, all had a stimulating effect. She was surprised to see so many men in the audience, and wondered how they could leave their business in the afternoon, During the first number Thea was so much interested in the orchestra itself, in the men, the instruments, the volume of sound, that she paid little attention to what they were playing. Her excitement impaired her power of listening. She kept saying to herself, "Now I must stop this foolishness and listen; I may never hear this again"; but her mind was like a glass that is hard to focus. She was not ready to listen until the second number, Dvorak's Symphony in E minor, called on the programme, "From the New World." The first theme had scarcely been given out when her mind became clear; instant composure fell upon her, and with it came the power of concentration. This was music she could understand, music from the New World indeed! Strange how, as the first movement went on, it brought back to her that high tableland above Laramie; the grass-grown wagon trails, the far-away peaks of the snowy range, the wind and the eagles, that old man and the first telegraph message.

When the first movement ended, Thea's hands and feet were cold as ice. She was much too excited to know anything except that she wanted something desperately, and when the English horns gave out the theme of Largo, she knew that what she wanted was exactly that. Here were the sand hills, the grasshoppers and locusts, all the things that wakened and chirped in the early morning; the reaching and reaching of high plains the immeasurable yearning of all flat lands. There was home in it, too; first memories, first mornings long ago; the amazement of a new soul in a new world; a soul new and yet old, that had dreamed something despairing, something glorious, in the dark before it was born; a soul obsessed by what it did not know, under the cloud of a past it could not recall....

When Thea emerged from the concert hall, Mrs. Lorch's predictions had been fulfilled. A furious gale was beating over the city from Lake Michigan. The streets were full of cold, hurrying, angry people, running for street-cars and barking at each other. The sun was setting in a clear, windy sky, that flamed with red as if there were a great fire somewhere on the edge of the city. For almost the first time Thea was conscious of the city itself, of the congestion of life all about her, of the brutality and power of those streams that flowed in the streets, threatening to drive one under. People jostled her, ran into her, poked her aside with their elbows, uttering angry exclamations. She got on the wrong car and was roughly ejected by the conductor at a windy corner in front of a saloon. She stood there dazed and shivering. The cars passed, screaming as they rounded curves, but either they were full to the doors, or were bound for places where she did not want to go. Her hands were so cold that she took off her tight kid gloves. The street lights began to gleam in the dusk. A young man came out of the saloon and stood eyeing her question-ingly while he lit a cigarette. "Looking for a friend to-night?" he asked. Thea drew up the collar of her cape and walked on a few paces. The young man shrugged his shoulders and drifted away....



A cloud of dust blew in her face and blinded her. There was some power abroad in the world bent upon taking away from her that feeling with which she had come out of the concert hall. Everything seemed to sweep down on her to tear it out from under her cape....Thea glared around her at the crowds, the ugly, sprawling streets, the long lines of lights, and she was not crying now. Her eyes were brighter than even Harsanyi had ever seen them. All these things and people were no longer remote and negligible; they had to be met, they were lined up against her, they were there to take something from her. Very well; they should never have it. They might trample her to death, but they should never have it. As long as she lived that ecstasy was going to be hers. She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it, time after time, height after height. She could hear the crash of the orchestra again, and she rose on the brasses. She would have it, what the trumpets were singing! She would have it,-it! Under the old cape she pressed her hands upon her heaving bosom, that was a little girl's no longer.

Willa Cather. The Song of the Lark (1915). New York: Penguin Putnam, 1999. (Part II, Chapter 5; 168-72).

Sandburg's "Chicago"

Cather's "Song of the Lark"


Point of View

3 strongest images for you

5 most distinctive single word
choices in your opinion


iht1310627-25.jpgRole-Playing: Assistant Editor at Poetry Magazine

Imagine you have been hired by Harriet Monroe to exercise your literary judgment on submissions to Poetry magazine. The staff will follow these guidelines of the Imagist poets in making selections to be published:

•   Present an image that is sharp and precise.
•  Use the diction of common speech.
•  Choose the exact word, not the merely decorative word.
•  Create new rhythms to express new moods, usually in free verse.
•  Allow freedom in choice of subject matter.
•  Produce poetry that is hard and clear, not blurred and indefinite.
•  Strive for concentration, avoiding all unnecessary words and phrases.

Be prepared to argue for/against these poems with the above criteria. You may also suggest revisions.

iht1310627-26.jpg FISH CRIER

I know a Jew fish crier down on Maxwell Street with a voice like a north
wind blowing over corn stubble in January.
He dangles herring before prospective customers evincing a joy identical

with that of Pavlowa dancing.
His face is that of a man terribly glad to be selling fish, terribly glad that

God made fish, and customers to whom he may call his wares from a pushcart.


Cross the bands over the breast here-so.
Straighten the legs a little more-so.
And call for the wagon to come and take her home.
Her mother will cry some and so will her sisters and brothers.
But all of the others got down and they are safe and this is the only one
of the factory girls who wasn't lucky in making the jump when the fire broke.

It is the hand of God and the lack of fire escapes.


Jack was a swarthy, swaggering son-of-a-gun.
He worked thirty years on the railroad, ten hours a day, and his hands
were tougher than sole leather.
He married a tough woman and they had eight children and the woman

died and the children grew up and went away and wrote the old man every two years.
He died in the poorhouse sitting on a bench in the sun telling reminiscences
to other old men whose women were dead and children scattered.
There was joy on his face when he died as there was joy on his face when

he lived-he was a swarthy, swaggering son-of-a-gun.




I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish you never quit your job and came along with me.
I wish we never bought a license and a white dress
For you to get married in the day we ran off to a minister
And told him we would love each other and take care of each other
Always and always long as the sun and the rain lasts anywhere.
Yes, I'm wishing now you lived somewhere away from here
And I was a bum on the bumpers a thousand miles away dead broke.
I wish the kids had never come
And rent and coal and clothes to pay for
And a grocery man calling for cash,
Every day cash for beans and prunes.
I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish to God the kids had never come.


I asked professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though I was trying to fool with them.
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the Desplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their women and

children and a keg of beer and an accordion.





Below are three posters from World War I. Identify the attitudes or emotions the images are intended to convey. Then read the Sandburg poems about war. What points do they make? Are they contradictory to the posters? Supportive in any ways? Do they create a fuller view of war? A more limited view? Are Sandburg's images obsolete for the realities of current warfare? Discuss in small groups and then with the class at large.



I have been watching the war map slammed up for advertising in front of the newspaper office.
Buttons-red and yellow buttons-blue and black buttons-are shoved back and forth across the map.

A laughing young man, sunny with freckles,
Climbs a ladder, yells a joke to somebody in the crowd,
And then fixes a yellow button one inch west
And follows a yellow button with a black button one inch west.

(Ten thousand men and boys twist on their bodies in a red soak along a river edge,
Gasping of wounds, calling for water, some rattling death in their throats.)
Who would guess what it cost to move two buttons one inch on the war
map here in front of the newspaper office where the freckle-faced young man is laughing to us?


Smash down the cities.
Knock the walls to pieces.
Break the factories and cathedrals, warehouses and homes
Into loose piles of stone and lumber and black burnt wood:
You are the soldiers and we command you.

Build up the cities.
Set up the walls again.
Put together once more the factories and cathedrals, warehouses and homes
Into buildings for life and labor:
You are workmen and citizens all: We command you.




In the old wars drum of hoofs and the beat of shod feet.
In the new wars hum of motors and the tread of rubber tires.
In the wars to come silent wheels and whirr of rods not yet dreamed out in the heads of men.

In the old wars clutches of short swords and jabs into faces with spears.
In the new wars long-range guns and smashed walls, guns running a spit
of metal and men falling in tens and twenties.
In the wars to come new silent deaths, new silent hurlers not yet dreamed
out in the heads of men.

In the old wars kings quarreling and thousands of men following.
In the new wars kings quarreling and millions of men following.
In the wars to come kings kicked under the dust and millions of men following great
causes not yet dreamed out in the heads of men.


Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work

I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.


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