Places: Chicago Poems

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1916

Type of work: Poetry

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Chicago

*Chicago. Chicago PoemsIllinois’s largest city and the industrial and commercial center of the Midwest. Sandburg’s poetry depicts Chicago as a mythic figure, a city personified as a kind of superman–optimistic, pugnacious, and indomitable. Ultimately, Sandburg celebrates the city’s unquenchable vitality and energy. The most familiar poem in his collection, “Chicago,” is most notable for its form, which, like a jazz composition or the expanding grid of the city itself, keeps going on its own momentum. The city and the poem are open-ended structures, and Sandburg’s “Chicago” is both utterly real and strangely mythological. The stockyards, railroads, skyscrapers, criminals, prostitutes, and marginal characters it describes are painfully accurate.

Many of Sandburg’s poems break Chicago’s massive cityscape down into comprehensible lives, in which frustrations, dashed hopes, and unfulfilled longings define the everyday existence of the working-class people, who make up the vast majority of the city’s residents. Sandburg’s poems are all telling examples of his socially conscious verse. He is also sensitive to the plight of the mushrooming ethnic populations, especially the Italians and Eastern Europeans, as shown in such poems as “Child of the Romans” and “Happiness,” the latter celebrating a family of Hungarians enjoying a picnic on the banks of the Des Plaines River.

BibliographyAllen, Gay Wilson. Carl Sandburg. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972. Brief but useful introduction to Sandburg’s poetry, with specific references to Chicago Poems.Callahan, North. Carl Sandburg: His Life and Works. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987. Overview of Sandburg’s career, with sensitive readings of his poems. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 focus on Sandburg’s Chicago experience and the poetry he produced during that period.Callahan, North. Carl Sandburg: Lincoln of Our Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1970. A critical biography of Sandburg that includes comment on his Chicago years.Crowder, Richard. Carl Sandburg. New York: Twayne, 1964. One of the best general discussions of Sandburg’s life and career. Relates how Harriet Monroe arranged for the publication of “Chicago” and other poems in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in March, 1914, and the literary establishment’s negative reaction to this unconventional poetry. Useful chronology of Sandburg’s life; selected bibliography.Niven, Penelope. Carl Sandburg: A Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. A first-rate critical biography of Sandburg that includes a section on “The Chicago Years” and the poet’s creative work during that period. Perhaps the best single work to date on Sandburg and his art.
Categories: Places