IN 1914, WHEN nine “Chicago Poems” exploded on the pages of Poetry magazine, Carl Sandburg was still an obscure newspaper reporter, writing about labor and politics in the local Chicago press. Where did these poems come from?
Sandburg wrote about Chicago as someone recently arrived, like many other artists and writers who came to Chicago from remote towns across the Midwest. But he was no Carrie Meeber. A socialist and burgeoning orator, Sandburg was galvanized by his political and intellectual cohort in Chicago, a city at the center of the labor movement and home to the Industrial Workers of the World. At the same time, Sandburg was becoming a family man, as husband to Lilian Steichen (sister to the photographer Edward Steichen) and father to his first little girl. Late into the quiet night, in their apartment on Chicago’s northwest side, Sandburg hammered out vigorous poems in unconventional meter. He wasn’t sure they were even poems.
Harriet Monroe wasn’t sure either.
Harriet Monroe in her Cass Street office, circa 1920s, Harry Hansen Papers, Newberry Library.
Just a couple of years into her venture with Poetry magazine — a precarious little magazine of modernism — Monroe published Sandburg’s poems only after she “took a long breath and swallowed it.” At heart a civic booster, Monroe was raised in Chicago and witnessed its rapid growth from swampy outpost to city of skyscrapers. Poetry, though hardly genteel, was Monroe’s idea of cultural uplift. She felt both invigorated and shocked by Sandburg’s depiction of the city’s industrial ferocity, its corruption, racism, and filth — in blunt language that has no truck with decorum. Monroe’s more avant-garde assistant editor, Alice Corbin Henderson, convinced Monroe that the poems were worth the controversy they would inspire. So she arranged the poems, gave them a title, and led the March issue with a stanza that would also open up Sandburg’s first real book, Chicago Poems, published in 1916:
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 […]
Here is a city where the bloodiest business gets done. All strength, not intellect or conscience, Chicago is foremost a place of work: makers, stackers, players, handlers. Divine like a mythological titan towering over urban industries, Chicago toys with trains like a tyrannical child. Following Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp,” three sonic booms (“Stormy, husky, brawling”) proclaim that Chicago will not make melodious art. The poem looks forward to the howl of a generation embodied by lines from Allen Ginsberg, “starving hysterical naked.” Sandburg’s “Chicago” reckons with the grim power and imperfect pride of the city as much as it proclaims the city’s ars poetica and opens up a future for American poetry.
But Sandburg’s language was not for everyone. “The poems created a great stir,” recalled Monroe’s editorial assistant Eunice Tietjens:
There was no denying their impact, yet they roused a veritable storm of protest over what was then called their brutality. Many Chicagoans were furious at seeing the city presented in this, to them, unflattering light, and Harriet received many complaints. But we adopted Carl at once and loved him.
Editors at Chicago’s The Dial — a little magazine enthralled with England and with the established literary forms of English literature — publicly upbraided its younger upstart. “The typographical arrangement of this jargon creates a suspicion that it is intended to be taken as some form of poetry,” they wrote, “and the suspicion is confirmed by the fact that it stands in the forefront of the latest issue of a futile little periodical described as ‘a magazine of verse.’” Monroe replied in an editorial: “Next to making friends, the most thrilling experience of life is to make enemies.”
It may be hard for us, now, to understand what the controversy was all about. To read Sandburg’s familiar lines in 2016 is to hear how 100 years have deepened and mellowed the coarse charge of their first publication. Sandburg’s poem is practically Chicago’s pledge of allegiance. The poem’s first stanza has been repurposed to describe almost anything related to Chicago — from the “Hog Butcher Radio Hour” to Big Shoulders beer — a language of merchandising that can sell nearly anything. Mayor Rahm Emanuel — “mayor of the slim shoulders,” I have heard him called — even chose the poem as part of a favorite poem project. He read it for the Poetry Foundation, a cultural institution spun out of Monroe’s Poetry in 2003 after a surprisingly huge bequest to the magazine from the sole heiress of a pharmaceutical company.
Like many Chicagoans, the mayor knows the poem as a celebration of his city, a paean to capitalism’s energy rather than a revelation of its inhumanity. What’s more, if these lines are what we retain from Sandburg the poet, then Sandburg the man is remembered less for his radical politics than for his prize-winning biography of Abraham Lincoln, spirited musical performances, and children’s books that began as bedtime stories for his daughters.
I admit: More than Sandburg’s poetry after Chicago Poems, I love the whimsical, derelict realm of Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories, which is that rare narrative breed which seduces both my children and me. The Zigzag railroad, the Village of Cream Puffs, the Potato Face Blind Man — the material of a mind that can bend like a child’s.
But Chicago Poems! Where have they gone?
Here are poems that tore it all open, that were as radical in form as in the political principles that undergird Sandburg’s whole poetic endeavor. The son of hardworking, illiterate immigrants, Sandburg came to his love of language (Swedish and English) like he came to the American Dream — the promise of democracy undercut by persistent inequality, visible especially on the streets of Chicago:
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.
These words are not about the exacting shape of the poetic line, which breaks in different places depending upon the collection in which you read the poem. Sandburg’s verse is loose and wily: sound is built on repetition (“They tell me”; “And they tell”) like a biblical litany. Every observation of the individual amid the masses is a challenge to the authority of this “they”: the poet does not want to condemn the city so much as he wants to describe each singular experience of it.
The imagist poet and cigar-smoking patrician Amy Lowell — another early contributor to Poetry — marveled over Chicago Poems, though she was critical of their overtly political content. At the start of a steady correspondence, Sandburg defended himself:
Of course, I honestly prefer the theories of the I.W.W. to those of its opponents and some of my honest preferences may have crept into the book, as you suggest, but the aim was to sing, blab, chortle, yodel, like the people, and people in the sense of human beings subtracted from formal doctrines.
“The people” was Sandburg’s great theme, which meant writing poems that sometimes put more in than he left out.
For Sandburg, writing was a kind of breathing. He described how it came steadily, how it meant being alive. Journalism was his training ground, a daily discourse of words written to reach everyone. Which is to say, a newspaper was not the fall guy against which “real” literary pursuits were measured. For 13 years, Sandburg wrote for the Chicago Daily News, covering the 1919 race riots the same year that he won his first Pulitzer for poetry. For eight days in late July and August, Chicago roiled in arson, looting, and 38 deaths — 23 of them black — until the Illinois National Guard restored order. Disheartened, Sandburg did not think that his city would soon change: “[A]s usual nearly everybody was more interested in the war than how it got loose,” he wrote. A century later — that is, now — the city’s neighborhoods are still defined by the race lines, like scars, left by that summer.
As Sandburg produced more and more work, across genres, he became as famous as a poet can be. He won every kind of literary prize; he collected American folk songs in The American Songbag (1927) and performed before crowds across the country; he even spoke before a joint session of Congress on Lincoln’s 150th birthday. Sandburg was instantly recognizable with his shock of white hair and face carved like a piece of sculpture. His brother-in-law recognized in Sandburg an exceptional photographic subject. One famous image shows Sandburg’s head in a series of six poses, like a rock star, a man of many things. “On the day that God made Carl,” Steichen apparently said, “He didn’t do anything else that day but sit around and feel good.”
For the young Bob Dylan, and for some of the Beat poets, Sandburg was an idol. On a road trip in 1964, Dylan made a pilgrimage to see Sandburg, who was then settled with his family on a large goat farm in North Carolina. The two men exchanged desultory talk on the front porch. Unkempt and unshaven, Sandburg kept on his printer’s green eyeshade. There are several accounts of this meeting, all of which suggest that it was unclear if the aging Sandburg knew who Dylan really was. Dylan talked about poetry and gave Sandburg his latest album, The Times They Are a-Changin’. After about half an hour, Sandburg wished Dylan well, and went back inside. Dylan drove off, disappointed, speedily stoned.
Of course, Dylan’s lyric poetry became the soundtrack of the era as Sandburg’s work became second to Sandburg the man. That goat farm, called Connemara, is now a national historic site, where you can take a tour of the Sandburg home, go for a hike, and watch 15 grazing goats. You can imagine the pastoral life of a homespun American poet.
This isn’t quite right. Why don’t we visit his poetry?
When I moved to Chicago in the fall of 2005 to take a teaching job — and persuaded my Massachusetts-bred husband to move with me — I knew next to nothing about the literature associated with the city. I had spent over a decade on the coasts: in California for college and in New York for graduate school. But I was raised for most of my childhood in Kansas City and I am a Midwesterner at heart. Chicago was the biggest American city that I experienced as a child. It was the “tall bold slugger set vivid against the / little soft cities,” in Sandburg’s words. Given my early memories of Chicago — from my first ride in a fast-moving taxi to the dizzying view atop the Sears Tower — I felt that I should have at least some understanding of the literature that the city inspired. I was supposed to be a specialist in the literature of the 20th century, but I had never read anything by Sandburg.
When I finally devoted time to his poetry, what I felt was his visionary sweep, vigor, and joy, an eye for elementary intensities — sex, hunger, home. If modernism — that brash, unstable term — still signifies the destruction of old certainties, then Sandburg’s poetry is modernist at its core. But Sandburg’s poetry also fits other taxonomies of 20th-century literary style, namely social realism. His poems have people in them: “Red-headed Restaurant Cashier,” “Washerwoman,” “Hoodlums.” The world is uncertain, Sandburg says, but let me tell you something about these particular lives.
Our moment is rife with poets crafting exacting passages of prose. Sandburg was not doing this, but we do forget that he pushed poetry to the trembling edge. I find myself thinking about what Ford Madox Ford apparently said of Theodore Dreiser — which is equally true of Sandburg: he is a writer of no talent, only genius.
Soon enough, I understood that I had missed Sandburg’s work because it had never been fashionable within the academy. Sandburg was popular, but not with literary scholars. Sandburg scuffled with the literary elite during the decades after Chicago Poems, particularly certain critics and poets whom he called the “Abracadabra Boys.” They were, to be sure, the T. S. Eliot hardliners. But the sharpest criticism came in 1951 with a review by William Carlos Williams of Sandburg’s Complete Poems, which had just won the Pulitzer Prize. Maybe Sandburg did not need another laurel: he had received the Pulitzer for his second collection of poetry, Cornhuskers, and another in 1940 for volume two of his Lincoln biography. (Williams wouldn’t receive this prize until two months after he died.) Here is the essence of Williams’s seven-page screed:
In this massive book covering a period of close to forty years the poems show no development of the thought, in the technical handling of the material, in the knowledge of the forms, the art of treating the line. The same manner of using the words, of presenting the image is followed in the first poem as in the last. All that can be said is that a hoard walks steadily, unhurried through its pages, following without affection one behind the other.
It is a monstrous kind of show.
Abracadabra, indeed. Nearing 70, recovering from a stroke, Williams was himself on a search for poetic structure, imagining new models to replace what he and other modernist poets had demolished. Formlessness hit close to home. It was the very risk that Williams took with his epic experiment Paterson, still unfinished, a poem that drew upon distinctly local topographies and American vernaculars and included large sections of prose. At the end of his review, Williams emits a final, merciless blow:
The Collected [sic] Poems make a dune-like mass; no matter where you dig into them it is sand. (Sandburg! I didn’t think of that. It seems as if the name itself has gotten into it.) His characters, a drift of people, a nameless people for the most part, are sand, giving the wind form in themselves until they lie piled up filling his pages.
Naturally, Sandburg was rattled. He had known Williams for years and long admired his work. Both shared a suspicion of Eliot’s cold detachment from the American spectacle. The review hurt even more for being published in Poetry.
Of course, there is a grain of truth to Williams’s critique, though it might be more sympathetically understood. Sandburg wrote for the masses, in a plainspoken language that readers would understand. The dazzling styles of Sandburg’s modernist peers, in contrast, were often difficult, allusive, or opaque. Sandburg forged an accessible modernism that was partly informed by his leftist political impulses. He not only wanted to write about the working classes, but he also wanted to be read by them.
Consider the fate of most proletarian literature — which includes at least some of Sandburg’s work, and which Chicago produced in profusion. If you read it at all, you probably don’t read it for its aesthetic value. And you’re likely a historian, who would turn to Sandburg for the same reasons that you turn to Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle. You are looking for evidence from the past, and for material from the culture in which writers lived and worked. But, to my mind, no work of literature — Sandburg’s or otherwise — should be valued chiefly as information.
I’m not trying to recover Sandburg’s poetry for its imaginative beauty, exactly. Rather, I’m trying to recover Sandburg’s poetry for its formal — or rather, formless — exuberance. Sandburg may never appeal to readers who appreciate the inspiration that comes from literary constraints. (“Writing free verse,” Robert Frost famously said, “is like playing tennis with the net down.”) Nor will Sandburg’s work appeal to readers who crave structural satisfaction from aesthetic forms. Sandburg is for those who find pleasure in language that lacks a god.
“There is a fine, hard, able paganism about them that delights me,” Dreiser wrote to Sandburg about Chicago Poems, “and they are tender and wistful as only the lonely, wistful, dreaming pagan can be. Do I need to congratulate you? Let me envy you instead.”
The “tender and wistful” Sandburg, however, rouses in me a familiar exasperation. Perhaps it has been sharpened by reading Sandburg after becoming a mother to three boys. Consider one of the original nine poems published in Poetry, titled “Lost”:
Desolate and lone
All night long on the lake
Where fog trails and mist creeps,
The whistle of a boat
Calls and cries unendingly,
Like some lost child
In tears and trouble
Hunting the harbor's breast
And the harbor's eyes.
Whistle and call, a boy cries for safety. But the “harbor’s eyes” — an imagined mother — do not see the boy amid the fog and mist of the big lake. My technical term for this kind of poem is an I-am-so-alone poem. But the bigger issue, here as elsewhere in Sandburg’s work, is that the feminine is foremost a body, a maternal breast, the converse but not opposite of Sandburg’s “painted woman.” Which is to say: Women in Sandburg’s poems may receive the poet’s deep sympathy, but they are often incompletely sketched.
Nor do Sandburg’s women live in garrets, pedal bicycles, or march for suffrage — though he knew women in Chicago who did. Several worked with Monroe in the front rooms of a shabby old mansion downtown, Poetry’s first office. Through the 1920s, Sandburg would stop in, sit in a wicker rocker, and Monroe would brew coffee for everyone over an open fire in the vacant lot next door. They passed around voluble letters from Ezra Pound, writing to the magazine from his perch in London. Pound hated the quotation from Walt Whitman that Monroe printed on the magazine’s masthead: “To have great poets there must be great audiences too.” “Once and for all dammmmn the audience,” Pound commanded, “They eat us. We do not eat them.” Monroe staunchly defended her broad vision for modern poetry, and the literary scene in Chicago. She was one of the first people to articulate what would become a Chicago style: populist, free of ornament, anti-elite. Like many things Midwestern, it was a style easy enough for the rest of the country to overlook.
What does it mean to acknowledge a writer’s greatness — indeed, his necessity — even if you have never loved his work? I will probably never walk down the street with Sandburg’s language repeating in my head, even as his poetry seems like the shoots of green between the cracks in the Chicago cement. No poet seems better able to address the brokenness of this city.
Several years ago, I heard Sandburg in the words of strangers. I was sitting on a bar stool at the Green Mill, an old jazz club in Uptown, where Al Capone used to occupy a corner booth. It is a Sunday night, and hosts Marc Smith and J. W. Basilo take the stage for the country’s first and longest-running poetry slam. They give the microphone over to a lineup of poets, three judges are chosen at random from the crowd, and the winner goes home with a whopping 10 dollars.
There are no scholar-poets here, reading head-down, offering carefully orchestrated banter during the hush between poems (which is, I’ll admit, my usual terrain). These poets are delivering poems about feelings. “You want music?” Smith asks each poet. Most say yes. The pianist takes requests: “Sad, but uplifting,” says one poet. “Music as if for an infomercial,” quips another. The poets express a spectacular range of styles and subjects — raw, funny, gut-wrenching, I-am-so-alone. Sometimes there are gems. Always there is politics: poets who decry the fraud and dishonesty of Chicago’s political leaders, its corrupt police force, its broken civic and educational systems.
Why is this where Sandburg still breathes? Partly because of Marc Smith — poet, socialist, former construction worker — who started the slam in the 1980s and credits Sandburg as his muse. In 2014, I invited Smith to a public event that I was helping to organize in honor of Sandburg, when speakers celebrated Sandburg’s poetry alongside his journalism, activism, and music-making. I wanted to learn what people loved in Sandburg; I wanted to understand his heterogeneous appeal. With intensity and conviction, Smith performed a few of Sandburg’s poems, working the room with crowd-pleasing bravura. I’ve now seen powerful variations on this kind of performance, especially from young people, who come to poetry through contests like Louder Than A Bomb and Poetry Out Loud. A quick search on Google and you’ll see that these kids are taking possession of the language and finding a form of expression that they don’t find anyplace else.
Maybe Sandburg’s poetry lives in the past, but I can hear, in slam poetry, his democratic range. Plenty of writers these days — including myself — worry about the mainly white room of poetry readings, a phrase coined by poets Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young to describe exactly what it sounds like — a room of mostly white people. For them, slam poetry does not pose a “significant structural exception” to poetry readings in the United States, many of which take place within institutions of higher education. But I’m not sure. The slam gets its exuberance, its diversity, its audience-oriented format precisely because it rebels against academic culture. The event and its inverse are structurally bound.
The last time I was at the Green Mill, it was Mother’s Day, and the mood was a little strange. For my part, I wanted a new twist on brunch and a bouquet of flowers, which my family gratefully understood. I got there before my friends arrived, found a booth, and was soon joined by two young men, Eric and Nate. “You don’t write poetry but you write about poetry?” Eric asked me, concerned. Apparently his friend Nate had recently suffered a romantic breakup. “Big Nate,” J. W. called him, “Lonely Man Nate.” Nate later responded to him with a comic, spontaneous headlock.
Eric and Nate came to the slam to perform poems for their mothers, which they would send as gifts in the form of video clips. Naturally, I was their immediate fan.
Eric was a little nervous; he had never read for a crowd. When he walked on stage, he paused just short of the microphone and caught his breath. Then he stepped forward and his whole body became part of his poem: shrugging, pointing, pacing. It was a list poem. He enumerated the struggles and triumphs that he had experienced with his mother. From what I can remember, he knew how to navigate a world of deficient schools, an absent dad, gun violence, and menacing police officers. I thought about the privileges of my sleeping boys, at home, who had been read many books and tucked in bed by their father.
By the time my friends arrived, every seat in the bar was taken, and so we squeezed all of us into the booth. Eric asked us what we read, and he wrote down the names of several poets — Marianne Moore, César Vallejo, Wallace Stevens. I finally asked him — I couldn’t help it — if he had ever heard of Carl Sandburg. “No,” he said, “is he still living?”
“He’s dead,” I said. “But his poetry isn’t.”
Liesl Olson is the author of Modernism and the Ordinary and the forthcoming literary history of Chicago, Chicago Renaissance: The Midwest and Modernism. She is currently on a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, and is a scholar-in-residence at the Newberry Library.