BY TOM McNAMARA
CHICAGO POEMS, published by Carl Sandburg in 1916, is an ode to a city. It’s a clear eyed and unapologetic love letter: where you tell your true-love you love them not in spite of their imperfections but because of them. This was Sandburg’s first volume of poetry, written in the years just after 1912 when he moved to Chicago.
In some ways, Sandburg’s writing was before its time–more like the social realism you associate with the later 1920s and 1930s–think Grant Wood’s American Gothic, think Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. This was a time when industry, agriculture, and the worker were the heroes of popular art.
Sandburg starts Chicago Poems with “Chicago.” Read it here and see its opening stanza visualized in poster art by clicking on the images above.
CHICAGO BY CARL SANDBURG
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight
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
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 cun–
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
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
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.
Public Domain: Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” published by Poetry in 1914 and later as a part of Chicago Poems in 1916.