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Chicago: Analysis - 01

Carl Sandburg's first major volume of poems, Chicago Poems, published in 1916, offered the poem "Chicago," which would go on to be one of the most famous poems that Sandburg wrote. It is a classic example of his form and subject as it uses free verse to reveal, explore, and celebrate the lives of common people. The themes of hard work, suffering, and survival are presented alongside those of laughter and youth with an almost brutal honesty that Sandburg extracted from the everyday language he listened to so closely throughout his life. The opening lines set the poem apart from much of the poetry of the time with "Hog Butcher of the World," and the list of epithets that follow.

Sandburg's poetry relied on themes of common, daily life in the same way that the poems of Walt Whitman had. Using a major urban landscape as a focus, the speaker goes on to mention the harsh yet vibrant aspects of American progress. There is violence and hunger in the city, and also the pride of a city so alive. The poem then offers another list, descriptions of work actions, and the line "Building, breaking, rebuilding" which could be seen to represent the cyclical nature of production and consumption in modern industrial life. The poem finishes with a definite emphasis on the experience of laughter, which offers another side of America often found in Sandburg's poetry, that of a country worthy of joyous celebration and livelihood in the face of hardship and progress.

Lines 1-5: 

Sandburg begins the poem with a list of names or epithets for the city that reflects its gritty, earthy, tough spirit. In the early twentieth century Chicago was a center for the industries Sandburg mentions. In these lines the speaker personifies the city by likening it to a "Stormy, husky, brawling" worker, with "Big Shoulders." This list also evokes the human workers who actually perform the work associated with these industries, thus establishing a link between the city and its inhabitants, and beginning a process of merging human qualities with the abstract "idea" of the city. In addition, by being identified with the city, each person seems to represent a combination of the individual and the universal. This is consistent with Sandburg's desire to elevates the working people to a level of great importance, and claims them to be essential elements of larger social organizations.

Lines 6-8: 

In these lines the speaker addresses a series of criticisms of the city followed by concrete images from the speaker's own experience which illustrate the criticisms. The city's wickedness is demonstrated by its prostitutes that corrupt innocent boys, its crookedness by killers that go unpunished, and its brutality by the hunger seen in the faces of its women and children. Here the speaker advances the personification of the city begun in the first stanza by directly addressing it as "you" and also by attributing the human qualities of wickedness, crookedness, and brutality to it. At this point in the poem Sandburg shifts to much longer lines and a more lyrical use of language, partially to mimic the conversational language of the direct address, but also as a way to increase the tempo and energy of the lines. 

Notice how Sandburg has used rhetorical strategies to help hold lines 6-8 together. First, he has used parallelism by having each set of two lines begin with a criticism, and then offer an image to illustrate it. He also begins the first line of each set of two (lines 6, 8, and 10) with almost the same phrase: "they tell me. . ." This repetition of a phrase at the beginning of lines is called anaphora, and as well as providing a certain organization to a poem it can create a smoother, more musical sound. 

Line 9: 

At this point, while not breaking the form of long lines, the poems shifts from criticism of the city, to a defense. The speaker of the poem, having admitted the presence of negative elements, prepares to respond to "those who sneer," the anonymous critics of the city. 

Line 10: 

Here the speaker continues the double reference to the "you" of the poem, describing it as a "city and lifted head," as a town and as a person. This is then followed by a number of positive adjectives with which the speaker attempts to balance or even override whatever negative conditions may exist in America's modern cities. It is implied that the negative conditions are the result of being alive, of living, and also that the city and its people are "strong and cunning" enough to survive and be proud. 

Line 11: 

Although struggling with work and toil, the speaker asserts that Chicago, "tall and bold against the little soft cities," is better than smaller, perhaps kinder cities. This also inverts the comparison earlier in the stanza where the city was "wicked" and "brutal" to its citizens. 

Line 12: 

As a last gesture before the poem moves back to a focused, short-lined list, the speaker reinforces the resourcefulness and survival abilities of the city in the face of hardship. This is done with the use of simile, a poetic technique that compares two unlike things to offer further insight or description. In the example here Chicago is compared to a wild dog struggling for survival, relying on his instincts to keep him alive. 

Lines 13-17: 

Here Sandburg shifts back to the list form which giving particular emphasis to the words in these lines and also slowing the pace of the poem. This list describes the city, drawing a comparison to a laborer. As in the first stanza the description of the city reflects all of the individuals who make up the city. This list might also be taken as a way of seeing the circular nature of modern, industrial America as it moves from "building," to "breaking," and then back to "rebuilding," as well as the cycle of each individual as he or she works, encounters hardship, and carries on through it to better times. 

Lines 18-21: 

With line 18 the poem turns toward the sentiment that will take it to its end. This is a feeling of celebrationeven in the fatigue and dirt of workfound in the universal symbol of laughter. Again the lines are extended as the poem reinvokes the youthful energy and joy found even "Under the terrible burden of destiny." To emphasize his point, Sandburg uses the repetition of the word "laughter" as it appears in some form nine times from this line to the end of the poem. It is this celebration of people's ability to overcome nature's hardship, to laugh and enjoy life despite it, that made Sandburg known as a poet of the people. Notice too how in line 21 the speaker of the poem synthesizes the individual and the communal by claiming that under the city's ribs lies "the heart of the people." This could be seen as a unifying gesture in the same way that the earlier list of laborers was melded into a collective city. 

Line 23: 

In one final attempt to focus attention on celebration, and again to alter the pace of the lines just before its conclusion, Sandburg uses another one-word line and this time indents the line further than those previous. This is a good example of how free verse uses form to denote pacing, and give emphasis to certain lines or words within the poem. 

Line 23: 

In the final line the poem continues with this concept of laughter, enforcing the positive tone of the ending of the poem. The laughter leads into a list of epithets almost exactly like that at the beginning of the poem. This technique provides a certain closure to the poem, ending back where it started. This time, the speaker makes it clear the Chicago is "proud" of what it is. Here also, the list of epithets are strung one right after another rather than being broken up into shorter lines as in the first stanza . One argument for this technique might be to lead the reader to the poem's ending with a constant rhythm and pace.

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