Scott C. Holstad   •  October 25, 2004

Sandburg’s Chicago Poems

The Inscription of American Ideology

Of the poet Charles Bukowski, John William Corrington suggests that he

…has replaced the formal, frequently stilted diction of the Pound-Eliot-Auden days with a language devoid of the affectations, devices, and mannerisms that have taken over academic verse and packed the university and commercial quarterlies with imitations of Pound and others. Without theorizing, without plans or school or manifestos. Bukowski has begun the long awaited return to a poetic language free of literary pretense and supple enough to adapt itself to whatever matter he chooses to handle.

(Cain 10)

Further, Corrington argues that Bukowski has done for the American vernacular, “what William Carlos Williams claimed to have done” (Cain 10). While his use of American working class idiom and his focus on non-traditional subject matter makes him a natural heir to poets intent upon stripping away literary pretense — poets such as Williams, and later Ginsburg and the Beats — Bukowski owes a debt of thanks, instead, to another poet: the often critically overlooked Carl Sandburg. Like Bukowski, Sandburg’s poetry is raw, his subject matter is the common man and his colloquial narrative style makes Sandburg one of the most uniquely American poets of the Modernist period.

Sandburg’s Chicago Poems (1916) bears witness to his mid-American originality. While many of his contemporaries (Frost, Masters, Robinson) are thematically dependent upon rural and small town settings for the focus of their poems, Sandburg writes instead of cities (“Chicago”) and high-rises (“Skyscraper”). In Sandburg’s version of Nature, people have been taken away “from the sun and the dew / And the glimmers that played in the grass under the great sky, / And the reckless rain” and have been forced to live in a cold, increasingly mechanized society: 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” (“They Will Say” 5–6).

Unlike Frosts’ sleepy apple orchards and country mending walls, Sandburg’s Chicago is the “Hog Butcher for the World,” “brawling” and “Stormy,” “wicked” and “brutal” (“Chicago” 3). In it, “the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun” (“Skyscraper” 31), yet it “has a soul.” Only later do we realize that the skyscrapers of the city have souls because of human death: “One man fell from a girder and broke his neck at the end of a straight/plunge — he is here — his soul has gone into the stones of the building” (32). In this world, then, the faceless, uncaring city violently subverts Nature in its appetite for human flesh.

Sandburg also differs from most of his contemporaries in the style and language found in Chicago Poems. While Edgar Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost were still using rhyme and meter (predominantly), Sandburg wrote free verse poems. Yet despite the apparent lack of formal poetic devices, the poems in the book (especially “Chicago”) are, as Richard Crowder relates:

…quite formal in structure. Essentially ternary, [“Chicago”] makes a statement, takes off in departure, and ends in recapitulation. After the opening epithets comes a development section making use of parallelism, variety of line length, subtle shift of tone; then comes the recapitulation, the opening phrases in delicately shaded variation…


Critics of Sandburg often complain of his lack of standard poetic devices, and it can be argued, as Adrian Oktenberg maintains, that his “…poetry is far too dependent on nouns and adjectives and not enough on verbs. It contains copious description and yet little imagery” (90). However, as much as Formalists wish to deny Sandburg’s poetic legitimacy, he does display traditional imagist patterns. Sandburg’s Imagist contemporaries, such as Williams, Lowell, Flint, and HD, devised a list of guidelines for imagism in which, as Jimmie Cain shows, direct treatment of a subject and use of the language of the common man would “…allow the poet ‘absolute freedom’ in the choice of subject matter” (11).

In Chicago Poems, Sandburg adheres to these principles more so than, perhaps, the Imagists themselves. Throughout the collection, as Mark Van Wienen contends, Sandburg “…exhibits an imagist’s bent for describing the bare details of a scene, even in those poems whose enthusiastic and garrulous speakers do not [seem to] retain the detachment and brevity characteristic of undisputed imagist poems” (94).

Sandburg further displays his originality in his use of a poetically new American idiom. While contemporaries like Frost continued to work with formal diction, Sandburg writes in the voice of “the common man.” The poem “Chicago” immediately hits the reader with the earthy idiom of its opening lines:

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.


Sandburg then paints lurid pictures of prostitutes and murders, of poverty and hunger. In later poems, he writes of railroad workers, shipyard laborers and cripples: the cultural underdogs. In “To Certain Journeymen,” he aligns himself with his subject matter in saying, “Undertakers, hearse drivers, grave diggers, / I speak to you as one not afraid of your business” (19). Indeed, if Bukowski can be described as writing only “…in a language that ‘is sensitive, harsh, yet always accessible to the most turned-off layman,’ in a verse that is ‘simple, casual, honest, uncooked’,” (Cain 12) he has only to look back to Sandburg for providing the direction of his poetry.

While other poets such as Williams resort to utilizing colloquial language in their poetry, Sandburg’s use of vernacular imagery is the most effective. His focus on the traditionally marginalized segments of society, combined with both his use of imagery and his reliance upon blue-collar idiom results in a poetic tension unique to American poetry at the time. Indeed, the success of the poems in Chicago Poems can be directly attributed to, as Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Asserts, “…the tension between idiom and the subject; their impact lies in the resolution, through language, of that tension” (185). This tension can be seen in poems like “Limited,” in which Sandburg rather prosaically relates, “I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains of the nation” (20). Devoid of traditional poetic imagery, the poem succeeds because of its reliance upon language to implicitly convey its point. The speaker of the poem states:

I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains of the nation.
Hurtling across the prairie into the blue haze and dark air go fifteen
all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.
(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men and women
laughing in the diners and sleepers shall pass to ashes.)
I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he answers:


Sandburg does not feel compelled to compare the train to some more natural object in order to describe it. He uses rough language, “crack trains,” “all-steel coaches,” the man “in the smoker,” to make his rather nihilistic point.

The irony of the man who thinks he is going to Omaha when, instead, he is going, like everyone else, to become “ashes” is not lost. Sandburg further stresses the idea of meaninglessness in his choice of imagery. The thousand people packed into fifteen railroad cards, and the image of people “in the smoker” harbors connotations of cattle, off to the slaughterhouse. The point that any place could be substituted for “Omaha,” moreover, furthers Sandburg’s focus upon both differing perceptions and the existential predicament surrounding the apparent meaninglessness of life. The tension, then — between the casualness of Sandburg’s colloquial narrative and his dark subject matter — is resolved in the word, “Omaha,” and its subsequent impact upon the reader.

Sandburg’s poetic style, like Bukowski’s, is not one which has endeared him to critics. Amy Lowell states that Sandburg is a poet “…at war with himself,” and that many of “…his theories are built upon false premises” (202). Lowell’s discourse disintegrates, paradoxically, into the very type of polemic of which she accuses him. She states that he springs

…from the strong immigrant class which comes yearly in boat-loads
to our shores. It is he and his ilk who are moving us away from our
Anglo-Saxon inheritance. It is he and his ilk who bring us the points of
view which are working so surely, if insidiously, upon the whole body
of the people.


Further, Lowell asserts, Sandburg “…is of Swedish stock. …One has only to turn the page of ‘Gosta Berling’ to see what manner of peasantry Sweden has produced” (201). Swedes can neither read nor write: “They are dumb for the most part, this peasantry, but give them speech, give them letters, and what do they become? In this particular instance… they become the American poet, Carl Sandburg” (201–2).

Sandburg doesn’t attack his bigoted critics; conversely, he glories in their portrayal of him and, rather, defends his poetics in the process. In “Nigger,” he likens himself to the social outcast and aligns himself with those in society marginalized by the Anglo-Saxon Eurocentric cultural elite: “I am the nigger. / Singer of songs… / Brooding and muttering with memories of shackles: / I am the nigger. / Look at me” (23–4). Sandburg removes himself further from those in power in his poem, “I am the People, the Mob.” In it, he takes on the mantle of the workingman and states that the “best of me is sucked out and wasted… Everything but Death comes to me and makes me work and give up what I have” (71).

Sandburg then moves on to defend his poetic style. In his poem, “Style,” he admits for the benefit of Lowell, Frost, and other critics that perhaps his style is “no good,” but he pleads, “don’t take my style away. / It’s my face… / I talk with it, I sing with it, I see, taste and feel with it… / Kill my style… / and you blind Ty Cobb’s batting eye” (24). Harriet Monroe, Sandburg’s original editor at Poetry magazine, champions him in defending his legitimacy:

One would no more question his sincerity than that of the wind and
rain. His book, whether you like it or not, whether you call it poetry
or not, is fundamental in the same majestic sense — it is a man speaking
with his own voice, authoritatively like any other force of nature.


If Sandburg’s use of American idiom engenders an authentic American voice, his diction further powers his uniqueness to the poetic landscape. His diction is intentionally aggressive and his poems lash out at the reader. People are robbed in his poems, murdered and attacked; buildings are personified — they loom, play, smash the men who build them, “…who sunk the pilings and mixed the mortar… are laid in graves” (Skyscraper” 31).

Sandburg’s poetry, as Charles Kostelnick remarks, embodies “…raw and violent energy of urban dynamism… and his diction and metaphors… elicit violence” (47–8). Perhaps Sandburg’s most dynamic poems have maintained a polemic stance. Certainly, there is no argument that, at least in his early poetry, Sandburg is openly political (he was a Socialist). Yet, as Van Wienen shows, “one function of criticism has been to ‘sanitize,’ to ‘de-politicize’ him both by encouraging him in his non-political pursuits and by valuing his imagist work more highly than his political” (99). However, Sandburg’s political poems cannot be separated from his ‘poetical’ poems. To do so is, in and of itself, a political act. As Van Wienan argues:

…to filter out Sandburg’s socialism, as Lowell and others do is not just an aesthetic decision; it is itself a political act which dismisses the importance of better working conditions, higher wages, and, consequently, an improved life for the working-class people.


This political act (whether conscious or not) by Lowell and her peers is a manifestation of the dynamics of class-consciousness surrounding poetry during the Modernist period. While voicing rhetoric for representing the “voice of the common man” in poetry, Lowell and the other poets representing the status quo want nothing more than to retain poetical power. Eliot argues for a literary cultural elite and Sandburg’s proletarian sensibilities offend virtually the entire mainstream poetry world. That Lowell is seemingly unaware of her hypocrisy concerning Sandburg and his politics is further evidence of the inscription of both literary and social marginalization endured by Sandburg, as well as much of society.

Yet, while Sandburg’s politics may have proven controversial, were they truly radical enough to merit critical ostracism? Sandburg’s socialism seems mild in contrast to the views expressed by the anarchist poets Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen. Patchen tells us, “I Don’t Want to Startle You but / they are going to kill most of us” (10), so he advocates that we “…have madness openly” (“Let Us Have Madness” 4). This policy breaks down discourse, “Birdz he sing-bes loudah, loudah,” resulting in an empty affirmation that “I’m no crazly barsted” (“Little Cannibal’s Bedtimesong” 121).

Conversely, while Sandburg leads us down a path “through huddled and ugly walls / By doorways where women / Looked from their hunger-deep eyes / Haunted with shadows of hunger-hands” (“The Harbor” 5) to show us the plight of the masses, he allows us to later emerge with images of simple life, conveying the idea that a possibility exists for moments of brief respite. Sandburg takes a stab at academia and the bourgeois in the poem, “Happiness,” when he tells us that he asks professors and executives the meaning of life only to be greeted by empty smiles before finally finding himself on the banks of a river where he sees “…a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their woman and / children and a keg of beer and an accordion” (10). Laughter also exists in his urban wilderness and Sandburg exhorts us to “Let joy keep you” (“Joy” 51).

Sandburg’s politics seem to be comprised, then, of observation and implicit criticism of society. He stands aside and shows the results of living in a fallen world. He doesn’t attempt to empower the masses; he attempts to show them the need for empowerment. Moreover, as Van Wienen relates, “Sandburg is consistent not only in speaking out of behalf of laborers and the unemployed but also in blaming the wealthy and the powerful for their predicaments” (91). Yet, though the diction of his poems often borders on violent, he “…does not advocate violence so much as he predicts its inevitability if the problem of economic inequality is not addressed” (Van Wienen 92).

While critics concentrate on attacking Sandburg because of the political elements in many of his poems (which seems especially ludicrous when compared to Pound’s overtly fascist sentiments expressed while he was in Italy), the political poems serve to enhance the overall tone of Chicago Poems. In the collection, imagist and political poems appear side by side and, as Van Wienen notes, Sandburg

…closes the distance between the two. Because the ‘propagandistic’ lines and poems are at least as vigorous in rhetoric and imagery as the ‘political’ ones, Chicago Poems undermines the sharp opposition established by critics between poetry and ­politics, art and propaganda.


As a result, as John T. Frederick observes, Chicago Poems “…is a unique and necessary document in the case against the dominant ideals of our generation. It is a simple record of facts, rather than a preachment based on facts” (192).

Sandburg shares more similarities than might initially be thought with several populist writers who have not been treated well critically. He can be viewed, perhaps, as a type of pre-Beat writer. Like Kerouac, he went ‘on the road.’ He road rails in the early part of the century and relates his affinity for similar spirits in his poem, “’Boes.” Like Kerouac, Sandburg became immensely popular with the public (although, again, never critically), gave lectures, was asked for opinions and, like Ginsburg, became a type of performance artist in his later life.

Like Bukowski, as well as many of the Beat writers, Sandburg focuses on blue collar, urban themes, emphasizing colloquial language in a simple narrative style. It can be argued that Bukowski has become one of the most original American poets, serving as the voice for an entire generation of disaffected Americans. Sandburg, however, is the original Voice of the People and is, indeed, one of the most uniquely American poets of our time. In creating his own obscurity, he asks “What is a name… anyway” (“Blacklist” 11), then answers his own question in the poem, “I am the People, the Mob”: “I am the people — the mob — the crowd — the mass” (71).

Unlike so many of his more critically acclaimed contemporaries who have remained apart from the people as members of the privileged, culturally-elite academy, Sandburg is one of us. Moreover, Sandburg is all of us, the American people, the unnamed, faceless mass, and Sandburg is our own.

Works Cited

Cain, Jimmie. “Bukowski’s Imagist Roots.” West Georgia College Review 19 (1987): 10–17.

Corrington, John William. Foreword. It Catches my Heart in its Hand. By Charles Bukowski. New Orleans: Loujon, 1963. 5–10.

Crowder, Richard. Carl Sandburg. New York: Twayne, 1964.

Frederick, John T. “Carl Sandburg, Futurism, and the Aesthetics of Urban Dynamism.” American Poetry 8 (1990): 46–56.

Lowell, Amy. Tendencies in Modern American Poetry. 1917. New York: Octagon, 1971.

Monroe, Harriet. “Chicago Granite.” Poetry 8.1 (1916): 90–3.

Oktenberg, Adrian. “From the Bottom Up: Three Radicals of the Thirties.”
A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry. Ed. Marie Harris and Kathleen Aguero. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1987. 83–111.

Patchen, Kenneth. Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1957.

Rubin, Louis D., Jr. “Not to Forget Carl Sandburg.” The Sewanee Review 85.1 (1977): 181–9.

Sandburg, Carl. The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg. New York: Harcourt, 1970.

Van Wienen, Mark. “Taming the Socialist: Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems and Its Critics.” American Literature 63.1 (1991): 89–103.

Works Consulted

Callahan, North. Carl Sandburg: His Life and Works. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1987.

Durnell, Hazel. The America of Carl Sandburg. Washington: UP of Washington, D.C., 1965.

Epstein, Joseph. “The People’s Poet.” Commentary 93.5 (1992): 47–52.

Hallwas, John E., and Dennis J. Reader, eds. The Vision of This Land. np: Western Illinois U, 1976.

Johnston, John H. The Poet and the City. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1984.

Pratt, John Clark. The Meaning of Modern Poetry. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962.

Schoenfeld, Bernard C. “Aiken, Agee, and Sandburg: A Memoir.” The Virginia Quarterly Review 59.2 (1983): 299–315.

Van Doren, Mark. Introduction. Harvest Poems. By Carl Sandburg. New York: Harcourt, 1988.

Zwaska, Caesar. “Modernity Exposed.” The Little Review 3.5 (1916): 9–11.