(Poem #5) Chicago
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: 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. 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, Bareheaded, Shoveling, Wrecking, Planning, Building, breaking, rebuilding, Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth, Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs, 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! 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.
from 'the chicago poems', published 1916. this poem was submitted as an entry for a poetry competition organized by the chicago town hall in 1910; it won first prize, and sandburg's career as a poet had begun. i like it for its rhythm and energy. the contrast with european poetry of the same period is remarkable. this is a poem that breathes fire. sandburg's poetic style is an excellent example of the vigorous american tradition of free verse, starting with whitman and moving on through ginsberg and dylan. forceful poems like 'chicago' were like a breath of fresh air to pound and eliot (the architects of the poetic revolution of the 1920s), inspiring them to break the shackles of victorian prosody and cut through the insipidity of the georgians with their own distinct voice. thomas.