The poet, the martini, and the beauty
For the most part, I do not have much interest in urban poets or urban poetry. There is so little variety in the urban landscape and milieu that there is really only room for one or two poets to write about it. How much can really be written poetically about brick and steel and glass, about commuter trains and buses, offices and taxi cabs. It is all the same if you are writing about Minneapolis, New York, Chicago, or urban Moscow. What someone wrote in the 1920s would be just as true today of the urban landscape and experience. (The city, after all, is prosaic by its very nature.) If I had to choose an urban poet though, I would choose Carl Sandburg.
There are few poems by Sandburg more familiar to occasional poetry readers than “Chicago.” It is a staple of high school literature books and American Lit. 101 classes. It may be the best poem about an American city ever written.
The language and form Sandburg uses in “Chicago” is as muscular as the city he sings. It is essentially a love poem written by a lover with absolutely no illusions about the true nature of the object of his affection. Chicago is rough, crude, dangerous, tough, and exciting… and Sandburg loves it. It is not a poem of beautiful words and phrases because those kinds of words and phrases would not be a Chicago.
My daughter is in Chicago this weekend and so the Windy City has been on my mind. When I was in my early 20s, I lived in Chicago – first in Bucktown, near Western and Armitage, and then for a few years in Hyde Park. I am glad that she gets to spend a few days there. I wish I was there also.
On a windy March day when my daughter is enjoying time in the Windy City, this seems like just the poem.
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,
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 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.