Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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:
- Notice something about these lines? They're getting kind of long, aren't they? They're starting to remind us of the poetry of Walt Whitman, the super-important nineteenth-century American poet who was known for cataloging the vast variety of the American experience. Sandburg is definitely channeling Whitman here, both in terms of his content (America!) and his form (really long lines).
- So, in this stanza we're introduced to a mysterious "they." "They" seem to be, well, the haters. "They" criticize Chicago a whole lot.
- Note that the speaker, lover of Chicago, doesn't disagree. In fact, he totally agrees with these Chicago-haters. He says that yes, he's seen the prostitutes, and yes, he's seen the murderers, and yes, he's seen the starving families.
- "They" sneer, but guess what? Our speaker sneers right back in their mugs (faces, folks). We're imagining an angry mob of "they"s, yelling at the solitary speaker. Tellingly, though, our speaker's not intimidated. He gives as good as he gets, which adds to the tough-minded, independent Chicago-vibe that this poem is creating.
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,
- Now, the speaker is yelling back. Yes, there are bad things about Chicago, he admits, but there's also so much awesomeness about it. In these lines, he taunts the haters, and asks them to name another city that's as energetic, strong, and cunning as Chicago is.
- Is your personification-meter flashing again? It should be; the speaker is describing Chicago as if it is a person who sings, and is proud, alive, coarse, strong, and cunning.
- This personified Chicago sounds like a big, burly, tough dude who is full of joy and pride in his accomplishments. Sounds like someone we'd like to meet, but not get in a dust-up with.
- The speaker keeps personifying Chicago as a "a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities." Compared to other smaller, less busy, less exciting "soft" cities, Chicago looms bright.
- Chicago is so vibrant and tough, that it's like a powerhouse baseball player ("slugger"), hitting homeruns out of the park.
- In the final line of this stanza, the speaker changes from personification to simile. Now, Chicago is "fierce as a dog." His tongue is "lapping for action;" he's ready to attack. He's "cunning as a savage" (hello, another simile!) and he's ready to fight his way through the wilderness.
- All of this figurative language is designed to create a single impression: Chicago is an intense, aggressive, joyful, tough, cunning, fierce place. The haters can hate all they want, but the speaker rejoices in Chicago's vibrancy. He loves the good and the bad of Chicago—the city is what it is, and the speaker won't ignore any of it.
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
- The speaker must not think that he's described Chicago in enough detail, so he gives us a list of words that describe the city in a series of short lines.
- Once again, he personifies the city. And once again, the city is personified as a tough, burly dude. This dude is toiling. It seems like he's building the city itself—without a hat, even!
- What's cool about these lines is that they acknowledge that one does not just build a city from the ground up, like you would a Lego city. Building a city is a constant cycle of planning, tearing down, building up, breaking, and rebuilding. The life cycle of a city is just that—a cycle.
- A note on form: the last stanza had those long lines, but this stanza has super short ones. It's like the speaker is condensing all of his thoughts about Chicago as tightly as he can. This is the essence of the city: building, breaking, and rebuilding—the work expands and contracts. (For more on the form of this poem, check out "Form and Meter.")
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,
- And, here's some more personification (no surprise there). The speaker imagines the Chicago-man combo as laughing as he works (we assume the dust is from the building site where all the wrecking and building is going down). Chicago is so personified at this moment that he even has a body (or at least, glistening white teeth).
- And as this Chicago laughs as if he were a young man (simile alert!). He laughs in the face of destiny, as if he is an undefeated boxer in the ring. (Hello, another simile! Sandburg sure does enjoy his figurative language).
- This fighter is also "ignorant." It's as if he simply doesn't think about things like destiny. He's not a worrier, he's a doer. The poem suggests that this is a man of action, not reflection.
- And just when we think we couldn't handle any more personification, Sandburg packs in some more. Chicago brags and laughs and tells us that his body contains the pulse and the heart of his people.
- This laughter isn't, like, funny ha-ha laugher. It's deeper than that. It's laughter that comes from a place of deep joy and life. It's almost defiant, too, in the face of those haters from the earlier lines. Sure, this may be a simple town, but it's one whose inhabitants aren't afraid to roll up their sleeves, get to work, and find the enjoyment in doing that.
- At this point in the poem, Chicago seems way more like a person than a place. The city has actually turned into one of its inhabitants. Chicago is a strong, burly, vibrant, toiling man, made up of strong, burly, vibrant, toiling men. What an awesome image, if we do say so ourselves.
- And, just a note on form: lines 18 and 19 represent an anaphora, with their parallel line beginnings ("Under the smoke" and "Under the terrible burden"). The anaphora makes the poem feel like a list, like there's so much to say about the city that the speaker's gotta condense it into list form. (For more on that stuff, click on over to "Form and Meter.")
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.
- In this last line of the poem, the speaker brings us back to the beginning of the poem. The laughing city of Chicago embraces its identity, and takes joy in the amazing, violent, fast-paced, powerful life (and life-cycle) of the city. The city isn't ashamed of its working-class identity. It acknowledges and loves it.
- The speaker says that Chicago is proud to be what it is, and reminds us of its youthful, joyful energy.
- The bottom line of this poem: Chicago rocks.