"Chicago" is a poem about a tough city, and it sounds like it's spoken by a tough guy as well. Just read that first stanza out loud: it's filled with short, heavy-sounding words that thump, thump, thump: "Hog Butcher for the World / Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat." Also, notice all those "doer" nouns? We get "Butcher," "Maker," and "Stacker." There is an audible energy to this line that comes through, even without a regular rhythm or meter.
The poem then switches to longer, looser lines, which have the feel of a catalogue. When you read these lines out loud, you begin to lose your breath—the lines just go on and on. It's like they're filled to the brim with info, description, and feelings. There's so much going on in Chicago, and you can really hear the speaker cramming it all into these long lines.
The poem jumps back and forth between the condensed, energetic short lines, and the exhaustion-producing long lines. And the sound of the poem captures the feel of the city itself—tight-wound and fast-paced, filled with related sounds like rushing people and the thumping and banging of construction sites.
"Chicago" is a poem all about Chicago (no surprises there). The title is right on the nose. And we mean this almost-kind-of-literally. It alerts us to the fact that the poem is not just about Chicago, but that it's actually addressed to Chicago. The poem is actually an apostrophe (an address to an absent, dead, abstract, or unreal entity) by an unnamed speaker to the city itself. The entire poem is pretty much one big personification of the city, in which the speaker makes Chicago come alive. By the end of the poem, the city has shoulders, a heart, ribs, a pulse—so, why not a nose?
If it did have a nose, we'd bet it would be kind of a smashed-in, crooked thing, as if this city-dude has seen his fair share of fights and had that nose broken a time or two. Still, for Sandburg, that's something to celebrate. More than the culture or the beauty of the city, the star of this show—which gets top billing in the title—is celebrated for its attitude: tough-minded, energetic, and not afraid to get dirt under its fingernails.
Surprise, surprise: "Chicago" is set… in Chicago. The entire poem is about this windy city, which the speaker spends a whole lot of time personifying. By the end of the poem, it actually seems that Chicago is less of a place than it is a toiling, vibrant, tough and laughing muscle-man who drinks in all of the experiences of this city. Sandburg makes the city come alive—it has a pulse and a heart, and this burly man of a city comes to represent all of the people who live in it.
So, we could say that the poem "Chicago" is more of a portrait of a man than it is a landscape of an urban area. It's easier to understand a person than it is to comprehend an entire city filled with millions of people. Sandburg makes the city more relatable by personifying it. By getting to know this one Chicago muscle-man, it's like we get to know the entire population of Chicago muscle men.
But, this isn't to say that Sandburg ignores the city itself. Throughout the poem, we get a very distinct feel for the landscape of Chicago: its tall buildings and railroad crossings, its butcher shops and gas lamps. So, amongst all the personification we also find a quite straightforward description of the city. We've got a personified Chicago, and a literal Chicago in this poem. Neat, isn't it?
We don't know too much about the speaker—we don't even know the speaker's name or gender—but we are darn sure of one thing: the speaker loves Chicago. Like, really loves it. The speaker and Chicago, sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G.
And in some ways, this is all we need to know, as the nameless genderless speaker can represent all those Chicagoans—or anyone, really—who love their city. The defining characteristics of this speaker are pride and joy: pride in celebrating the character of his (or her) home city, and joy at being able to share that proud feeling with us, the readers.
"Chicago" isn't too tough to read. There are no fancy turns of phrases or overly-complicated references in this one. And that's kind of the point. Chicago is a place for everyone: workers, families, poets, even prostitutes and murderers. Everyone belongs in Chicago, and "Chicago" belongs to everyone—not just those fancy-pants professors. This is a poem for the people, people!
Our main man Carl really loved Chicago. He titled his first collection of poems Chicago Poems, and filled that baby full of poems about Chicago (including our poem du jour, "Chicago"). Sandburg is probably most well-known for his chronicling of the windy city. You can check out his first book of poems here and note just how many of them are about city life.
"Chicago" is written in free verse. It doesn't have a rhyme scheme or any sort of regular meter, and it's not written in a recognizable form (like a sonnet or villanelle).
Still, this doesn't mean that "Chicago" is a loosey-goosey formless mess. In fact, Sandburg lifts his form right from Walt Whitman, who is probably the most famous poet-chronicler of the American Experience.
Whitman was known for his long lines (like, really long lines), many of which began with the same words. (This is called anaphora). We see really long lines and plenty of anaphora in Sandburg's "Chicago":
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: (7-9)
And just like Whitman, Sandburg's long lines are often punctuated by short lines:
Building, breaking, rebuilding, (13-17)
So was Sandburg just ripping off Whitman's form? In the simplest terms: yes, yes he was. But borrowing Whitman's form was a way for Sandburg to both pay homage to the master and place himself in his poetic lineage. With "Chicago," Sandburg is putting his poems in dialogue with Whitman's. Check out Whitman's long poem "Song of Myself" here. See any cool connections with "Chicago"? We think you might find a lot.
And finally, let's stop for a sec to think about the meaning of all this good formal stuff. Sandburg's anaphora and long lines make us feel almost breathless. (Seriously, read the poem out loud and see if you can read one of the long lines in a single breath). Sandburg just has so much to say that he writes the poem in a kind of list format (which we see with both the anaphora and the short lines). It's like he has so much to say about good ol' Chicago, he has so much energy to capture in this poem, that he's just gotta list it all so that he doesn't forget anything!
Bareheaded? Check, Shoveling? Check. Wrecking? Check.
Check check check check check.
"Chicago" is filled to the brim with personification. By the end of the poem, Chicago seems to be way more like a man than like a city. It has shoulders, a heart, a pulse, and it laughs (and laughs and laughs). What's the reason for all this personification? Well, Sandburg paints a portrait of a city that is, in some ways, very human. It's flawed and it's beautiful, it's rough-and-tumble and intense. It's vibrant and multi-faceted. It turns out that the best way for Sandburg to comprehend the city is to compare it to a human being—that way, we have a tangible frame of reference for all the beautiful, strong, messiness.
We've already established that "Chicago" is filled with personification, but let's get a bit more specific. This poem is filled with tough-guy, macho imagery. Chicago is no city for dainty folks or the faint of heart. It's a rough-and tumble, brawny, manly place. You can just feel the testosterone seeping out of this poem. The interesting thing is that Sandburg loves this tough and hefty city. Sometimes the poem seems almost like a love poem to the toughest tough guy who ever lived.
The Chicago of "Chicago" is a hustling, bustling, building, breaking, rebuilding kind of place. The city is being built, torn down, and rebuilt as we read it. It's a crazy place of freight trains, construction workers, and all kinds of laborers. We'd go as far as to say that the poem is dominated by industrial imagery—imagery of work, toil, building, and technology. Chicago is in the middle of the expanding nation (remember, the poem was written in 1914) and Sandburg puts us right in the middle of all that hub-bub. We can almost feel the freight trains whooshing by.
The poem does tell us that there are "painted women" (i.e., prostitutes) hanging around Chicago. But it doesn't get more explicit than that, so this reference will probably fly for most folks.