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: (1-5)
The poem begins with a show of strength: Chicago is a "stormy, husking, brawling / City of the Big Shoulders." The speaker compares it to people who do manual labor—hog butchers, stackers of wheat—all professions that require brute strength. The speaker also compares Chicago to industrial labor—he mentions the railroad and freight industries. In early twentieth-century America, when this poem was written, the railroads were the key to the great and expansive West.
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. (6-8)
Chicago is a tough place filled with gunmen and prostitutes. The speaker even calls it "brutal." The speaker won't whitewash the truth of Chicago. There's no denying the essence of this city. We thus see different kinds of strength in the poem. There's the strength of workers, the strength of industry, but also the dark strength of violent killers.
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, (10-12)
Dude! We get it. Chicago is a place for tough guys—it's like a baseball slugger, a rabid dog, a savage. And it's proud of its brute strength. No denying that.
Here we have yet another image of strength (surprise, surprise). Chicago is constantly being built and rebuilt—and the speaker just loves all the smashing, wrecking, and rebuilding. We can almost see the wrecking balls and scaffolds around us—this is some intense, active imagery!
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. (20-23)
Okay we get it! Chicago is "stormy, husky, brawling." It's young and sweaty. It's a fighter! A laughing fighter! Don't worry, Sandburg, we're not challenging Chicago to a fight. We know Chicago would kick our butts.