150. Chicago: Carl Sandburg

I love the first booming line: Hog Butcher to the World.

This is the first poem I remember that wasn’t a) cute, b) historically important, or c) I was supposed to like. It was in an anthology and the page opened and there it was. We were not assigned it–growing up in New England, the only Midwestern writers we read had moved to Europe (Hemingway) or New York (Fitzgerald) before becoming famous. Willa Catha, Sandburg and William Stafford did not exist in our curriculum.  Because young adult books were scarce, and the show as popular when I was young, our knowledge of the Midwest came mainly from “Little House on the Prairie”.

Hog Butcher to the World!

What a great introduction to a city. City fathers put out the Liberty Bell, the Empire State Building, and the Hollywood sign. Buildings gleam and both history and the future are highlighted, while average citizens go about their day doing average things. For Sandburg, this is Chicago’s Alamo, Space Needle and French Quarter. Stackers of Wheat!  What, you might ask, can your town, city, school or individual student celebrate? Your class?

Halo Player, Texter, Producer of Math Solutions!

A story: When I give poems for homework, I expect students to find three lines they feel are important (evidence). Then, I expect them to tell me why they are important (analysis). Finally, I expect them to tie those reasons together in a single thought (thesis). Simple and methodical. With this, they can write a paragraph (thesis, evidence, analysis) with only the final remaining. I had an aide working with two students, and she was sure that Sandburg was too difficult for them. I pushed her to try. I use my homework method because any student can at least pick out three lines they feel are important: there is no wrong answer. She was shocked when they had ideas–students with ideas!

Sandburg is not hard. It is adult. But students can and will decipher some of what he’s about. This is a good concrete poem for challenging all of your students.

Apart from its tortured name, EDSITEment! has a decent lesson plan all laid out. It’s for 9-12 and drags out over three days, but you can cannibalize what makes sense. This is a great lesson for anyone teaching Social Science, cities, or who wants to get into biographical, geographical or historical criticism.

I also want to put in a personal plug for Frank Morris’ “A Deal in Wheat“.  The online text is a bit ugly, but you can cut/paste it into word and fool around until you like it.  Honestly, your students will not get it.  Instead, I made copies and read it aloud while they followed.  As I went, I explained what different economic, agricultural and historical terms were.  It served to introduce students to our Social Science curriculum in economics and eras such as the Gilded Age and the Great Depression.  From it, an exploration into our current economic status can be had.  It dovetails to Sandburg’s celebration of the working class nicely.

A note about formatting. Again, the formatting on the web is illusive. My wife has great respect for the exact spacing and indentation of a poem, as do I, but finding the difinitive text is more time consuming than I can spare. This comes from Carl Sandburg Poems, which gives no indication of being definitive. Wikipedia has a different indentation.

Carl Sandburg

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.


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