Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems has been absolute stunner.
I’m going to start by admitting that I had only read one or two Sandburg poems prior to this collection, the popular ones that are often found in class texts or major anthologies. I also didn’t (and still don’t) know much about Sandburg himself. If the poems are any indication, he was one interesting dude.
For example, while I was repeatedly irritated by Sandburg’s poem speakers’ using racist terms to describe a variety of non-white people (you can imagine the words), I was simultaneously impressed by his pro-worker, anti-war poems. Sandburg was of course a man of his times, and it’s even possible he was using derogatory terms intentionally but not maliciously. I really don’t know (I would like to believe it’s a kind of Mark Twain situation, but I just don’t have the background, yet, to make that determination. I’ll surely investigate.)
Anyway, I found those contradictions immediately interesting, and they make me want to know more about Sandburg and his experiences. But it’s the poems themselves that blew me away. He reads to me very much like a later-Whitman, like a Whitman of the Midwest. His poems have similar styles and themes, though some are much more biting than Whitman’s ever are.
Although the collection is titled Chicago Poems, there are in fact excerpts from other collections included in my edition (Dover Thrift 1994). These included poems from Handfuls, War Poems (1914-1915), The Road and the End, Fogs and Fires, Shadows, and Other Days (1900-1910). For any new or aspiring poets struggling to learn how to put a poetry collection together, how to theme their poems, this little book is extraordinarily helpful. The selection of poems for each collection beautifully illustrates the theme of each and help to clarify how collections work, and why. I found the poems not just powerful and affecting reads, but the collection itself edifying from a writer’s perspective.
Despite loving the Chicago poems themselves, probably because I’m from Chicago, I think my two favorite collections from this edition are War Poems and Fogs and Fires. To be clear, I marked poems from every section of the book, so I didn’t dislike any of it. War Poems, however, was deeply moving and convincing. Its poems are clearly anti-war, but in surprising and moving ways. Reading these during the current crisis in Ukraine was particularly jarring. On the other hand, Fogs and Fires is filled with atmospheric poems of varying poems about nature, locations, and even holidays. There’s one new-to-me poem in this one, “Theme in Yellow,” that is a delightful engagement with Halloween. I absolutely loved it.
I think the fact that I’ve added this slim edition to my small collection of books I keep to study the craft of poetry (which includes a volume each from Sharon Olds, Thomas James, Ocean Vuong, and Mary Oliver) is testament to how valuable and strong the work is.
“The dead say nothing / And the dead know much /
And the dead hold under their tongues / A locked-up story.”
Chicago Poems is Book 6 completed for my 2022 TBR Pile Challenge.
I’ll have to take a look at these as collections; I do like a collection that works together. Too often it seems like contemporary poets take whatever poems they’ve been writing in the last year and shove them together, giving the chapbook or volume a title and hoping there are a few threads running throughout.
I recently read Whitman for the first time recently and had the same thought about him and Sandburg.
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I read some Sandberg in school, but never got a copy of his poetry. I do recall enjoying them, though.
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