Re-discovering America’s Popular Poet: Carl Sandburg

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Chicago skyline at dawn
Chicago skyline at dawn. “Joe M500” 2009

“I see America, not in the setting sun of a black night of despair ahead of us, I see America in the crimson light of a rising sun. . . . I see great days ahead, great days possible to men and women of will and vision.” —Carl Sandburg interview with Frederick Van Ryn, This Week Magazine (January 1953)

Ask your students to recall the last time they heard a poet read from their work on television or the Internet. Chances are they won’t be able to remember such a time, in the media or anywhere.

Introduce them to Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) a self-professed populist, heart-felt journalist, brilliant poet, and media personality who became well known not only in his home state of Illinois, but all across the country—attracting both a literary crowd and Americans at large. Sandburg’s charming folksy persona reached into the hearts and minds of the populace with his tangible free-verse poetry. NEH’s Humanities magazine, in the article “A Workingman’s Poet,” comments on how “Sandburg enjoyed unrivaled appeal as a poet in his day, perhaps because the breadth of his experiences connected him with so many strands of American life.”

Sandburg’s national notoriety soared in the mid-20th century due to numerous appearances he made on television variety shows. Yes, poets made great subjects for TV in that era! Sandburg was a natural performer—readily reciting selections of his poetry in his melodious voice and displaying his wry wit along with his musical talents.

Sandburg’s repertoire and accolades extended beyond verse. His seminal six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln (for which he won one of his three Pulitzer Prizes) was written at a home he migrated to later in life, a working farm called “Connemara,” set against the hills of North Carolina, with a breathtaking vista that captivated him on first sight. But Sandburg was a Chicago poet through and through. It was in that city where he came into his own, and it was there that he earned his reputation as a champion of the common man. In the American Masters' documentary, The Day Carl Sandburg Died, fellow-Chicagoan radio host, Studs Terkel, who followed his long career and thought the world of him, noted affectionately, “He was sort of a ham, the words would come rolllllling out.”    

Now in the first decades of the 21st century Sandburg’s popularity as a poet has fallen. Unfortunately, many students today have never heard of him. Open him up and you may find current English Language Arts and U.S. History classes will appreciate the brand of politically charged social advocacy that characterized Sandburg’s life. In fact, some critics believe his social consciousness was central to many of his poems. He was particularly interested in issues of industrialization and class in America—concerns that still occupy today’s students. These are themes he poignantly explores in one of his signature poems, “Chicago.

Teaching Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago”

EDSITEment’s lesson on Sandburg’s poem "Chicago" offers an excellent window through which to look at a poem in literary, historical, and biographical contexts. In a literature course, “Chicago” might be read to illustrate the literary technique of personification, or be used as a frame for or contrast to examples of literary naturalism such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. For history, it might be used to illustrate one perspective on urbanization and industrialization in America before the First World War.

Sandburg’s Chicago at the turn of the century was the “Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders,” a financial, agricultural, manufacturing, and transportation matrix of the nation.  This poem celebrates a certain type of unbridled urbanization fueled by industrialism and inventions such as electric lights and new modes of transportation. On the other hand, it is a realistic look at the underbelly of a city growing so fast that its population was doubling every 20 years.

This chapter of American history can come alive through the use of multiple primary resources offered in the lesson. Students begin by exercising their visual literacy skills through examining photographs, maps, and other documents that anticipate Sandburg’s description of and attitudes toward the city of Chicago. Then they read a short biography of the poet in order to make further predictions about the poem. Finally, they read the poem and identify ways in which Sandburg uses literary techniques such as personification and apostrophe to make vivid the Chicago he knew.

At the end of the lesson, students bring all these strands together by using “Chicago” as a model for writing original pieces about places that they know and love. This writing is accompanied by their own “primary document” that shows something important about that place as it is now. Students can publish their poems along with their source online, and learn about audience and purpose while doing so.

Another application for this poem, which I have used successfully in my own Creative Writing classes, involves using it as a template for a group poem. I had each student take a stanza and use it as a model to compose sections which were edited into an original testimonial for a retiring headmaster. The students delivered their finished poem orally as a tribute and offered a written copy as a parting gift to him. 

This lesson illuminates the impact on student learning that can come from exploring content across disciplines through multiple disciplinary lenses. Being able to ask critical literary and historical questions of a text such as “Chicago” helps prepare students for the rigor of college-level research and literary/historical analysis. Creating their own compositions helps students cultivate effective narrative writing skills which will serve them throughout life.  

Aligns with the following Common Core State Standards:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.3.D: Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.

Related resources

Humanities magazine article, “A Workingman's Poet,” Danny Heitman

“Chicago” Prezi guides teachers in how to build critical literacy skills across the disciplines using primary historic resources

Podcast, “Meet Carl Sandburg” from the American Master’s The Day Carl Sandburg Died website

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