Closer Readings Commentary

Carl Sandburg: Chicago’s poet

Ask your students to recall the last time they heard a poet reading a poem on TV. They might mention watching the last presidential inauguration, or perhaps a televised poetry reading at last summer’s Olympic Games. Most likely, though, they won’t be able to remember a time when they heard a poet anywhere, let alone on television.

Carl Sandburg (1878–1960) was a well-loved poet in the mid-20th century—not only among the literary crowd, but among many other Americans as well. He appeared on popular TV shows reciting his poetry including the Ed Sullivan Show, the Texaco Hour, the early Today Show, and See It Now. He wrote the very popular six-volume Life of Abraham Lincoln, for which he won one of his three Pulitzer Prizes. (The other two were for books of poetry.) His childhood home was even preserved as a memorial. But since his death in 1960, Sandburg’s popularity as a poet has fallen. Many students today do not know who he is.

Sandburg is an intriguing character to introduce to students in both ELA and U.S. history classes. While appealing to a broad audience, he advocated a form of social realism in his work and was very concerned with politics. In fact, his social consciousness was central to many of his poems. He was particularly interested in issues of industrialization and class in America, a theme that he explored poignantly in his poem “Chicago.”

The lesson

EDSITEment’s lesson on Sandburg’s poem "Chicago" offers an excellent window through which to teach visual literacy to the interdisciplinary rigor of the Common Core. The poem is especially pertinent this year, which marks the 100th anniversary of Sandburg’s poem.

According to the poem, the Chicago of 1900 was “stormy, husky, [and] brawling”: a financial, agricultural, manufacturing, and transportation matrix for the nation. The poem is a celebration of an urbanization fueled by industrialism and inventions like electric lights and new modes of transportation. It is also a realistic look at a city growing so fast that its population was doubling every 20 years.

Students encounter visual literacy in this lesson plan as they explore this era in American history through the use of multiple primary resources. By first examining photographs, maps, and other documents that depict Chicago at the turn of the century, they anticipate Sandburg’s description of and attitudes towards the city. They then read a short biography of the poet in order to make further predictions about the poem. Finally students read the poem and identify the 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 will bring all these strands together by using “Chicago” as a model for writing original pieces about places that are important to them.

Teaching Sandburg across the disciplines: the Common Core

The Common Core Standards illuminate the impact on student learning that comes from exploring content across disciplines through multiple disciplinary lenses. Being able to ask critical literary and historical questions of a text helps prepare students for college readiness.

This lesson gives students the opportunity to look at Sandburg’s poem in a literary, historical, and biographical context. In a literature course, the poem might be read to illustrate the literary technique of “personification,” or it might be studied as part of a survey of American poetry. For students of history, it might be used to illustrate one perspective on urbanization and industrialization before the First World War. The poem might also as a frame or contrast to examples of literary naturalism such as The Jungle or Sister Carrie.

At the end of the lesson, students create a poem or short descriptive essay that celebrates a place they know and love. They should accompany this writing with their own “primary document” that shows something important about that place as it is now—either one available at an online resource or an item (such as a photograph) that they themselves own or have created. To further align with the Common Core, students can use technology to publish their poems online, and learn about audience and purpose while doing so.