Wednesday, August 09, 2006

"City of the Big Shoulders" (or, Duke Altum's POTW #37)

YOU KNOW, for the past week or so now I've been thinking to myself that I wanted to post some thoughts about my home city: Chicago. I only lived there for the first five years of my life, so people tend to scoff or laugh when I refer to it as my "home city;" however, it is where things began for me, and not only that, but is the place that at least half of my extended family comes from, where my Dad worked for years and my parents first established our household, and where so many of the roots that anchor the tree from which I am but a small fruit have long since taken hold in this great land...

Anyway, the occasion for such thoughts is just the reading I have been doing lately, having just finished a massive history of Chicago (Donald Miller's fascinating and entertaining City of the Century) and being currently immersed in one of the great novels to come out of the Windy City, Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March (perhaps Theodore Dreiser's classic Sister Carrie is the only tale that would beat it in the race to be named the "great Chicago novel"). Inspired by these books and the thoughts that have been swirling around in my head for weeks now about this great, teeming, historic, quintessentially American city, I thought I would just write some rambling reflections about the place, and my interest in it...

But then, as it was getting to be time to select another Poem of the Week anyway, I was thumbing through a book I recently received from Mutt as a gift, a small collection of poems from the great American Bard of the Midwest, Carl Sandburg... and I came across his famous poem about the city, simply called "Chicago." And I realized that it captured perfectly the impressions that have been swirling around in my head, and is a wonderful portrait of the hardscrabble, vivacious spirit and history of this city that many have a called a "metaphor for America." It almost serves as a Cliff Notes version of the history I just read! So rather than attempt to re-invent the wheel... I give you his vivid snapshot of this great city, "my city," the City of the Big Shoulders... long may you prosper there by the shores of Lake Michigan, "alive and course and strong and cunning," with "lifted head singing for all to hear"!


*******

Chicago

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,
Bareheaded,
Shoveling,
Wrecking,
Planning,
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!

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.

4 comments:

Mutt Ploughman said...

This is a really interesting take on the city of Chicago, yet another excellent edition of Duke's POTW series. I came from Chicago too (being Duke's twin, that would make some sense), and I don't really know a great deal about the city. I haven't read the books Duke's been working on either. But this poem sure makes the city sound like a unique place with a grand, truly American history. "Hog butcher"?? "Stacker of wheat"? "Brawling....wrecking....shovelling.....the City with the Big Shoulders". Sounds like a hell of a place. This was a really evocative poem, you can practically smell the smells, feel the grit.....hail to all Chicagoans! We kick the crap out of St. Louis any day!

Aura McKnightly said...

Standard situation: Chicago may be bigger, but St. Louis is wiser. :-)

Duke Altum said...

The history of Chicago I read made the point that in the mid-19th century, when both Chicago and St. Louis were being established, the two cities became "rivals" as they both tried to emerge as the major midwest city, important hub for all commerce and train travel and all. Well, history tells us who won out in that contest... St. Louis simply wasn't central enough, and the supreme advantage Chicago had was that it had a link to New York and the East Coast by water (the canal system to Lake Michigan) and also to the Mississippi River to all points south, via another network of canals. St. Louis had no link to the East and was farther west and south, making it less practical for Big Business interests. Hence, Chicago became "the monster of the midway."

Aura McKnightly said...

Yea, I knew all that Duke, but I didn't want to get into practicalities. :-) Chicago is a great city, but it must be remembered that Chicago freezes its a** off in the winter because of the 'lake effect'. St. Louis pretty much experiences all four seasons in equal measure. Also most Chicagoans fruitlessly follow the Chicago Cubs baseball team. This, in itself, casts the entire city in a shadow so large that they stay under it even when it's not baseball season. The Bears? Not a good team. The Bulls? Okay...forget it.

Basically, what you get in St. Louis is the whole midwest vibe without all the hassle!

Maybe I'll dig up some St. Louis poetry. Look out!