The Poet’s Garage Workbench: Carl Sandburg and Chicago

I first encountered poet Carl Sandburg and “Chicago” when I was ten years old. One of my earliest poet-heroes, Sandburg came to suburban Minneapolis to dedicate a junior high school named in his honor. My mother, awed by Sandburg’s fame, cautioned me not to remove my shoes and play with my socks during the ceremony, one of my bad habits in those days.

Reading “Chicago” and Feeling Minneapolis

In preparation for the big event, our fifth-grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary primed us with his poems, and “Chicago” remains one of my favorites. His description of a rough, confident, proud city and its people, “City of Big Shoulders,” applies as well to Minneapolis, my hometown.

In many ways, Minneapolis was a smaller reflection of Chicago, a satellite in the Chicago solar system. Before the Twins moved to town, we followed the Cubs and White Sox. Before we had the Vikings, we cheered the Bears. Our industry flexed as muscular and our tastes as hearty. Even in the arts Minneapolis echoed Chicago with a world class symphony and the Guthrie Theater. Minneapolis and her twin city St. Paul didn’t merely mirror Chicago, they wanted to be better.

A few years after Sandburg’s visit, our class visited the Guthrie during its first-year production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The bard’s difficult language came alive with vivid emotion, another formative literary experience. But Sandburg’s poem made me proud to be a working-class sprout. I imagined myself one of Sandburg’s Youth: stormy, husky, brawling, and sweaty. Although most of my poetic growth came outside the classroom, this was one poem I ate and digested.

Chicago by Rail

Another resonant lesson was our sixth-grade class trip, which felt like it was inspired by Carl Sandburg and “Chicago.” One evening we boarded the Great Northern railroad in Minneapolis for a visit to the Chicago Natural History museum, then back to Chicago’s Union Station and the ride home. Although the teachers droned about the coal mine and dinosaur bones in the museum, which were cool enough, we students focused on trying to evade our chaperones and make out during the long nights on the train. My fledgling romantic failures hardly lessened my awe at seeing the massive buildings along the rails of Sandburg’s Chicago, freight handler to the nation.

The Poet Speaks to Students

His dedication speech didn’t include a poetry reading as our teacher expected, but he played guitar, sang folk songs, told jokes, and left us with advice for our future lives, which I have long forgotten. His white hair was parted at the top of his head, unlike any of our fathers, and he had large freckles on his cheeks. He spoke more to the children than the parents, and I was part of a small delegation selected to meet him closeup after the event. He was kind and gracious, inspirational and funny. If this was what a poet was like, I wanted in. At ten I already knew I needed an alternate career from major league baseball.

I later attended Carl Sandburg Junior High, and the school still exists, though it was closed for a while. Lincoln Elementary has been closed for several years. Here’s a story recalling the Sandburg dedication:

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