A reading practice of mine, particular to poetry, is that I write a list of words on the inside cover of the book as I'm reading it. The list is a record of the words that I notice appear in the book multiple times, and is written in the order in which I notice them. These motifs provide a kind of atmospheric reading of the book. Most of the words are usually nouns, and so the list is also a collage of images. This way of reading a collection of poems makes visible the poet's lexicon, and when I return to these books over time, I first read the list, which brings the feeling of the book in its entirety back to me.
My list for Chicago Poems is as follows:
William Carlos Williams criticized Sandburg for what Williams deemed was a lack of attention to craft. I wonder, though, if this judgment may have been in response to the form of Sandburg's poems, rather than the content. Even if, at times, Sandburg's poetry veers towards a more journalistic style in both form and subject, it is grounded artistically in metaphor and sound.
The specificity and vibrancy of metaphors such as "a pair of fresh lips and a kiss better than all the wild grapes that ever grew in Tuscany" ("The Shovel Man") and "a voice like a north wind blowing over corn stubble in January" ("Fish Crier") are powerful examples of Sandburg's attentiveness to language.
A through-line of Chicago Poems is sound. Many of the poems, regardless of their subject, resonate with street-sounds, night-sounds, and sounds of the natural world. A number of poems specifically relate to music and indicate Sandburg's sentiment towards music as a impetus for both happiness and hope. Three poems of note are "Happiness", "Fellow Citizens", and "Bath."
The narrator in "Happiness" seeks out "professors who teach the meaning of life" and "famous executives who boss the work of thousands of men" in his search for the meaning of happiness. He is given no answer until the poem's culminating lines wherein he comes across "a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their woman and children and a keg of beer and an accordion." That Sandburg places the accordion last in this list, and as the final word of the poem, emphasizes its significance. In "Fellow Citizens", Sandburg writes of the "maker of accordions and guitars" who "not only makes them from start to finish, but plays them after he makes them" and who "had it all over the butter millionaire, Jim Kirch and the mayor when it came to happiness."
"Bath" makes reference to violinist Mischa Elman (1891-1967). It is an Elman concert that prompts the sudden and thorough change in the protagonist's perspective from one of despair to hope. Unlike the other two poems, the central idea of this poem is the amazingly transformative capacity of music. With graceful accuracy, Sandburg delineates his protagonist's transformation before, during, and after the concert.
I was not familiar with Mischa Elman's music, but was compelled by this poem to seek out some of his recordings. You may listen to Mischa Elman play Schubert's "Serenade" at:
An eight-minute black & white Vitaphone film of Elman playing the violin may be found at: