Monday, October 19, 2009

Sandburg's Chicago Songbook (first reading)

In my first reading of Sandburg’s Chicago Poems it was helpful to follow the perspective Urrea mentioned in class to think of the book as an album where each song was a part of a whole instead of individual works that could each stand on their own. Most of the individual poems sounded obvious to my ear, and while I understand Sandburg’s coarse tone was most likely intentional, rather than a function of poor writing, at times it felt like a sledgehammer in verse.

I was frustrated by Sandburg’s idealization of “the old country” which reads as willfully naïve. In Happiness and Child of the Romans he fails to recognize the circumstances that lead immigrants and other rural populations to Chicago. Instead of acknowledging the complicated realities of Chicago’s newest residents he chooses to simplify to the point of caricature: things were so great back home (a “home” which Sandburg probably had never visited) and here they are horrible. It seems like much of what Sandburg is responding to is the Industrial Revolution and the resulting devaluing of manual labor and the laborer, which was going on all over the world at that point, not just in the US. So while some of the laborers experienced it as an issue of migration is was a much broader phenomenon and I guess I just wish he presented a more nuanced perspective.

If I focus instead on the general themes of the work and the feelings the collection evoke in me, I am able to appreciate the Chicago Poems in a new way. The “album” carries themes of happiness, the working man, class, race and migration. I like how he is bringing together the experiences of the many different groups that populated the city to produce one portrait. It feels very human in that way. I also like that he is able to recognize a more rounded representation of the human experience, the joy and the frustrations, rather than getting stuck on one point.

One of my favorites of the collection was Anna Imroth. The final line is a bit of a sledgehammer, but with a lovely wry tone, “the hand of God and the lack of fire escapes.”

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