For a farm girl, I enjoyed a rather spoiled upbringing. I pulled my share of weeds, dried a few dishes, fed the cats & dog, trotted around after my dad. But I didn’t ‘slop hogs’ (whatever that actually entails), I didn’t muck out horse stalls, didn’t drive a tractor or a grain truck, didn’t milk any cows. Mind you, we HAD cows. We had pigs at one point, but they were my brothers’ FFA project, and I was probably 5 years old at the time (whew! dodged the ‘take care of the pigs’ bullet!). I remember best the wheat fields of Dad’s farm, and the way he loved working the land.
When I was twenty-two I married the love of my life, and he took me from my North Dakota girlhood to the third largest city in the US.
Chicago. A city with a population in 1916 over three times the size of the entire state of North Dakota in 1983.
Enter Carl Sandburg. This great American poet was writing his Chicago poems in the decade my father was born — the 1910s. Seventy years later, my dad had retired from farming, and I was teaching American literature for the first time in an east-central Illinois town (having dodged the ‘life in the Windy City’ bullet after 10 months of panic attacks 🙂 ). Tucked away in the files left by a previous English teacher, I discovered “Chicago.” Raw. Powerful. “Stormy, husky, brawling.” Just like the US and her best cities in the early twentieth century.
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,
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 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.
From North Dakota farm girl to Windy City dweller to English teacher bringing poetry to high schoolers. From a Dad who ‘stacked wheat,’ and brothers who raised hogs, and an America who ‘builds, breaks, rebuilds,’– just like her finest cities, and the poets who tell those stories.