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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.

—Carl Sandburg

I’ve been reading Fast Food Nation and reeling at the thought of old haunted, abandoned Chicago stockyards and thinking how much of the United States has changed in the last half-century, especially in regards to food production. And every time I think about Chicago, I think about this Carl Sandburg poem and its famous first lines: “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.” These lines almost roll off your tongue, don’t they? No one could characterize a city like Carl Sandburg; no one could characterize Chicago and its glory like Carl Sandburg.

There’s a vital pulse to the city, long after it has lost its title “Hog Butcher for the World,” for nearly 100 years later (this poem was published in Poetry magazine in March 1914), Sandburg’s words still characterize it: “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to / be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” It’s still a glorious city, isn’t it? These are still glorious words, aren’t they? I’d almost bet you money some of these words will stick in your head, too, every time you think of Chicago.

-R

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