The 12-part PBS series, “Poetry in America,” features one significant work of poetry in each segment. “Skyscraper” by Chicago poet Carl Sandburg was the star of episode 5 and is now streaming on PBS. The episode, broadcast last spring, features the Sandburg poem and an array of images of Chicago construction and architecture, many of them from Sandburg’s era, a century ago.
You can view the “Poetry in America” half-hour segment, “Skyscraper,” here. Elisa New, the program host, discusses the rise of the skyscraper and modernist poetry with architect Frank Gehry, poet Robert Polito, and Zhang Xin, Chinese visionary and real estate developer. Several student poets also comment.
“Skyscraper” is part of Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, published in 1916, while he was working as a journalist for various Chicago newspapers. He joined the Chicago Daily News as a reporter in 1917 and worked there until 1932, when he left to focus on his poetry, children’s stories and his multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. His freeform poetry was considered an early version of modernist poetry.
“Skyscraper” is a vivid, muscular poem that describes the building of a skyscraper, the workers who build it, and the people who work in the building. The poem explores the nature of mortality and human existence, and how the structures we build affect our lives. It begins:
By day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun
and has a soul.
Prairie and valley, streets of the city, pour people into it and they mingle
among its twenty floors and are poured out again back to the streets,
prairies and valleys.
It is the men and women, boys and girls so poured in and out all day that give
the building a soul of dreams and thoughts and memories.
Other verses describe the caissons sunk below ground, the girders on which the building is constructed, and the men who sink the pilings and string the wires.
You can read the poem here.
Watch the episode here.
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