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Skyscraper

Travel back to 1914—when Chicago’s skyscrapers and Chicago’s poets were defining modernist reach and audacity. Elisa New considers the rise of the skyscraper—and the emergence of the modernist poem—in an episode featuring celebrated architect Frank Gehry, Chinese visionary and real estate developer Zhang Xin, poet Robert Polito, and student poets from around the United States. And what about today? Can a building, as Sandburg asserts, have “soul,” and who gives it that soul?

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Read the Poem

Skyscraper

by Carl Sandburg

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.

(Dumped in the sea or fixed in a desert, who would care for the building or

speak its name or ask a policeman the way to it?)

 

Elevators slide on their cables and tubes catch letters and parcels and iron

pipes carry gas and water in and sewage out.

Wires climb with secrets, carry light and carry words, and tell terrors and

profits and loves–curses of men grappling plans of business and

questions of women in plots of love.

 

Hour by hour the caissons reach down to the rock of the earth and hold the

building to a turning planet.

Hour by hour the girders play as ribs and reach out and hold together the

stone walls and floors.

Hour by hour the hand of the mason and the stuff of the mortar clinch the

pieces and parts to the shape an architect voted.

Hour by hour the sun and the rain, the air and the rust, and the press of time

running into centuries, play on the building inside and out and use it.

 

Men who sunk the pilings and mixed the mortar are laid in graves where the

wind whistles a wild song without words

And so are men who strung the wires and fixed the pipes and tubes and those

who saw it rise floor by floor.

Souls of them all are here, even the hod carrier begging at back doors

hundreds of miles away and the brick-layer who went to state’s prison

for shooting another man while drunk.

(One man fell from a girder and broke his neck at the end of a straight

plunge–he is here–his soul has gone into the stones of the building.)

 

On the office doors from tier to tier–hundreds of names and each name

standing for a face written across with a dead child, a passionate lover,

a driving ambition for a million dollar business or a lobster’s ease of life.

Behind the signs on the doors they work and the walls tell nothing from room

to room.

Ten-dollar-a-week stenographers take letters from corporation officers,

lawyers, efficiency engineers, and tons of letters go bundled from the

building to all ends of the earth.

Smiles and tears of each office girl go into the soul of the building just the

same as the master-men who rule the building.

 

Hands of clocks turn to noon hours and each floor empties its men and

women who go away and eat and come back to work.

Toward the end of the afternoon all work slackens and all jobs go slower as

the people feel day closing on them.

One by one the floors are emptied. . . The uniformed elevator men are gone.

Pails clang. . .Scrubbers work, talking in foreign tongues. Broom and

water and mop clean from the floors human dust and spit, and machine

grime of the day.

Spelled in electric fire on the roof are words telling miles of houses and

people where to buy a thing for money. The sign speaks till midnight.

Darkness on the hallways. Voices echo. Silence holds. . . Watchmen walk slow

from floor to floor and try the doors. Revolvers bulge from their hip

pockets. . . Steel safes stand in corners. Money is stacked in them.

A young watchman leans at a window and sees the lights of barges butting

their way across a harbor, nets of red and white lanterns in a railroad

yard, and a span of glooms splashed with lines of white and blurs of

crosses and clusters over the sleeping city.

By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the stars

and has a soul.

+ Show More

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.

(Dumped in the sea or fixed in a desert, who would care for the building or

speak its name or ask a policeman the way to it?)

 

Elevators slide on their cables and tubes catch letters and parcels and iron

pipes carry gas and water in and sewage out.

Wires climb with secrets, carry light and carry words, and tell terrors and

profits and loves–curses of men grappling plans of business and

questions of women in plots of love.

 

Hour by hour the caissons reach down to the rock of the earth and hold the

building to a turning planet.

Hour by hour the girders play as ribs and reach out and hold together the

stone walls and floors.

Hour by hour the hand of the mason and the stuff of the mortar clinch the

pieces and parts to the shape an architect voted.

Hour by hour the sun and the rain, the air and the rust, and the press of time

running into centuries, play on the building inside and out and use it.

 

Men who sunk the pilings and mixed the mortar are laid in graves where the

wind whistles a wild song without words

And so are men who strung the wires and fixed the pipes and tubes and those

who saw it rise floor by floor.

Souls of them all are here, even the hod carrier begging at back doors

hundreds of miles away and the brick-layer who went to state’s prison

for shooting another man while drunk.

(One man fell from a girder and broke his neck at the end of a straight

plunge–he is here–his soul has gone into the stones of the building.)

 

On the office doors from tier to tier–hundreds of names and each name

standing for a face written across with a dead child, a passionate lover,

a driving ambition for a million dollar business or a lobster’s ease of life.

Behind the signs on the doors they work and the walls tell nothing from room

to room.

Ten-dollar-a-week stenographers take letters from corporation officers,

lawyers, efficiency engineers, and tons of letters go bundled from the

building to all ends of the earth.

Smiles and tears of each office girl go into the soul of the building just the

same as the master-men who rule the building.

 

Hands of clocks turn to noon hours and each floor empties its men and

women who go away and eat and come back to work.

Toward the end of the afternoon all work slackens and all jobs go slower as

the people feel day closing on them.

One by one the floors are emptied. . . The uniformed elevator men are gone.

Pails clang. . .Scrubbers work, talking in foreign tongues. Broom and

water and mop clean from the floors human dust and spit, and machine

grime of the day.

Spelled in electric fire on the roof are words telling miles of houses and

people where to buy a thing for money. The sign speaks till midnight.

Darkness on the hallways. Voices echo. Silence holds. . . Watchmen walk slow

from floor to floor and try the doors. Revolvers bulge from their hip

pockets. . . Steel safes stand in corners. Money is stacked in them.

A young watchman leans at a window and sees the lights of barges butting

their way across a harbor, nets of red and white lanterns in a railroad

yard, and a span of glooms splashed with lines of white and blurs of

crosses and clusters over the sleeping city.

By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the stars

and has a soul.

- Show Less