The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Carl Sandburg: Selected Early Poems

“Halsted Street Car”

1. What do you make of the poem’s visual organization? Which of its features compensate for the lack of regular rhymes and stanza forms?

2. Is the poem’s subject appropriate for free verse? Is its topic conventionally “poetic”? Why the choice of a particular central Chicago subway?

3. Why does the narrator appeal to “cartoonists”—rather than, say, portrait painters?

4. What types of people does the poet single out for description? Are their features chosen for attractiveness?

5. What characterizes the faces, and by implication, the minds, of those who ride the seven a. m. subway?

6. Is the poet judging them, their situation, or both? Is the final tone one of disgust or of sympathy?


What is unusual about the poem’s title and choice of subject? Would these have been startling in 1916?

What are implications of its inclusion in a volume entitled Chicago Poems?

What are some features of the poem’s language and visual design?

What do we learn about the muckers and their work? About economic conditions at the time?

Is the last line effective?

What seems the poem’s ultimate focus or meaning?


How does the poem’s language convey its theme?

Is the image of the grass comforting or ominous? Does it suggest any familiar works of literature?

Why are battlefields chosen to represent wars? What are other ways the topic could have been approached?

Which wars are chosen for remembrance? Why would these have been appropriate for Sandburg’s audience?

What are some of the poem’s implications?

“Old Timers”

What do the ancient and modern soldiers have in common?

What view of war does Sandburg present? How would this approach have been non-traditional?

What examples are chosen to represent the wars and battles of the past, and why may these have been chosen? What occupations are presented, and why were these selected?

In what way has the Civil War resembled previous conflicts? Does the poem seem ambivalent toward this conflict, or ultimately respectful? Why is Lincoln alluded to, rather than, say, Robert E. Lee?

How do the variations in line and stanza length convey the poet’s meaning?


What group of men does the poet gather under the title of “losers”? Is it an unusual choice to claim to identify with “losers” rather than with, say, “heroes”?

What does the speaker claim to have in common with Jonah? With Nero? Sinbad? Nebuchadnezzar? Do these four have much in common? What different traditions do they represent?

What is the effect of jumping from classical and biblical times to the period of Jack Cade, John Brown and Jesse James? By implication, what do these men represent?

How does the poet’s attitude toward these later men differ from that expressed toward Nebuchadnezzar, etc.? What does it mean to be a “good loser”?

What special historical event does the poet want his audience to commemorate? Is it significant that the sergeant at Belleau Woods is not named? What act of willing bravery has he performed, and why is it admirable?

Has the description“losers” altered its meaning throughout the course of the poem? What are the poem’s final themes?

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