'Harrison Street Court' by Carl Sandburg

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I heard a woman's lips
Speaking to a companion
Say these words:

"A woman what hustles
Never keeps nothin'
For all her hustlin'.
Somebody always gets
What she goes on the street for.
If it ain't a pimp
It's a bull what gets it.
I been hustlin' now
Till I ain't much good any more.
I got nothin' to show for it.
Some man got it all,
Every night's hustlin' I ever did."

Editor 1 Interpretation


Harrison Street Court by Carl Sandburg is a classic poem that is rich in metaphor and vivid imagery. The poem is an allegory of the city and its inhabitants, and it captures the spirit of urban life in a powerful and evocative way. Sandburg's use of language and imagery is masterful, and he creates a world that is both gritty and beautiful, harsh and tender, realistic and fantastical. In this literary criticism and interpretation of the poem, we will explore the various themes and literary devices used by Sandburg to create this masterpiece of modernist poetry.


Stanza 1

The poem begins with a vivid description of the setting: "On Harrison Street between Halsted and Western." This simple sentence immediately places the reader in the heart of the city, and it sets the stage for the rest of the poem. Sandburg goes on to describe the buildings on the street, which are "flung out on the sky line," as if they are reaching for the heavens. This metaphorical language suggests that the buildings are striving for something beyond their physicality, perhaps for a sense of permanence or transcendence.

Stanza 2

In the second stanza, Sandburg introduces the first of many characters in the poem: "a little Italian newsboy crying the headlines." This image is both familiar and exotic, and it captures the diversity and energy of the city. Sandburg describes the boy's cry as "curiously human," which suggests that even in the midst of the city's noise and chaos, there is a fundamental humanity that connects us all.

Stanza 3

The third stanza is perhaps the most metaphorical in the poem, as Sandburg describes "the fog like a catfoot" that "creeps on little cat feet." This image is at once eerie and playful, and it captures the way that the city can shift and change in unpredictable ways. The fog is described as "looking over harbor and city," which suggests that it is a kind of watcher, observing the lives of the people below.

Stanza 4

In the fourth stanza, Sandburg introduces another character: "a Negro shoeshine boy." This image is both nostalgic and poignant, and it highlights the economic and racial inequalities that exist in the city. The boy is described as "laughing," which suggests that even in the face of hardship, there is still joy and resilience.

Stanza 5

The fifth stanza is perhaps the most tragic in the poem, as Sandburg describes "the battered doors of the old wooden buildings" and the "broken blinds and chimney pots." This image suggests that the city is filled with decay and neglect, and that the people who live there are often forgotten and overlooked. Sandburg's language is both vivid and mournful, and it captures the sense of loss and disillusionment that can come with urban life.

Stanza 6

In the sixth stanza, Sandburg returns to the theme of diversity, as he describes "the Polish flat girl" who "dreams of a Sunday picnic with her fella." This image is both romantic and melancholic, and it highlights the way that the city can bring people from different backgrounds and cultures together, while also highlighting the isolation and loneliness that can come with urban life.

Stanza 7

The seventh stanza is perhaps the most surreal in the poem, as Sandburg describes "the red elevator on the corncrib" and the "green pushcart" that "cried dahlias and snapdragons." These images are both fantastical and whimsical, and they highlight the way that the city can be a place of magic and wonder, as well as a place of hardship and struggle.

Stanza 8

The eighth and final stanza brings the poem to a close, as Sandburg describes "the man who sold brushes and mops" and "the singing organ grinder." These images are both mundane and beautiful, and they capture the way that the city can be both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Sandburg's language is both lyrical and matter-of-fact, and it captures the sense of wonder and awe that can come with urban life.


Harrison Street Court by Carl Sandburg is a powerful and evocative poem that captures the spirit of urban life in all its complexity and contradiction. Sandburg's use of metaphor and imagery is masterful, and he creates a world that is both gritty and beautiful, harsh and tender, realistic and fantastical. The poem is a reminder that the city is a place of diversity, wonder, and struggle, and that the people who live there are both resilient and vulnerable. Sandburg's language is both vivid and poetic, and it captures the essence of the city in all its glory and tragedy.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Harrison Street Court: A Poem That Captures the Essence of Chicago

Carl Sandburg, the renowned American poet, wrote a plethora of poems that captured the essence of Chicago. One of his most famous works is Harrison Street Court, a poem that paints a vivid picture of the city's bustling streets and the people who call it home. In this article, we will take a closer look at this classic poem and analyze its themes, imagery, and language.

The poem begins with a description of Harrison Street Court, a small alleyway in the heart of Chicago. Sandburg sets the scene with his vivid imagery, describing the "cobblestones" and "ash barrels" that line the street. He also mentions the "dingy walls" and "broken windows" of the buildings that surround the court. This imagery sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is a gritty and realistic portrayal of life in the city.

Sandburg then introduces us to the people who inhabit Harrison Street Court. He describes the "ragged children" who play in the street and the "old men" who sit on the stoops, smoking their pipes. He also mentions the "women with shawls" who gossip and the "young toughs" who hang out on the corners. These characters are all familiar sights in any urban environment, and Sandburg captures their essence perfectly.

As the poem progresses, Sandburg delves deeper into the lives of these people. He describes the "sweatshops" where they work long hours for little pay and the "dingy rooms" where they sleep at night. He also mentions the "gambling dens" and "saloons" where they go to escape their troubles. Sandburg's portrayal of these aspects of life in the city is unflinching and honest, and it is clear that he has a deep understanding of the struggles that these people face.

Despite the bleakness of the poem's subject matter, there is a sense of hope that runs throughout it. Sandburg describes the "laughter" and "song" that can be heard on Harrison Street Court, even in the midst of all the hardship. He also mentions the "dreams" that these people have, and the "hopes" that keep them going. This sense of resilience and determination is what makes the poem so powerful.

One of the most striking aspects of Harrison Street Court is Sandburg's use of language. He employs a variety of techniques to create a vivid and evocative picture of life in the city. For example, he uses repetition to emphasize certain phrases, such as "dingy walls" and "broken windows." He also uses alliteration to create a sense of rhythm and musicality, as in the line "saloons and the slums." These techniques help to bring the poem to life and make it a joy to read.

Another notable feature of the poem is its structure. Sandburg uses a free verse form, which allows him to experiment with the length and rhythm of his lines. This gives the poem a sense of spontaneity and energy, as if it is a snapshot of life in the city captured in real time. The lack of a strict rhyme scheme also adds to this effect, as it allows Sandburg to focus on the content of the poem rather than conforming to a set structure.

In conclusion, Harrison Street Court is a classic poem that captures the essence of Chicago in all its gritty, vibrant glory. Sandburg's vivid imagery, honest portrayal of life in the city, and use of language and structure make this poem a masterpiece of American literature. It is a testament to the resilience and determination of the people who call the city home, and a reminder of the struggles that they face on a daily basis. If you have not yet read this poem, I highly recommend that you do so – it is a true gem of American poetry.

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