Time and Human Transience in Carl Sandburg’s ‘Skyscraper’
Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, published in 1916, are a series of poems that explore life in the Midwest following the turn of the century, using the eponymous city as a subject and backdrop for the varied characters it contains. Across these works, Sandburg returns again and again to several common themes: among them, the city’s relationship to nature, the ability of an individual to make a mark in a post-industrial world, and the passing of time in regards to notions of permanence and impermanence. This last idea is examined and expanded on in the poem “Skyscraper”, in which Sandburg meditates on human transience and mortality and the enduring and indefinable nature of the structures we create. To do this, Sandburg pays careful attention to the different uses and implications of time, ranging from basic choices in the language of the poem, to structural considerations, to arching claims about the interchangeability of natural and constructed lifetimes and their impact on the human soul.
On the most literal level, Sandburg’s use of language, and more specifically, his repeated references to the vocabularies of temporality, help establish the function of time as an important concept for the reader. For instance, take the repetition of the critical introductory phrase “hour by hour” early in the poem, and its emphasis in describing the construction and continued existence of the building: the reach of the caissons into the earth, the layering of materials by those involved in its creation, and the constant interplay of nature and human production. The same goes for “the hands of the clock” and the “sign that speaks till midnight” in later stanzas—we aren’t allowed to forget that these things happen within a defined sense of time, however Sandburg is choosing to establish it, and it sets the expectation that this context will be important in our understanding of the poem as a whole.
This expectation is borne out by Sandburg’s careful attention to the structure of the poem, setting it up as nothing less than a full day, from beginning to end, within the ‘life’ of the skyscraper. The first and last lines are temporal bookends— “By day the skyscraper looms in the sun and smoke”, and “By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the stars”, respectively—and the action is enclosed between them. The rhythms of the employees’ days are chronicled as well, with special note given to the ebbs and flows of activity around lunch and as the work day winds to a close. What does this attention to what are seemingly fairly banal details do for our understanding of the poem? Perhaps it emphasizes the importance of a routine in establishing a ‘soul’ for the skyscraper, or perhaps it highlights the exclusions from this linear setup: namely, the attention paid to the building’s construction.
These construction scenes seem important for several reasons. The creation of the skyscraper is described in two divergent manners: first as a generic scene of assembly, in which a building is raised because a building has been planned (“the hand of the mason and the stuff of the mortar clinch the pieces and parts to the shape an architect voted”, etc.), but secondly, alternatively and importantly, as a birth. The mechanisms of manufacture take on human characteristics—caissons reach down and hold on to the rock; the girders become ribs and hold together the walls and floors—and this personification is one way that Sandburg begins to attach humanity (to attach a soul) to what should by assumption be an inanimate object. In addition, these scenes are the first in which the mortality of the human workers begins to have an impact on the building, and mark the place Sandburg starts in earnest to put emphasis on the workers’ explicit mortality when compared with the immutability of the building they erected.
The question of the skyscraper’s abstract function in time, and of the permanence and impermanence of the human body and soul within this work of their own creation, is something that Sandburg returns to more than once in the poem. The soul itself is enduring, he implies, lingering when the body must move on:
“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 when drunk.”
The lives of the people themselves pass quickly in relation to the structure they have helped create, and the skyscraper becomes the vehicle for these peoples’ immortality. The hod carrier, the bricklayer, the men who strung the wire; they are insignificant characters when taken individually, existing on the fringes of society, and yet here they are given the means for a continued existence outside themselves.
The reverse also holds true. The skyscraper’s immortality exists both within and beyond the materials of its own construction: even as the day-to-day grime of human existence is swept away, the skyscraper itself, built by our hands and with our sweat, exists within our smoke. The structure is nothing without the workers that built it and without the occupants that continue to give it life. Even the thought given to its location, Sandburg tells us, allows the building more than a mere presence in the world:
“(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?)”
That the skyscraper exists so definitively in Chicago, within the ‘lights of barges’, the ‘nets of red and white lanterns’, and ‘the span of glooms’ that define the city easily and eloquently, is critical to its own essence and soul.
Also critical to its essence as a human construct, the skyscraper’s meaning is conveyed through the activities that it is used for – the daily cycle of businessmen and workers who migrate towards it from the ‘prairie and the valleys”, and then depart and disperse at the end of the work day. The juxtaposition of these ‘prairies’—already out of place to us within what we know to be an urban atmosphere—with the stone of the skyscraper reinforces its close proximity to nature, and yet, its dominant concrete mass seems to act as a force of gravity itself, drawing people in and absorbing them into its form. This happens both implicitly, as with the “ten-dollar-a-week stenographers […], the corporation officers, lawyers, efficiency engineers”, and others who work their lives away inside its four walls, and explicitly:
“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.”
The occupants of the building, in death or in life, are representative of the full spectrum of social class, from scrubbers to lawyers, and are linked only through their shared time in the building. Each of these souls leave their mark on the skyscraper.
Ultimately, Sandburg implies, the skyscraper is given an eternal life through the remains of the souls the living have left within it. The architects, the builders, the workers—they have all imbued the building with a vitality that could not exist without the small pieces of humanity that each person leaves behind as they go about their lives. The skyscraper exists in the poem and in our imagination as a sort of secular heaven, or final resting place: a haven that we ourselves have built, and that is capable of housing (and, we hope, of putting to good use) our departed souls.
The transience of humanity, then, is the very thing that enables it to invest the skyscraper with a soul of its own. Just as humans cannot exist in a vacuum, nor can the things we create. Sandburg’s ‘Skyscraper’ is what we all hope we contribute to over the course of our lives: the aggregate soul.