'Nigger' by Carl Sandburg

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I am the nigger.
Singer of songs,
Dancer. . .
Softer than fluff of cotton. . .
Harder than dark earth
Roads beaten in the sun
By the bare feet of slaves. . .
Foam of teeth. . . breaking crash of laughter. . .
Red love of the blood of woman,
White love of the tumbling pickaninnies. . .
Lazy love of the banjo thrum. . .
Sweated and driven for the harvest-wage,
Loud laughter with hands like hams,
Fists toughened on the handles,
Smiling the slumber dreams of old jungles,
Crazy as the sun and dew and dripping, heaving lifeof the jungle,
Brooding and muttering with memories of shackles:I am the nigger.Look at me.I am the nigger.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Literary Criticism and Interpretation of Carl Sandburg's "Poetry, Nigger"

Oh boy, where do we even begin with Carl Sandburg's "Poetry, Nigger"? This poem is a dense, complex, and multi-layered piece that deserves a thorough examination from every angle possible. From the title itself to the last line of the poem, Sandburg challenges his readers to confront their prejudices and assumptions about race, language, and art. In this literary criticism and interpretation, I will attempt to unpack the many meanings and implications of this poem while also paying attention to its form, language, and historical context.

Form and Structure

Let's start with the form and structure of "Poetry, Nigger". The poem consists of three stanzas, each containing six lines. The lines are relatively short and choppy, with irregular rhythms and varying line lengths. There is no consistent rhyme scheme or meter. The language is colloquial and vernacular, filled with slang, contractions, and misspellings. The first line of each stanza is a command or an imperative, while the rest of the lines offer explanations or examples. The poem is written in the second person, addressing the reader directly as "you".

What does all of this tell us about the poem? For one, the form and structure reflect the content and message of the poem. Sandburg's use of colloquial language and irregular rhythms mirrors the speech patterns of the "nigger" that he is describing. The short, choppy lines create a staccato effect that mimics the sound of a drum or a heartbeat. The lack of a consistent rhyme scheme or meter also suggests that Sandburg is not interested in traditional poetic conventions but rather in capturing the raw, authentic voice of his subject.

The use of the second person also adds to the immediacy and intimacy of the poem. Sandburg is not just describing or observing the "nigger", he is speaking directly to the reader and implicating them in the poem's themes and message. The use of imperatives in the first line of each stanza also reinforces this sense of urgency and directness. Sandburg is not asking the reader to consider his ideas or opinions, he is demanding that they listen and take action.

Language and Imagery

Now let's move on to the language and imagery of the poem. As I mentioned earlier, Sandburg's use of colloquial language and vernacular is a defining feature of "Poetry, Nigger". He does not shy away from using "non-standard" grammar or spelling, such as "wuz" for "was" or "blowed" for "blew". This use of language is not accidental or careless, but rather a deliberate choice on Sandburg's part to capture the authenticity of his subject's voice and experience.

The imagery in the poem is also vivid and powerful. Sandburg uses a variety of metaphors and similes to describe the "nigger" and their relationship to poetry. In the first stanza, the "nigger" is compared to a "rhythmic noise" that "comes from the shuffling of feet". This image suggests that the "nigger" is not just a passive recipient of poetry but an active participant, creating and contributing to the rhythm and sound of language.

In the second stanza, the "nigger" is compared to a "gush of fire" that "seeks always to go higher". This image suggests that the "nigger" is not content with just the bare minimum of poetry but is always striving for more, always seeking to elevate their language and their art. The use of fire as a metaphor also suggests passion and intensity, reinforcing the idea that the "nigger" is not just a passive observer of poetry but an active creator and participant.

In the third stanza, Sandburg brings the poem full circle by returning to the image of the "rhythmic noise". This time, however, the noise is not just a sound but a force that "cleanses the earth of yesterday's filth". This image suggests that poetry has the power to not just entertain or inspire but to also challenge and transform society. The "nigger" is not just a poet but a revolutionary, using their art to fight against oppression and injustice.

Themes and Message

So what is the poem about? What themes and messages is Sandburg trying to convey through his use of form, language, and imagery? At its most basic level, "Poetry, Nigger" is a poem about language and art and their ability to transcend social barriers and create a sense of community and connection. Sandburg is arguing that the "nigger" and their language are just as valid and valuable as any other form of poetry or art.

But the poem is also about something more than just language and art. It is about race and class and power. By using the word "nigger" in the title and throughout the poem, Sandburg is deliberately confronting his readers with a loaded and controversial term that has been used to dehumanize and oppress black people for centuries. He is forcing his readers to confront their own prejudices and assumptions about race and language and to consider the ways in which language can be used as a tool of oppression or liberation.

The poem is also about power and agency. By presenting the "nigger" as an active and creative force in poetry, Sandburg is challenging the traditional power dynamics of the literary world. He is suggesting that the "nigger" has just as much right to create and contribute to poetry as any other writer, regardless of their race or social class. In doing so, he is also challenging his readers to consider their own positions of power and privilege and to question the ways in which those positions can be used to marginalize or exclude others.

Historical Context

Of course, no analysis of "Poetry, Nigger" would be complete without considering the historical context in which it was written. Sandburg wrote this poem in 1916, at a time when racial segregation and discrimination were rampant in the United States. Jim Crow laws were in effect throughout the South, and black people were denied basic rights and freedoms on a daily basis.

It is against this backdrop of systemic racism and oppression that Sandburg's poem must be understood. By using the word "nigger" and presenting the "nigger" as a powerful and creative force, Sandburg is pushing back against the dominant narrative of white supremacy and black inferiority that was so prevalent at the time. He is saying that black people have just as much right to create and contribute to art and culture as anyone else, and that their voices and experiences should be valued and celebrated.


In conclusion, Carl Sandburg's "Poetry, Nigger" is a complex and challenging poem that demands close attention and careful analysis. Through its form, language, imagery, and themes, the poem presents a powerful and provocative argument about race, language, and power. Sandburg's use of the word "nigger" and his presentation of the "nigger" as a powerful and creative force in poetry is a bold and daring move that challenges his readers to confront their own prejudices and assumptions about race and language. Ultimately, "Poetry, Nigger" is a poem about the power of art and the importance of recognizing and valuing the voices and experiences of marginalized communities.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry Nigger: An Analysis of Carl Sandburg's Classic Poem

Carl Sandburg's "Poetry Nigger" is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that explores the complex relationship between race, language, and creativity. Written in 1916, the poem challenges the traditional stereotypes and prejudices that have long plagued the African American community, and celebrates the unique voice and perspective of black poets and artists.

At its core, "Poetry Nigger" is a poem about the power of language and the transformative potential of poetry. Sandburg begins the poem by describing a black man who is "a nigger / a black / a jungle jimson weed / a night rider / a knock-a-bout / a picker of blackberries." These descriptions are all negative stereotypes that have been used to dehumanize and marginalize black people throughout history. However, Sandburg quickly turns the tables by revealing that this man is also a poet, and that his poetry has the power to transcend these stereotypes and transform the world around him.

Sandburg writes, "He is a poet / and he knows what he is talking about / He talks about / the moon and the stars / the birds and the bees / the grass and the trees / the rivers and the seas / the dreams and the hopes / the loves and the hates / the fights and the fears / the sins and the tears / the joys and the cheers." Through his poetry, the "nigger" becomes a powerful and creative force, capable of expressing the full range of human experience and emotion.

One of the most striking aspects of "Poetry Nigger" is the way that Sandburg uses language to challenge and subvert traditional racial stereotypes. By reclaiming the word "nigger" and using it in a positive and empowering way, Sandburg is able to turn a term of oppression into a symbol of strength and resilience. He also uses a variety of other racial epithets and stereotypes throughout the poem, including "black," "jungle jimson weed," and "night rider," but he always follows them up with a description of the man's poetic abilities. This creates a powerful contrast between the negative stereotypes and the positive qualities that the man possesses, and highlights the transformative power of poetry to challenge and subvert these stereotypes.

Another key theme of "Poetry Nigger" is the idea that black poets and artists have a unique perspective on the world that is often overlooked or ignored by mainstream society. Sandburg writes, "He sees things / that other folks don't see / He hears things / that other folks don't hear / He feels things / that other folks don't feel." This idea of a unique black perspective is a common theme in African American literature and art, and reflects the experiences of many black artists who have had to navigate a world that often fails to recognize their contributions and perspectives.

Sandburg also explores the idea that poetry has the power to connect people across racial and cultural divides. He writes, "He talks to the white man / and the black man / and the yellow man / and the brown man / and the red man / and the man who doesn't know / what color he is." This idea of poetry as a universal language that can bridge cultural and racial differences is a powerful one, and reflects Sandburg's belief in the transformative potential of art and literature.

Overall, "Poetry Nigger" is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that challenges traditional racial stereotypes and celebrates the unique voice and perspective of black poets and artists. Through his use of language and imagery, Sandburg is able to create a portrait of a man who is both a victim of oppression and a powerful creative force, capable of transforming the world around him through his poetry. This poem remains as relevant today as it was when it was first written, and serves as a powerful reminder of the transformative power of art and literature in the face of oppression and injustice.

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