Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Vachel Lindsay

When Vachel Lindsay died in 1931, Sinclair Lewis called him "one of our great poets, a power and glory in the land." He had already earned the admiration of Yeats and performed for larger crowds than any American poet today could hope for. Edgar Lee Masters published a biography of him four years later. Sometime around this point (or possibly even earlier) his reputation seems to have gone into decline. The only biography that one can easily find in libraries today is by Eleanor Ruggles. It was published in 1959, and on the first page she already seems to have doubts about whether Lindsay's work would survive. He merits a single paragraph in Randall Jarrell's essay "Fifty Years of American Poetry," written in 1963, although it is an appreciative paragraph: "He had more sheer imagination, sheer objective command," Jarrell writes, "than most of his contemporaries, so that several of his poems are perfected as almost none of theirs are."

Sometime between then and now, Lindsay's Collected Poems went completely out of print. I made it through college without ever hearing his name, and there are plenty of practicing poets today - I have made inquiries - who have no idea who he is.

Somehow I got interested in him. I think I read something about how he had once gone wandering across the Midwest, trading his poems for food and shelter (I am vulnerable to the romance of such things). Eventually I stumbled across his Selected Poems in a used bookstore. The back cover said that his most important poem was "The Congo," so I flipped to it. There were instructions for chanting in the margin, things like "A rapidly piling climax of speed and racket," and the first section was called "Their Basic Savagery." Uh oh, I thought. And then I found passages like this:
"Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle,
Harry the uplands,
Steal all the cattle,
Rattle-rattle, rattle-rattle,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM."

Bingo bango bongo, I thought, I will not be purchasing this book. Months later I came across a copy of the Dover Thrift edition of "The Congo and Other Poems." It is the only book of Lindsay's poetry that is still in print, and the store was selling it for forty cents. I decided that this was worth my money. I skipped the poems with chanting instructions and went straight to the middle of the book.

There were a few silly poems, a few sentimental ones, and a whole host of great ones. They were indignant, fanciful, profound, strange, and funny - and not like anything I had come across in American poetry. The only real point of comparison for me was Blake's early stuff. Lindsay's poems do not strike as deep as Blake's best, and his visual art is not nearly of the same stature (his drawings are included in the Collected Poems), but there are interesting similarities: the obsession with Swedenborg, the horror of industrial civilization, the mystical, slightly nutty significance they both draw from all kinds of events.

But there is an important difference. Blake - as funny as he can be - does not deliver his prophecies as a joke; I get the sense that he believes every word. With Lindsay, I can sense a canny half-smile - it is the look of someone at a party who starts acting a little crazy because he is surrounded by incredibly boring people. He means most of what he says, but he is exaggerating a little to get people's attention, to try to shake them out of their lifelessness, and also just to entertain himself. Here is a quote from his Introduction to the Collected Poems, entitled "Adventures Preaching Hieroglyphic Sermons." I think you can hear what I'm talking about:
There is just one way to convince citizens of the United States that you are dead in earnest about an idea. It will do no good to be crucified for it, or burned at the stake for it. It will do no good to go to jail for it. But if you go broke for a hobby over and over again the genuine fructifying wrath and opposition is terrific. They will notice your idea at least. I flooded Springfield with free pamphlets incessantly. And so I began to relish home-town controversy on its absolute merits...
I remember a quote - I think it was said in relation to Frank Lloyd Wright - that our great American men are always to some degree charlatans. The quote isn't worth thinking too hard about, but it has an element of truth. Lindsay knows that he is performing, but he also has a sense of his own ridiculousness. Here, for example, is how he explains his rise to popularity: "And to this general interest in poetry I attribute the fact that I, a speaker to whom not six persons were ever known to listen with patience, became a conventionalized "reciter" of my own verses almost instantly, and have since that time recited to about one million people."

His poetry has some very serious things to say, but it also has an ease, a naturalness, and a sense of fun that is rare in American literature. I should mention here that I agree with Sinclair Lewis: I think Vachel Lindsay is a great poet, one of the real ones. Not of Whitman's stature or anything (although it is stupid to keep making such hierarchies) but someone with important and delightful things to say that still deserves to be heard. I am not really sure why his work has disappeared. University neglect might have played a role. Schools tend to amplify the reputations of people who have supplied some sort of technical innovation, especially if this innovation requires extensive explication. People who broke imaginative ground without any obvious technical breakthroughs, or whose work usually found voice in traditional forms, tend to be out of luck. At least if they were not already established classics.

And so I read The Waste Land in three different classes, but not a single poem of Hardy's. Every work by Joyce, but not one story by Frank O'Connor. But whose books do I bother to open today? Lindsay's technical achievement - his contribution, I suppose, to the story of poetry - is his various chants, but anyone who looks only at those poems is not going to see why he is still worth reading. But look at everything else and - making allowances for lots of pleasant throwaways and some really bad, really silly stuff - I think you'll see what I mean: "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan," for example, or the three poems in "A Gospel of Beauty." And so many of the moon poems are wonderful too.

I managed to track down the Collected Poems in a used bookstore, but it is hard to find and often expensive. The Dover edition contains some good stuff and is well worth your $1.50. But it is high time that someone like the Library of America brought out Lindsay's Collected Poems again. We need a good dose of his strangeness in this country, along with a solid slap in the face.

1 comment:

Dr. Clam said...

Hear, hear, hear, hear! :)