How did the Most Visible Poet in America—and a Father of the Beats—Become Nearly Forgotten?

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Dec. 27 2011 2:56 PM

The Mystery of Vachel Lindsay

How did the most visible poet in America—and a father of the Beats—become nearly forgotten?

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On the vaudeville stage, Lindsay had a contemporary, the saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft, whose career has an arc eerily similar to Lindsay’s own. He was a technical master, but the music he played is very hard for us to hear on its own terms, so clichéd and melodramatic does it seem in retrospect. Yet his influence was ubiquitous in the 1920s and is with us still as it was transmitted to the likes of Bix Beiderbecke’s saxophonist Frank Trumbauer and from him to Lester Young. Wiedoeft’s music set off a saxophone craze in the ’20s, but Wiedoeft, a man who could simultaneously play virtuoso saxophone and do cowboy rope tricks on stage, died forgotten. In a late poem, Lindsay writes if not directly of Wiedoeft then certainly of the music he created, and in so doing condemns the very milieu—“none but an assassin would enjoy this horn”— that for a while made Vachel Lindsay a cultural phenomenon.

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear T.R. Hummer read Vachel Lindsay's "A Curse for the Saxophone.” You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

"A Curse for the Saxophone"

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When Cain killed Abel to end a perfect day,
He founded a city called the city of Cain,
And he ordered the saxophones to play.
But give me a city where they play the silver flute,
Where they play the silver flute at the dawn of the day.
Where the xylophone and saxophone and radio are mute,
And they play the Irish Harp at the end of the day.

When Jezebel put on her tiaras and looked grand,
Her three-piece pajamas and her diamond bosom-band,
And stopped the honest prophets as they marched upon their way,
And slaughtered them and hung them in her hearty wholesale way,
She licked her wicked chops, she pulled out all her stops,
And she ordered the saxophones to play.
But give me a Queen whose voice is like the flute,
Queen of a city where the saxophone is mute,
Who can dance in stately measure, in an honest, solemn way,
Where they play the Irish harp at the end of the day.

For the Irish Harp moves slowly, though the Irish heart beats fast
And both of them are faithful to their music at the last,
And their silence after music is the conqueror at last.

What did Judas do with his silver 30 pieces?
Bought himself a saxophone and played "The Beale Street Blues"
He taught the tune to Nero, who taught it to his nieces
And Rome burned down to the saxophones that played "The Beale Street Blues."
Now it comes by wireless, and they call it news!

When Henry the Eighth married his last wife,
He carried underneath his coat a well-edged butcher knife,
But he affected to be glad, affected to be gay, 
And he ordered the saxophones to play.

But give me a wedding where the silver flutes at dawn
Bring visions of Diana, the waterfall and fawn!
Give me a wedding where the evening harp is singing,
And Irish tunes bring Irish kings, their strange voices ringing.
Like songs by William Butler Yeats or noble Padraic Colum,
Give me a wedding that is decent, sweet and solemn,
Not based on brazen dances and hysterical romances,
Where they order the saxophones to play!

When John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln the good,
He hid himself in a deep Potomac wood,
But the Devil came and and got him and dragged him down below,
And took him to the gate—and the rest you know,
Twenty thousand pigs on their hind legs playing
"The Beale Street Blues" and swaying and saying:

"John Wilkes Booth, you are welcome to Hell,"
And they played it on the saxophone and played it well.
And he picked up a saxophone, grunting and rasping,
The red-hot horn in his hot hands clasping,
And he played a typical radio jazz;
He started an earthquake, he knew what for,
And at last he started the late World War.
Our nerves all razzed, and our thoughts all jazzed,
Booth and his saxophone started the war!

None but an assassin would enjoy this horn.
Let us think of the Irish flute in the morn,
And the songs of Colum and the songs of Yeats,
And forget our jazzes and our razzes and our hates.
Let us dream of the slow great seraphim wings
of the good and the great sweet Irish kings!

Guest columnist T.R. Hummer and Slate poetry editor Robert Pinsky will be joining in the discussion of Vachel Lindsay's poems this week.
Post your questions and comments on the work, and they'll respond and participate. For Slate's poetry submission guidelines, click here. Click here to visit Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project site. Click here for an archive of discussions about poems with Robert Pinsky in "the Fray," Slate's reader forum.

T.R. Hummer is author of 10 books of poetry. His 11th, Skandalon, is forthcoming from LSU Press.