The Mystery of Vachel Lindsay
How did the most visible poet in America—and a father of the Beats—become nearly forgotten?
Photograph by Victor George.
To readers who have enjoyed these monthly “Classic Poem” discussions: In order to keep them going while not driving the poetry editor over the edge and at the same time to introduce some different voices and ideas, we will from time to time have a guest columnist present a classic poem. That enhancement begins this week with T.R. Hummer.—Robert Pinsky
Early in 1914, having heard a young and unknown poet perform in Chicago, W. B. Yeats approached him and asked, “What are we going to do to restore the primitive singing of poetry?” That young poet was Vachel Lindsay. Yeats’ recognition of something unusual in the style of the performance was the beginning of a strange episode in American literary history.
Even dedicated readers of poetry in our own time can be divided into two groups: those who know Vachel Lindsay and his work, and those who don’t. When I was in my teens and 20s, the first group was by far the larger; now the latter is, and the difference in magnitude between them seems to grow exponentially with every passing year.
My own interest in Lindsay, therefore, seems a bit perverse even to me. I find the mystery of his ascendency—in the 1920s he was arguably the most visible poet in America, whose performances were witnessed, and applauded, by thousands, Yeats among them—and his complementary disappearance irresistible.
Success is instructive; abject failure is arguably even more so, and Lindsay embodies both. In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s his work was widely anthologized and taught, until (perhaps) it became embarrassingly apparent that one of his foundational poems, “The Congo,” is undeniably racist (“Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,/ Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable”); interest began to cool, until he was evicted from The Norton Anthology, and from many, if not most, classrooms.
However, more than political correctness was at stake in Lindsay’s eclipse. The racism of “The Congo” is almost certainly unintentional, an epiphenomenon of a late Romantic valorizing of the “primitive”; even Yeats was heir to this problematic attitude.
A native of Springfield, Ill., Lindsay began his career as a self-avowed “Poe crank,” an acolyte of William Blake, and a firebrand populist/socialist figure, who—unknown to a wider world, but well known at home, though not as a poet—handed out flyers to his neighbors, chastising them for their materialistic conservatism. An early poem reveals him in this mode:
Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear T.R. Hummer read Vachel Lindsay's "Why I Voted the Socialist Ticket.” You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.
"Why I Voted the Socialist Ticket"
I am unjust, but I can strive for justice.
My life’s unkind, but I can vote for kindness.
I, the unloving, say life should be lovely.
I, that am blind, cry out against my blindness.
Man is a curious brute—he pets his fancies—
Fighting mankind, to win sweet luxury.
So he will be, though law be clear as crystal,
Tho’ all men plan to live in harmony.
Come, let us vote against our human nature,
Crying to God in all the polling places
To heal our everlasting sinfulness
And make us sages with transfigured faces.
There is a straightforwardness about this little poem, and a sincerity (naive? arguably so) that is very different from the work he presented to the public at his peak. Such poems as “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” and “The Chinese Nightingale,” among the core of the work he read in barnstorming tours across America, became the basis for a performance style Lindsay called “The Higher Vaudeville,” and it was largely on performance that his fame depended.
Vaudeville itself is a very instructive model for Lindsay’s rise and fall. It was the indispensable mode of entertainment in America—until it wasn’t. Looking back on it now, it may be hard to fathom why anyone was entertained by those old jokes, those old songs—except of course then they weren’t old, and if they are clichés now, they are so by reason of their success. As much as vaudeville was built on the chassis of minstrel shows, and still included blackface in its repertoire, so Lindsay brought along a ton of baggage from the heart of America in his presentations, much of it beyond his power to comprehend much less control, and in the end it defeated him. Already by 1922 he was worn out by the demands of audiences for the same material over and over; like a one-hit rock band, he was not “allowed” to create, but only to repeat. In a letter late that year, he wrote:
One composes it not by listening to the inner voice and following the gleam—but by pounding the table with a ruler and looking out the window at the electric signs. Also by going to vaudeville, which I have all my life abhorred. I at last grasp what those painted folks are up to.
Lindsay epitomizes a cultural struggle between “high” and “low,” between performative modes and the purely textual, and though a thread of influence undeniably carries forward from him into the future (he is certainly one of the fathers of the Beat poets), he himself foundered there. Though the terminology did not exist in his time, he attained the status of a pop culture icon, and the socialist-mystic in him abhorred what he had become.
T.R. Hummer is author of 10 books of poetry. His 11th, Skandalon, is forthcoming from LSU Press.