Vachel Lindsay

A weekend in Springfield, IL.  We went to see Lincoln history in Springfield and discovered the home of poet Vachel Lindsay, who grew up there.  His home is open to the public and the docent who greeted us showed us the house and told us about Lindsay’s life.  She said he was the most famous poet of his generation but fell from favor quickly.  I made the mistake of suggesting it was because he wrote rhyming poetry, a point she returned to dispute several times during our visit.

Lindsay was born in 1879. Vachel is a Scottish family name.  He was an artist who attended the Art Institute of Chicago, and a poet who illustrated many of his poems.  He took extensive walks from Springfield to New Mexico, for instance, exchanging poems for food and shelter along the way.  His poems were very rhythmical and one of the most interesting things about him is how he performed his poems with a mix of movement and gestures and song.  The docent directed us to a video in which Lindsay’s son performed some of his father’s poems as his father would have done.

The docent told us that until American education went to hell in the late 60’s, all high school students studied and knew Vachel Lindsay’s poems.  Two poems that were likely memorized or at least known to many were “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” published in 1913, and “The Congo,” published a year later.

William Booth was the founder of the Salvation Army.  The poem (http://www.bartleby.com/271/48.html) celebrates Booth in the rhythms of the hymn “The Blood of the Lamb.”  This was one Lindsay’s son performed on the video and the performance was like watching an old fashioned country preacher commanding his parishioners to come forth and be cleansed.  The performance included getting the audience to participate in a kind of call and response.

“The Congo” was inspired by a sermon about the drowning of a missionary in the Congo River, according to Modern American Poetry’s website.* It was full of racial stereotypes and Lindsay was criticized for racism because of it, but he performed it as he imagined drums and foot stomping in the Congo sounded, bursting with rhythm and meter.   Reading it, however, is to cring (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper/Lindsay/lindsay.html#congo).

His contemporaries were the poets we remember today:  Frost, Eliot, Auden, Yeats, for example.  The Modern American Poetry website says that eventually “American critics and readers dismissed him as tedious and incomprehensible.”  By the 1920’s, time and tastes passed him by.  He committed suicide in the Springfield house in 1931.

The docent recommended Eleanor Ruggles book on Lindsay, The West-Going Heart, and I recommended to her, The Anthologist, which I blogged about in June.  You may recall it’s about a man compiling an anthology of rhyming poems.  He has writer’s block and instead of writing the anthology’s needed preface, he rails against the loss of rhyme.  It’s where I first read about Lindsay and his friend, Sara Teasdale.

Lindsay was a unique person, a poet and artist, a performer and a celebrator of America, an early advocate for the environment and a pacifist.  High school students may not have studied him for over 40 years, but perhaps they should.   By studying the life and work of any poet or artist we can learn about the many ways in which creativity is expressed.  He even has a Facebook page.

*http://www.english.illinois.edu/Maps/poets/g_l/lindsay/lindsay.htm

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