Expansive Poetics – (Vachel Lindsay)

Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931)

AG: Another American – on the next page, Vachel Lindsay. Another American who is also into American rhythms and American speech but more in a literary, formalistic way (but he  was trying to imitate jazz and blues), who was into black rhythm (and actually Greek rhythms which he knew something about) and (who) used a variety of meters and rhythms that nobody in America (had) used before him, (except Edgar Allan Poe, and a few doggerel poets). But for serious poets, Vachel Lindsay was the champ of sound, actually, for the twentieth-century, until Hart Crane came along (or maybe he and Hart Crane but Lindsay was the champ of jitterbug sound, anyway, or the champ of swing, poetry swing). And he had an idea of blues poetry and poetry music that was fifty years ahead of his time and also an idea of Dharma Bums that was fifty years ahead of his time, because he went out on the road with a pamphlet called Rhymes to br Traded for Bread and hitch-hiked and traveled all over the United States, stopping at farmers’ houses and trying to trade his books for bread.

And he got very famous and went on the Chattaqua lecture circuit (like we have the Chattaqua here) [editorial note – “here”,  where Allen was teaching – Boulder, Colorado, was the home of an active and sizeable Chattaqua], and was a  big hit on the platform, reciting “The Congo” and others,  “The Chinese Nightingale”, “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven”,  his famous pieces, which are in anthologies. He had a big fruity voice and had a strong rhythm and drew vast crowds, but he was always put down by Ezra) Pound and William Carlos) Williams and  (T.S.) Eliot and the sophisticated poets because he was such an indigenous original goof, sort of. And there was an element of pomposity in his pitch, although he was totally sincere, and,I think, one of the great poets of the time. They were so hung up on getting the idiomatic American speech  and measuring it that they didn’t dig his going back to heavy rhythms, (because they thought that would drive all the school-teachers mad, trying to make their children write in this same kind of heavy rhythms, and all you get is a lot of bad poetry, usually). But “The Congo”.. has anybody heard “The Congo” ever?

Student (CC): Um-hmm

AG: So how many have heard “The Congo” aloud?  [several students raise their hands] – so some. Some have not. So we might as well do that. Pay attention. I’ll do the first part and then why don’t you join me on part(s) two and three, so you get the way (that) I’m doing it. The idea (so we’re all in unison) is to pay attention to the commas, so we take a breath wherever there’s a comma. Right?  So, in other words, when I’m breathing and we’re breathing, two or three people who are not taking care for the syllables and the commas don’t run on fast and break the rhythm properly. In fact, anybody can join in at any time. But listen to the way I start it, so you get some sense – [Allen begins reading] – “I – Their Basic Savagery – “Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room/Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,/Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table/Pounded on the table..” – I’m sorry, (I’ll) start again – [Allen then reads the entire first section of “The Congo” –  “Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room..”…”Mumbo-jumbo will hop-doo you”] – [The class continues with part two“II – Their Irrepresible High Spirits – “Wild crap-shooters with a whoop and a call…”…”(Oh rare was the revel and well worth while/That made those glowering witch men smile”] – Shall we go on?

Student(s): Yeah

AG: Okay, Part three – “III – The Hope of Their Religion – “A good old negro in the slums of the town/Preached at a sister for her velvet gown..”…”Mumbo-jumbo will hop-doo you/ “Mumbo….Jumbo… will… hop-doo… you” – This poem sucks as far as its racism.. its racism, if you notice it, is a real white chauvinist vision (particularly the vison of the “civilization” of  “the jungle” – “Then along that river a thousand miles/The vine-snared trees fell down in files./Pioneer angels cleared the way” – (those are the guys that are going down to the Amazon and cutting down the jungle) – “..For sacred capitals, for temples clean” – it’s putting down the indigenous religions, obviously, with a typical nineteen-twenties ignorance of what was involved and (of) all the mystery and magic and particular care for place that the religions of indigenous peoples are based on (because most Australian aborigine, Amazon, as well as African, village ceremonies are always based on that village, that ceremony, that region, that river, that burial ground, that tradition, that lineage within their own terrain  – sacred terrain (as it is for the Hopi – sacred territory).

Student: When was that written?

AG: Okay, this was.. I would guess.. somewhere in the… 1917?  I don’t have a date on it, unfortunately [Editorial note – the poem was composed some time on his cross-country trek from May to September 1912 and was first published in 1914 in Poetry magazine]
This poem, particularly the third section, “was suggested by an allusion in a sermon by my pastor, F.W.Burnham to the heroic life and death of Ray Eldred. Eldred was a missionary of the Disciples of Christ who perished while swimming in a treacherous branch of the Congo. See A Master Builder of The Congo by Andrew F Hennessey published by Fleming H Revell…” – This gaggle of white Christians passing sentence on…

But one thing about Lindsay, I think it was in Springfield, Illinois where he died – swallowed a bottle of Lysol in a hotel-room, a failure. Being put down by everybody, his vogue had passed, he was drinking too much. There was some evidence that he was also gay and had a problem there because he didn’t want to… he was a heroic American bard.. and he didn’t want to let that cat out of the bag. There is some (evidence). I don’t know. It’s not a big deal with him, though. Probably a virgin. He looked like W.C.Fields, actually. He and William Jennings Bryan actually are a couple, in a sense.

Student: He was born in Springfield too?

AG: Yeah, born in Springfield. And in Springfield where he was born he was educated by a very good high-school teacher who turned him on to (Walt) Whitman and to (Emmanuel) Swedenborg, so he was a native American Gnostic or Swedenborgian. In other words, he had a touch of (those) weird hermetic magical angels – the same thing that (William) Blake studied, actually. So Lindsay was a funny American crude.. .  [tape ends here]

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately forty-eight minutes in , and concluding at approximately sixty-three-and-a-half minutes in]  

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