January 16, 2018

Vachel Lindsay, Troubadour

On this day in 1879, the troubadour-poet Vachel Lindsay was born in Springfield, Illinois. Lindsay would die in the same house in which he was born -- aged 52, paranoid, suicide by drinking Lysol -- but in between was one of the most remarkable, celebrated, and now forgotten literary careers. He believed that his father's ancestors went west with Daniel Boone, that his mother was related to Pocahontas, that his bedroom had been slept in by Abraham Lincoln, and that he had been called to help redeem mankind through poetry. He began this mission by tramping the country, selling his poems on the street for a living and filling his notebooks with the Americana which would result in 9 books of poetry, most famously "The Proud Farmer," "The Building of Springfield," "The Santa Fe Trail," "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight," "Ghosts of the Buffaloes," and "General William Booth Enters into Heaven." By 1915, he was reciting his poems before Woodrow Wilson's cabinet, in the "Higher Vaudeville" style that had made him so popular -- a thing of shouts, whispers and closed-eye chants, of heel-toe rocking and music hall boomlay-boom:
    Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
    Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
    (A deep rolling bass.)
    Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
    Pounded on the table,
    Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
    Hard as they were able,
    Boom, boom, BOOM,
    With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
    Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM. . . .
By 1920, having taken these rhythms on tour in England, the British critics were calling him "easily the most important living American poet" -- this with Robert Frost having 3 collections published and T. S. Eliot with Prufrock and Other Poems out and "The Waste Land" on the way. Robert Graves has this description of Lindsay performing in the land of tweed and Tennyson: "By two minutes he had the respectable and intellectual and cynical audience listening. By ten, intensely excited; by twenty, elated and losing self-control; by half an hour completely under his influence; by forty minutes roaring like a bonfire. At the end of the hour they lifted off the roof and refused to disperse. . . ."

Lindsay grew to regret the showmanship, and the high cost of the mission: "I persuaded the tired businessman to listen at last. But lo, my tiny reputation as a writer seemed wiped out by my new reputation as an entertainer." Some critics also expressed regret at how poems so popular in performance failed on the printed page: "I confess to some misgiving," wrote one, "when I am invited by the margin to make 'the o sounds very golden,' to employ a 'languorous' or a 'terrified' whisper, or to speak 'like a train-caller in a Union Depot.'" By the time his mind failed in the late 1920s, his popularity as a performer had waned and his books -- not just poetry but books on his travels, on motion pictures, and on his Blakean visions of Old Testament prophets -- were approaching curio status.

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