Vachel Lindsay, poet, artist, tramp, temperance activist, visionary, genuine American eccentric.
They loved his wizard stories,
They bought his rhymes with bread.
That’s from “Upon Returning to the Country Road,” found in General William Booth Enters into Heaven, and Other Poems (1913), and Lindsay means it:
Now that is the header of Rhymes to Be Traded for Bread (1912), a sixteen page pamphlet crammed with poems that Lindsay printed up and took with him on one of his many tramps around America, preaching the Gospel of Beauty, this time from Illinois to New Mexico, I believe. Please click to enlarge.
from The Santa-Fe Trail. (A Humoresque)
I am a tramp by the long trail’s border,
Given to squalor, rags and disorder.
I nap and amble and yawn and look,
Write fool-thoughts in my grubby book,
Recite to the children, explore at my ease,
Work when I work, beg when I please,
Give crank-drawings, that make folks stare
To the half-grown boys in the sunset glare,
And get me a place to sleep in the hay
At the end of a live-and-let-live day. (in The Congo and Other Poems, p. 14)
I have read five books by Lindsay besides Rhymes to Be Traded for Bread:
General William Booth Enters into Heaven, and Other Poems (1913)
The Congo and Other Poems (1914)
The Art of the Moving Picture (1915/1922)
The Chinese Nightingale, and Other Poems (1917)
Collected Poems (1923)
The first three books with titles ending “and Other Poems” are short volumes of poems that look a lot like everyone else’s short volumes of poems. Lindsay was taken up by Harriet Monroe and Poetry magazine as some kind of primitive, what we – some of us – now call an “outsider” artist, whose work “could be by a mental patient, or a hillbilly, or a chimpanzee” as the art dealer on The Simpsons says. But those three books look professional, ready to submit for an arts grant or creative writing visiting professorship.
Collected Poems, on the other hand, with its crank-drawings of the mystical hotspots of Springfield, Illinois, its “Map of the Universe,” and its two separate introductions, now that book has a strong outsider flavor. Even if much of it parts of it are tedious or only semi-comprehensible – no, I mean because etc. – it is now the place to get to know Vachel Lindsay.
My Grandfather Frazee had spoken rather contemptuously of poets in my self-important infant presence. He said they were clever men, and we liked to memorize long passages from their works, and it was eminently desirable that we should do so. But almost all of them had a screw loose somewhere. He said this in the midst of his much-read books, which began with Shakespeare and Addison, and ended with all of Mark Twain. And then incidentally, there were all the established authorities on short-horn cattle. (Collected Poems, p. 15, bold mine)
Now that is a library.
I have been able to enjoy these books, all but one, through the magic of online scans of the original editions. The exception is a the sore middle fingerof the above list, The Art of the Moving Picture, which I bought when it was re-published in 2000 with introductions by Martin Scorsese and more importantly the great film critic Stanley Kauffmann. Chapters have titles like “The Prophet-Wizard” and “The Substitute for the Saloon,” yet this in fact the first American book-length treatise on film aesthetics, a book of great, sometimes almost prophetic, insight into the new art form, with some of Lindsay’s more idiosyncratic preoccupations sprinkled in.
All right, now I’ve got something to work with.