Thursday, April 21, 2016

He bought his rhymes with bread - Vachel Lindsay preaches the Gospel of Beauty

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.


  1. do you know stephen graham? another road/poet/author. he and lindsay hiked in the rockies together for a week once. graham wrote a book about it which i can't remember the name of(i know you like that) but was pretty good...

    1. I don't think Graham was a poet; he wrote books about tramping in Tsarist Russia. Also author of A Private in the Guards about WWI.
      There's also W.H. Davies, author of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, who only took to poetry when he lost a leg hoboing, if I remember rightly.
      I read an essay about a couple of more recent British tramp-writers. If I can find it I'll give info on them.

    2. Davies wrote three books on his travels; very enjoyable, too... and i 've read some of grahams books, including the russian one; and i would almost swear i've read some of his poetry sometime...

    3. and tx for the reference to "Private"; i'll have to check that out...

    4. darn. i checked the prices on it & it's considerably over what i can afford at the moment...

    5. if you don't mind reading online.

  2. I only know Graham as a footnote in Lindsay's story. The book is Tramping with a Poet in the Rockies. Browsing, it has plenty of Lindsay in it.

    The tramping poet is for some reason a later tradition in the U.S. than in Britain, a nation of heroic walkers.

    1. There aren't many places to walk to, if you see what I mean, in the UK. There's a tradition of homeless down-and-out poets - Paul Potts, John Gawsworth, Dylan Thomas some of the time, but that's a slightly different thing.

    2. I guess a true tramp is not exactly trying to get anywhere.

  3. Whenever I wander into a used book store, I first go to the poetry shelf, and invariably I see an old volume of Lindsay. I've been picking them up and reading a few poems at random ("Why I Voted the Socialist Ticket" was the first of these random poems I read). At some point I will actually carry one of these volumes to the cashier's desk and then home.

    Erm, I mean, yes! Write more about Lindsay.

  4. Also, when we were lately in D.C., we saw a poet with a writing desk and typewriter in the metro, giving away poems. There was a pretty good line at his desk, but we were in a rush so I didn't get a sample. I don't know if the young poet promised to be neat, truthful, civil and on the square.

    1. rigid strictures for a proselytizing poet! but if he was otherwise, he'd probably get rousted...

  5. Lindsay was once a kind of popular writer. Old books of his are everywhere, so common as to be cheap.

    I am glad to hear the tradition lives on. The funniest rule in Lindsay's lost, funniest to me, is his strict meal schedule.

  6. Harry Kemp was another in the grand tradition of the tramp poet. He was popular in Greenwich Village, back in the 'teens.

    I'm glad you found Lindsay's "Collected Poems"; that's a pretty one, with all those strange, intense drawings. Have you found his "Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty"? He wrote about how his poetry for bread experiment went (not surprisingly, not always well).

    And do you know the recordings he made at Columbia in 1931? Here they are:

  7. Ah, I didn't even think to look for recordings! Of course there are recordings. Many thanks.

    I was tempted by Adventures While Preaching... but did not read it, although it is tiny. "Kansas, the Ideal American Community!" Mmmm.