Saturday, April 23, 2016

Vachel Lindsay in Springfield and Biloxi - America's glories flaming high

They journeyed home, made young indeed,
    But opening the book of song
    Each poem looked so deep and long
They could not bear to start to read.  (from “The Visit to Mab,” Collected Poems, 221)

If the great quality of Vachel Lindsay is his imaginative power, his Collected Poems can be almost too powerful – too eccentric, too much of Lindsay at his most peculiar.  But also at his best, and his strangest is often his best.

He is a visionary poet, but a mild one.  He makes great claims for – see left – his high school in Springfield, Illinois, for example.  The UFOs that dominates the illustration is an incense censer, swung by angels over Springfield, with the high school glimpsed in the background.  Other illustrations depict buildings related to Abraham Lincoln and the state government.  No one else has ever attached so much mystical significance to Springfield, IL. 

No man may escape his bouncing infancy.  I do not expect to get ten feet from my childhood till I die.  (“Adventures While Singing These Songs,” 23)

Ah, now, metaphorically, now we’re getting somewhere.

Collected Poems ends with a section titled “Songs Based  on Cartoons, Bill-Boards, and American Hieroglyphics, and Motion-Pictures” that contains some of his dullest poems and also some of his best.  These are latish poems, form the early 1920s mostly.  A long Cleopatra fantasy, “A Song Based on Egyptian Hieroglyphics,” is almost unreadable.  “Billboards and Galleons (Inscribed to Stephen Graham” is full of terrific lines and passages.  Biloxi, Mississippi, “City of hearties, of birthday parties,” is invested with significance for some biographical reason, as are highway billboards:

They went like cliffs up to the sky,
America’s glories flaming high,
Festooned cartoons, an amazing mixture,
Shabby, shoddy, perverse and twistical,
Shamefully boastful,
Shyly mystical.  (p. 427)

Lindsay is not a gifted rhymer, that I’ll concede.  But he sure gets off some good lines.

Exaggerated Sunday papers,
Comic sheets like scrambled eggs,
And Andy Gump’s first-reader capers,
All on those billboards to the sky.

That “comic sheets” metaphor is one of my favorites.  Lindsay has another good poem titled “A Rhyme about an Electrical Advertising Sign”:

I look on the specious electrical light
Blatant, mechanical, crawling and white,
Wickedly red or malignantly green
Like the beads of a young Senegambian queen.
Showing, while millions of souls hurry on,
The virtues of collars, from sunset till dawn,
By dart or by tumble of whirl within whirl,
Starting new fads for the shame-weary girl,
By maggoty motions in sickening line
Proclaiming a hat or a soup or a wine…  (339)

And ending with a vision of the advertising signs making “a new Zodiac” and Broadway “mak[ing] one with that marvellous stair / That is climbed by the rainbow-clad spirits of prayer.”

On the one hand, Lindsay is the tramp poet obsessed with Johnny Appleseed; on the other, he is the Walt Whitman of advertising, singing the sign electric.  Very American.  Almost logically, then, one of the first writers to really understand motion pictures, which will be my last post on Lindsay.


  1. "Singing the the sign electric". groan... don't tell, me, it's ray bradbury, right! or could be walt whitman, i suppose. nah...

  2. What, you don't like my joke? I think of that as a Whitman reference.

    1. no, i DO like it. quite paronomastic, in a way; i always get a kick out of reading statements that have a literary connection, usually to shakespeare...

  3. I might like Lindsay best when he aimed for the bold simplicity of folk song, in poems like "The Sea Serpent Chantey" and "Simon Legree":

    His lamp blew out, but his eyes burned bright.
    Simon Legree stepped down all night—
    Simon Legree he reached the place,
    He saw one half of the human race,
    He saw the Devil on a wide green throne,
    Gnawing the meat from a big ham-bone...

    His earnestness sometimes makes him hard to read for me, and the racial material gets in the way. We tend to have difficulty now with writers who showed they liked black people by trying to talk like them. Only Gertrude Stein, of all people, got away with it (in "Melanctha").

    A strange case, Lindsay; ultimately a sad one, given his suicide.

  4. I can imagine a good Lindsay collection that is nothing but children's poems, ballads, and folk songs. Love the devil with his ham-bone.

    I'll have to keep an eye out for "Melanctha."

  5. "Melanctha" is one of the stories in "Three Lives." Richard Wright said Stein was the only writer who captured how his grandmother talked.

    Do you know Charles Ives's setting of "General William Booth"? It's one of my favorites.

  6. I sure do know the Ives version. Wonderful. The first time I really noticed Lindsay's name, I think.