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,
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.