Friday, April 22, 2016

Vachel Lindsay pours the owls upon us - Hail, all hail the popcorn stand

Come, let us be bold with our songs.  (Collected Poems, p. 24)

Vachel Lindsay was a performance artist, author of poems meant to be sung or chanted or danced.  They sound weird enough in performance but if anything are weirder alone on the page.  And they are bold.

Jaguar, cockatoot,
Loons, owls,
Hoot, Hoot…
Hail, all hail the popcorn stand…  (from “The Kallyope Yell”, p. 118)

Sometimes “bold” means so odd no one else would think to put such a line in a poem.  This one is “(To be given in the peculiar whispered manner of the University of Kansas ‘Jay-Hawk Yell’)” which is admittedly darn peculiar.  Perhaps it can be found on Youtube.  Lindsay wants “to teach the tune of the Jay Hawk Yell to the world.”

The literati of Great Britain do not seem to have realized it, but yell-writing is as steady an occupation of bright youths here, as the writing of sonnets was in England in the Elizabethan age.  I take it that “sonnet” is Sanskrit for “yell,” and “yell” will some day be Sanskrit for “sonnet.”  (p. 6)

More typical, and once a famous poem, is “The Congo,” a nine page chant written in protest of the treatment by the Belgians of the inhabitants of the Congo, which includes marginal instructions such as “Shrilly and with a heavily accented metre,” “With a great deliberation and ghostliness,” and “Like the wind in the chimney.”  The latter accompanies these lines:

Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.

Doug Skinner pointed me to some recordings of Lindsay. The wind in the chimney sounded different to him than it does to me. The exoticizing language makes the poem unperformable now – “A negro fairyland swung into view” – but it is easy to imagine how a performance could jolt an audience just learning about King Leopold’s crimes.

The performance poems were at their best when boldest, I thought, in imagery and language, when I wanted to whisper the poem aloud.  The scene here is that Jesus has just left the courthouse (?) and is miraculously healing the lame and blind; General William Booth, leader of the Salvation Army, is leading his troops to Jesus:

from General William Booth Enters into Heaven

  [Bass drum louder.]
Drabs and vixens in a flash made whole!
Gone was the weasel-head, the snout, the jowl!
Sages and sibyls now, and athletes clean,
Rulers of empires, and of forests green!

General Booth is playing the drum.  That’s the first line of the poem – “Booth led boldly with his big bass drum.”

Maybe it is too easy to pick out the strange lines – there are also plenty of dull ones – but they are so pleasurable.  Here is a children’s poem, one of dozens of Lindsay moon poems, Grandpa Mouse mythologizing the owls:

What Grandpa Mouse Said

The moon’s a holy owl-queen.
She keeps them in a jar
Under her arm till evening,
Then sallies forth to war.

She pours the owls upon us.
They hoot with horrid noise
And eat the naughty mousie-girls
And wicked mousie-boys.

So climb the moonvine every night
And to the owl-queen pray:
Leave good green cheese by moonlit trees
For her to take away.

And never squeak, my children
Nor gnaw the smoke-house door:
The owl-queen then will love us
And send her birds no more.  (in General William Booth Enters into Heaven, and Other Poems)

The line that kills me, that seems uniquely Lindsay’s, is “She pours the owls upon us.”  I kept reading Lindsay for these bold verbal leaps.

No comments:

Post a Comment