No one reads Vachel Lindsay (1879–1931) these days, though were he around he’d probably prefer to read his poems to you himself. Lindsay believed in dramatizing his writings, referring to it sometimes as “singing poetry” and other times as “Higher Vaudeville”. He can be considered one of the progenitors of our slam-poetry and performance art.
He was born in Springfield, Illinois into a family devoted to the Cambellite sect of Christianity. He tried his hand at visual art but was told by painter Robert Henri that he was more of a poet. Soon after Lindsay was trying to peddle his poems to dubious passersby in the street. He saw his purpose on earth to preach his “Gospel of Beauty” to the people.
His fame rose in the 1910s due in large part to his ecstatic public recitals. He gained notice from the likes of William Butler Yeats and the then-nascent Poetry Magazine. Robert Frost said of him: “Some of these poets seem to get in a corner and gnaw their fingernails and try to get a dark corner, you know, and try to go crazy so they will qualify. There’s none of that in Vachel. He was just crazy in his own right; he did some of the strangest things.”
He paid tribute to many prominent people of his day, including Lincoln:
Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (In Springfield, Illinois)
It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down,
Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.
A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.
He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:—as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long,
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.
His head is bowed. He thinks of men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why;
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.
The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.
He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come;—the shining hope of Europe free:
A league of sober folk, the Workers’ Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.
It breaks his heart that things must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?
—from Congo and other poems (1915)
Lindsay caused a lot of controversy with his most famous poem, “The Congo” for its racism and for romanticizing “the noble savage.” He never understood the criticisms and spent considerable time defending himself against detractors like W.E.B. Debois. Listen to him reading “The Congo” and other poems here.
As with many poets he had a hard time making a steady living. He crisscrossed the country performing his poems to pay down his considerable debts in his last years until he lapsed into despondency and committed suicide by drinking a bottle of Lysol.
His last words were, “They tried to get me — I got them first!”
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