“Corn-fed pious howler”
Springfield's house poet Vachel Lindsay
February 13, 1981
Liking, or at least admiring, the work of hometown poet and patriot Vachel Lindsay is nearly a civic duty in Springfield. I never have, although one would have to be even more callous than I am to not respond to the poignancy of his struggles on behalf of verse.
I wrote at length about Mark Harris's fictionalized biography of Lindsay here.
“Ai Qing said that his favorite American poets, whom he had read in French, were Walt Whitman, Vachel Lindsay, and Langston Hughes.” Would Ai Qing, Chinese poet of some reputation, visiting New York recently, lie to The New Yorker? His Lindsay is our Lindsay, Springfield’s Lindsay, the man James Dickey called “foolish, half-ta1ented, half-cracked Lindsay,” our midwestern troubador, our movie that remains to be made.
In the U.S., of course, Lindsay’s ghost tramps the anthologies. He is merely one more stick used to beat the love of poetry out of high schoolers. The publisher of his newly collected letters allows that Lindsay is regarded (he was too polite to say “dismissed”) as a “secondary poet.” Lindsay lives on abroad, though, in the heads of readers like Mr. Ai who, like Lindsay, love an imagined America. His critical biography was written by an Englishwoman, his letters edited by a Frenchman, his memory tended by Chinese gardeners. He is less read by Americans who have the disadvantage of being able to test Lindsay’s vision against reality. This has allowed some Lindsay partisans to recall Matthew’s lines about the fate of prophets in their own countries. Which may make him interesting, but, I must reply, it doesn’t make him good.
The poet was born in Springfield in 1879 and died here in 1931. He is buried here, and the town has honored him by naming a school after him, along with a bridge and a subdivision, and putting up a sign pointing the way to his grave. People in Springfield don’t know his poetry any better than any other Americans but they know he was famous once and, more impressive, knew writers like Sinclair Lewis and Carl Sandburg who were even more famous than he was.
I grew up in Springfield and was schooled here. Like most people my age and younger, I did both without Lindsay’s name or work leaving any impression on my otherwise very impressionable sensibility. It was later that I became fascinated upon learning that not only had some damn fool written serious verse with Springfield as its inspiration, or even that another damn fool had actually printed it, but that a veritable legion of other damn fools had actually paid money to read it.
Beyond that, I wanted to know about Lindsay because I wanted to know about myself, and thought that maybe, if I retraced the ways the town had shaped the boy, I could see some outline of myself. I read some books, looking for clues. But in neither his work nor his life was I able to find any kinship closer than our common post office address. He is a fellow townsman, yet utterly strange.
How, for example, are we to take the message of the sign that now stands outside his house at 603 S. Fifth St.? The one that announces the house as the home of the “author of children’s fantasies and animal poems, designer of symbolic censers, trees, flowers and butterflies.” Picture-postcard poems, products of what Dickey calls Lindsay’s “self-enchanted, canny, bulldozing and somehow devilish innocence,” his “high-minded foolishness.” To someone of my age, that sign recalls Haight-Ashbury, another house in which canny innocence proved insufficient against the raging world. There was a lot of the hippie in Lindsay, and not his best part, so I cringed when, in his foreword to his father’s letters, Nicholas Cave Lindsay said of him, “He did his thing.”
As noted, I have read Lindsay and listened to him recite his own works on some remarkable recordings made in 1931 in New York. At those sessions, Lindsay forced himself to do one more time the poem he told friends he “abhorred” as early as 1922 thanks to audiences who demanded it until he worried about being “‘Congoed’ into permanent fury.” Critics such as Ann Massie and Marc Chenetier (the latter the man who edited the Letters) keep reassuring us that there is something serious, something organized keeping those butterflies aloft, that, contrary to appearances, Lindsay was not merely “a jingleman and corn-fed pious -howler” (as Chenetier memorably puts it). But pretensions to profundity are not enough to correct the first, harsh judgment formed after wading for the first time through a work like “Flower Fed Buffaloes”: Vachel Lindsay was a wimp.
I mean, I was a sensitive boy. I used to write poems. I grew out of it. I thought everybody did.
Reading Lindsay is like sharing the company of a bright but spoiled child; one doesn’t read him so much as one humors him. But I could forgive him his censers and his butterflies if he weren’t so happily ignorant. Ignorance in a doctor’s son—in someone who could so easily correct it, in other words—is a moral failure. It was Lindsay’s single conventional vice. If his poems soar it’s because they aren’t tied down to anything real. Lindsay never knew anything about the things he wrote about. He only felt, and mistook his “indiscriminate responsiveness” (Dickey again) for knowledge. The result is that this poet who prided himself on his ability to see into the soul of things was the most superficial of poets. He was a singer of surfaces. He was right about a lot of important things, in spite of that, like film and the new electronic communications. Chenetier quotes him saying, “We are sweeping into new times, in which the eye is invading the province of the ear and in which pictures are crowding all literature to the wall.” And again: “Edison is the new Gutenberg.” He wrote that in 1915. But what prodigies of panning one has to do to collect these nuggets. “Please,” I say when reading him. “Please make sense.”
We don’t hope much any more for redemption, least of all through Art, which is another reason why Lindsay, the busy improver, seems a bore today. But if Lindsay no longer interests us as an artist he remains a fascination as a man. That’s why I read his Letters. They were published in 1979, 199 letters chosen from all of the thousands he wrote. Taken as a whole they may or may not reveal Lindsay’s unified vision of the world, as the editor hopes. They do, as he also says, “poignantly illustrate the despair borne of incomprehension that gradually pervaded a man of trust and hope and reduces a face to a mere mask.”
The young Lindsay was blasting Springfield for its Babbitry before there was such a word. But even here, in the city in which he pinned so much of his hopes, he was ignorant. About his Golden Book of Springfield (his Koran, he called it), he wrote in 1913 to a California poet named Sterling: “Pity Springfield. Do not pity me. The poor little town is in for it . . . . Now I will see what the angels can do—each with a censer in its hand. Springfield shall be whipped by these angels and sent to Sunday School like a naughty child. That is—I hope so.” Lindsay was forever reforming Springfield; Springfield never minded. Like Dickey says, the guy had gall.
Five years later, to Katherine Lee Bates about the same book: “You do not know how utterly helpless I feel when I am treated like a baby politically . . . . I have lived in a state capital and heard the radical lobby talk over their deals for years. I have seen them, in victory and defeat. I know ten times as much practical politics as the average college president . . . I by no means mean that I am infallible in these political matters. I only mean I have been passionately interested in them . . . ” His friends were interested too, Single Taxers, mostly. Nobody listened to them either. Lindsay was passionately interested in the East too, but he always had trouble keeping China and Japan straight in his mind.
In 1920 Lindsay resigned from the Springfield Rotary Club, saying that its pro-business biases were offensive. The question his letter of resignation provokes in me is, how could he have joined it in the first place? What weird hopes did he hold for it? Lindsay was always taking things at face value, believing words that no one else believed, always paying debts he didn’t owe. He spoke in 1913 of being “ruthless with Springfield.” How? What weight did he think his outrage carried? He was all velocity and no mass, a harmless ray that penetrated the Rotarian hides of his home town without puncturing it.
His ignorance could be embarrassing, as Dr. Walter Daniel showed in his 1979 article in the NAACP journal The Crisis titled, “Vachel Lindsay, W.E.B. DuBois and The Crisis.” He had been sickened by the race riots in Springfield in 1908. He fancied himself a friend of the black man; indeed, his most popular single work was “The Congo.” Black leaders denounced the poem, which. confused him so much he petulantly asked that they read it again. DuBois, writing in The Crisis in 1916, said, “Mr. Vachel Lindsay knows two things, and two things only, about Negroes: the beautiful rhythm of their music and the ugly side of their drunkards and outcasts.” He was naive and condescending, as when he explained one of his poems (in a letter not in the Letters) by saying that he’d tried “to leave out stupidity in the plot as no longer essential in attempting work tropical and strictly Afro-American.”
This obtuseness on race reveals itself in the letters. In 1919 Lindsay invited a friend to “take up Negro church-going in earnest” with him, and to meet a Mr. Gibbs of Springfield, “the soot-black lawyer” whom Lindsay had “simply multiplied...by a thousand and made the Congo.” “A Negro,” he went on, “is more luxurious than Assurbanipal and more fun than a goat. He is also the only living creature who understands religion.”
There is more, but this is enough to prove DuBois right. In the end, he knew as little about himself as any of his other subjects. There was more Springfield in Lindsay than Lindsay knew. ■