A house, a poet, a parody in 1,000 words
March 22, 1990
I include this piece not for its arguments, which are worthy if banal, but for the verse. State government seldom inspires poetry, even parodistic poetry, and I confess I am rather proud of mine. I was not parodying Lindsay on Lincoln but then-governor James R. Thompson. Readers unfamiliar with Thompson's personality and career will be baffled, then bored by it, as they might by reading Pope today.
I developed one or two points in another piece on Lindsay himself, which can be read here.
For nearly thirteen years I lived within a block of Vachel Lindsay’s house at Fifth and Edwards in Springfield, but I visited it only once, as the place holds no happy lessons for anyone eager to make an honest living with words. Critical derision, money worries, creative paralysis, and eventual suicide could have been the subjects of the poems Lindsay didn’t write in his later years. It seemed to me ineffably sad that the only question most visitors to the house were interested enough to ask was, “Where did he drink the Lysol?”
The state’s Historic Preservation Agency has arranged to take title to the Lindsay house. It had been privately maintained for years by the not-for-profit Vachel Lindsay Association, but it is an old house and they are not a rich organization. The acquisition requires no cash outlay by the state, although it is expected that at least $100,000 will have to be spent soon to make necessary structural repairs.
The casual newspaper reader may conclude from this news that the state is more willing to spend money to house its ghosts than it does to house its living citizens. Others may remark—indeed, I will remark and save them the trouble—that spending money to make monuments to writers seems silly in a state that refuses to teach all its children to read. Sadly, the alternative to state intervention was probably the dilapidation and eventual ruin of the house, given the scant resources of the Lindsay Association. It says something about a city when it can’t spare the wealth required to preserve its own past; a city that would not spare Lindsay a stipend while he was alive is hardly likely to extend its hand now that he’s dead and can no longer embarrass it by parading his poverty.
A number of homes of Illinois writers are open to tours. Edgar Lee Masters’ place in Petersburg is one, as is Carl Sandburg’s place in Galesburg. A group of Oak Parkers is raising money to acquire one of Ernest Hemingway’s boyhood homes and open it as a museum and study center. None is a hot tourist attraction, but the preservation of their houses means that their occupants will be remembered at least, even if they are no longer read.
Alas, Lindsay may not even be remembered in his own house. There were strong hints that the state wanted the house less because the poet lived and wrote there than because it had been partly designed by the architect of Lincoln’s house on Eighth Street, and because its first occupant was the brother-in-law of Lincoln, who often visited there. Lindsay, I suspect, will be peddled to tourists as the author of “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” to make the connection perfect. But while opening the Lindsay house as a Lincoln site will do nothing to expand the public’s understanding of Lincoln, it seems certain to diminish the stature of Lindsay.
Governor James Thompson at least seemed prepared to give the poet his due. In announcing the planned transfer of ownership, the governor described Lindsay as “perhaps America’s most profound and innovative poet.” Most critics wouldn’t agree, but then poets’ reputations fluctuate almost as wildly as politicians. (The critics once dismissed Poe and Melville as nobodies too.) I was delighted to hear the governor advance any opinion on a literary matter. I had no idea he was well-read enough to come to even a mistaken judgment about one of our poets. On such an occasion I would have expected him merely to read from a puffed-up press release written in his name by a flack with an English major.
I rely on my colleagues in the statehouse press corps to reveal the governor’s views on Swinburne and Eliot; as a taxpayer I am all ears.
Lindsay would have been touched by the governor’s praise. The poet admired Altgeld, of course, but did not always think well of the other governors who sojourned in the mansion across the street. It is interesting to imagine what sort of poem might have resulted had Lindsay lived long enough to write, “Big Jim Thompson Walks at Midnight.” It might have gone like this:
His head is bowed.
He lived the people’s king.
Through four terms,
his genius to go blandly.
But conceals he the
Pain of hopes still-born
Who dreamt of Taft
but looked like John Candy.
He cannot sleep in that fine mansion now,
This almost, nearly, maybe Bush VP.
But roams Chicago’s rude distracting streets
A chastened, and chafing, judge.
So much promise, when young, to stand dismayed:
Build Illinois is trashed; his DCCA maimed.
Which state cop is so strong that he might bear
The deficits, the headlines, the weight gained?
When, coffers bared, the state’s voters in hope
Said, “Innovate!” he said, “Fake hiring freeze!
Enterprise zones! Bond sales! Samantha! Guy!”
Made heads from tails and packed the ICC.
He cannot rest if foreign trade pacts pend,
So packs in hope of merry junkets free,
Talking tax breaks and beans while bravely fends
Off minor MPs and Hong Kong tummy.
His ghost, ill-paid, haunts this cold mansion still.
“I’m not a clerk!” he once in pride declared,
While taxpayers, outraged, their tea-bags mailed
And Pat Quinn said, “Best count the silverware.”
At pig barns and airports and photo ops
None was as good, for they all lacked his creed:
Give jobs to the rich and promises the poor;
Run only to win, and never to lead.
I admit that Lindsay was a better poet, but then he had a more inspiring subject. I suppose that, had Lindsay written poems like that, his house would find itself without a champion, and thus be doomed to become another parking lot. That is why keeping the Lindsay house open is a more justifiable public expense than, say, maintaining the Executive Mansion across the street. The Lindsay house provides a lesson in what happens to a man who tries to make a living writing what he sees to be the truth, while the mansion hints at the rewards that await the skillful poet of lies. ●