father of the beats

There was decidedly an air of wildness about him….At first Lindsay attracted little attention. Then, in 1913,as his poetic scope widened, he began intoning his verse in ragtime rhythm, in what he called “Higher Vaudeville” presentations. He was convinced that Americans “hate and abhor poetry,” and so he sugar coated the pill to get a public. He developed a bouncy routine, totally unlike the ordinary, tame poetry reading; it was half revivalist and half jazz in style.

—Speaking of Vachel Lindsay… Helen Sewell Johnson, one of the funniest and sharpest and kindest people I know, passes along a story of Lindsay, as follows:
Lindsay visited Agnes Scott College for a reading before I was there and I still remember one of my professor’s description of the event. The college president at the time was a very small man, a Presbyterian minister, Dr. Gaines. He gave a flowery introduction to Lindsay and then pronounced, “and now, I present Mister Watson.” Lindsay pounced up to the podium, shaded his eyes, assumed a semi-squatting position, peered from one side of the hall to the other and shouted, “Paging Sherlock Holmes.” She further described his “lion’s mane of yellow hair,” which he flung about as he danced around the podium performing “The Congo.” The audience, I gather, was transfixed.—Read More:http://jacket2.org/category/commentary-tags/vachel-lindsay

(see link at end)…Early in 1914, having heard a young and unknown poet perform in Chicago, W. B. Yeats approached him and asked, “What are we going to do to restore the primitive singing of poetry?” That young poet was Vachel Lindsay. Yeats’ recognition of something unusual in the style of the performance was the beginning of a strange episode in American literary history….My own interest in Lindsay, therefore, seems a bit perverse even to me. I find the mystery of his ascendency—in the 1920s he was arguably the most visible poet in America, whose performances were witnessed, and applauded, by thousands, Yeats among them—and his complementary disappearance irresistible.( T.R> Hummer)…Read More:http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/classic_poems/2011/12/the_mystery_of_vachel_lindsay.html

He explained that his audiences were thus hoodwinked into thinking they were seeing a Vaudeville act and were entertained. “And yet,” Lindsay insisted, “I try to keep it to a real art.” Lindsay’s “New Poetry” caught on, his recitals became popular, and he made three successful cross-country tours. To see the poet striding and leaping about on the platform, gesticulating like a Billy Sunday gone mad and at the same time nasally chanting his verse to the tinkle of a guitar or the beat of a drum, was more than startling. Audiences everywhere were stunned.

(see link at end)…In 1913 Poetry magazine featured Lindsay’s poem “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” which helped establish his reputation as a serious literary artist. The poem was included in many anthologies and resulted in the first trade publication of Lindsay’s poetry, the book “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” and Other Poems, a collection which Louis Untermeyer called a “curious blend of athletic exuberance, community pride and evangelism” in his book The New Era in American Poetry. This exuberance, pushed too far, tends to detract from some of poems in this collection, according to Untermeyer. He maintained, “His voice gets beyond his control; in his haste to deliver his message, he has no time to choose sharp and living words; he takes what comes first to hand—good, bad, indifferent—and hurries on. . . . His aim is commendable but his volleys are erratic. In his anxiety to bang the bell, he sometimes shoots not only the target but the background to pieces.” William Dean Howells, writing in Harper’s, was more impressed with these poems that rang like songs. “The songs begin their music with the cymbal clash and bass-drum boom of the fine brave poem, ‘General William Booth Enters into Heaven,’” Howells wrote. “That [poem] makes the heart leap; and the little volume abounds in meters and rhymes that thrill and gladden one. Here is no shredding of prose, but much of oaten stop and pastoral song, such as rises amid the hum of the Kansas harvest fields and fills the empyrean from the expanses of the whole Great West. There is also song of solemn things everywhere, civic things, social things, and all of it, so far as we know, good.”…

…The year after this book appeared came another trade volume, “The Congo” and Other Poems. One of Lindsay’s most famous poems, the title piece has a rhythmic structure based on African-American speech rhythms and jazz. Though Lindsay believed jazz was a decadent art form, he used it in his poems to faithfully relate the regional lore of the South. He recited the poem in a variety of voices ranging from a loud, deep bass to a whisper. A Springfield Republican reviewer saw the publication of “The Congo” and Other Poems as the single most interesting event in the American literary scene. “All in all there is an intense and vivid Americanism in these poems—a racy, pungent, authentic note, which, if he fulfills the last measure of his [artistic] promise, will make Mr. Lindsay a prophet of American life,” the reviewer explained. Read More:http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/vachel-lindsay

Vachal Lindsay’s popularity as a platform balladeer continued into the 1920′s; but the patriotic, “heartland” verses were becoming passe. His poetic powers had waned long before, for his most significant poems were all written before World War I. He was quite versatile though, and wrote widely on film, and developed the idiom of experimental poetry, but was unable to translate this into meaningful income. He also suffered from fragile health as well as depression.

When the Great Depression struck, his day was over; people had no use for the frivolties of his “Higher Vaudeville.” He was forgotten, just as he is forgotten today. In 1931 he died the hard way, swallowing lye.

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