twisting and shouting: father of singing poetry

A lot of shouting. Vachel Lindsay was certainly no Longfellow, no Whittier. What was the fellow trying to prove anyway?

Lindsay could have told them. He thought of himself as an artistic originator whose “New Poetry” would, in short order, sweep all conventional forms of verse into the trash heap. As it turned out, he was wrong. Eighty years after Lindsay’s death, his influence on modern poets is negligible. His vivid imagery is admired, but people tend to shy clear of his chanted, syncopated rhythms, his frequent alliteration is deplored, and he is regarded generally as an iambic curiosity.

—Vachel Lindsay became famous in his day as a traveling bard whose dramatic delivery in public readings helped keep appreciation for poetry as a spoken art alive in the American Midwest. With their strong rhythms rooted in the American vernacular, revival meetings, the soap box, and the works of Edgar Allan Poe and William Blake, poems such as “The Santa Fe Trail,” “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight,” and “The Congo” have become a part of the nation’s literary heritage. Hazelton Spencer wrote in his introduction to Lindsay’s Selected Poems that the poet’s patriotism and his efforts to help Americans build the country of their ideals was unsurpassed in his lifetime. —Read More:

Yet Lindsay was an innovator, though not, as he prophesied, in poetry. He was the first of the traveling troubadours to gain national attention. The Woody Guthries, the Bob Dylans, the Pete Seegers, Don McCleans, and other minstrels owe him a debt for being the original voice of protest who performed on platforms before thousands, the man who smoothed the way for the horde of balladeers that flourished in the 1960′s from Berkeley to Princeton. But he was not revered by that folk-hippie crowd, for they, for the most part were not even aware of his trail blazing, if indeed they knew he ever existed.

Lindsay started out reciting protest verse- protest against the liquor traffic, against denial of the ballot to women- to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument, usually the guitar. Today, these issues are academic, but platform protesting is deeply ingrained in our culture in the form of the “dissent industry,” using Lindsay’s technique to oppose he draft and the war in Vietnam, to the Occupy movements, and even rap music on inner-city crime and poverty; a John Dewey type with the muckraker spirit of a Sinclair Lewis…


(see link at end) The Congo……Though the poem is superficial, it anneals two competing ideas about racial origins, ideas developed in the nineteenth century but still active within the racial discourses of the early twentieth century. To think of one overarching humanness, one root from which separate racial stems branched off –monogenesis — is to think of the potential (if far future) unity of all humankind, in spite of contemporary racisms and reductiveness. Monogenesis deemphasizes difference in favor of one striving human family. Lindsay claimed this was his opinion on racial matters. Polygenesis conceives of the races as separate species, separately evolved, with differential abilities . To speak of one race in its infancy and another as highly developed and to suggest the condescending uplift of one race by another was to stand on the seam between these positions, the social promise of monogenesis (“we” are all one humanity) abutted by the immediate polemical satisfactions of polygenesis (“they” are inferior to “us”). The self-congratulatory resolution inherent in this contradictory position (“we” help “them”) helped construct whiteness. “The Congo” claims to think of us all as one big human family, but its garish emphasis on extremes of menace and joy; both “irresponsible” or under the sway of a capricious, vengeful god, and its zoological fascination with the Other invoke a shadowy sense of polygenesis, in which Africans are permanently different, tainted, and, of course, very powerful in their inferiority. Far from being “hopeful” about those it claims to anatomize, “The Congo” goes far toward marking and blighting the “Negro Race” as a whole.

Because Lindsay believed his poems could he socially effective against racial prejudice, he was stunned to find that “My ‘Congo’ and ‘Booker T. Washington Trilogy’ have both been denounced by the colored people for reasons that I cannot fathom” . His correspondent, Joel Spingarn, one of the white founders of the NAACP, a noted editor at Harcourt Brace, and a strong supporter of black writers, tried to wise him up: “No colored man doubts your good intentions, but many of them doubt your understanding of their hopes. You look about you and see a black world full of a strange beauty different from that of the white world; they look about them and see other men with exactly the same feelings and desires who refuse to recognize the resemblance” . Lindsay must have his exotic, his primitive, his Other, based in different social histories and cultural outcomes, polygenesis sweetened by self-delusion. Spingarn speaks from a liberal monogenetic racial theory and from the idealistic center of a progressive integrationist ethos that wants to see “colored humanity” and “white humanity” as sharing in “a common civilization in which all distinctions of race are blurred (or forgotten) by common aspiration and common labors” .

In his numerous, even obsessive, discussions of what inspired “The Congo,” the poet’s explanations exceed the poem and reveal a rich collection of demonizing attitudes. …Read More:

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