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Friday, January 31, 2020

Mislaid Poets: Vachal Lindsay

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Back in the day, Dover did a bunch of thrift editions for a buck or two, which I bought to shore up my literary education. They often had little opening essays and a brief sampler of an author. I picked up a Lindsay collection this way but never got around to reading him since a professor said he was a terrible poet.

Some critics do hold that opinion and don't anthologize him (or at least offer very little of his work). Other critics admire his ability to write "songs"--accessible lyrics with repetitions and choruses, with an ear toward sound. Poems like "Congo" included stage directions for how to read it aloud.

He was a popular literary phenomenon from about World War I to the Great Depression. Under the continued pressure of critics and the never-ending lecture circuit when he collapsed, he finally killed himself. What accounted for his successes and demerits?

Lindsay celebrated America, from every politician to the different "races" that made up the nation. He sought to spread the gospel of poetry by making it popular, musical, incantatory. Louis Untermeyer, whom W.S. Merwin read for his early poetry education, called Lindsay "a combination missionary and minstrel." He also wrote that the poet "made America resemble... a County Fair--"

every soul resident
In the earth's one circus tent

So Lindsay was trying, perhaps in a Whitmanian idealistic fit, to join and celebrate difference. This he pulled off to mixed results.

I'm going to go backwards from an unimpressive poem to his famed poem to shape the poet's reading to its best effect. Let's tackle "The Mysterious Cat" which we are directed to read by "Caterwaul[ing] in the Cat Dialect".

The poem has some humor in much the same manner of today's internet memes where the cat "scorn[s] the slave that brought her cream." So the "owner" is the slave. But really this is about as complex as this poem gets:

But catnip she would eat and purr
But catnip she would eat and purr
And goldfish she did much prefer--
Mew, mew, mew.

The rhyme is clever in that recreates the purr sound (and suggests the cat's fur), but the repetition serves no grand purpose--here only as one might hear in a song: simple to keep a general audience entertained, especially those who own cats. This possibly mirrors the poet himself. Maybe this is meant as a child's poem, but it's included with the rest. Plus, even if this were a child's poem, he presents "The Mysterious Cat" without mystery (unless you count the owner/slave inversion, but I'm not sure it makes a  case for the cat being "Mysterious").

 The persona of "The Chinese Nightingale: A Song in Chinese Tapestries" [a poem Untermeyer praised for its "texture"] calls the Chinese-American laundry man, "Friend Chang," to show us that he has a good, positive relationship with this man and that we the readers or audience should share this view. Nothing tries to erode the Chinese culture, but rather celebrates it. However, all of the images are stock--jade, junks, dragons, green and red firecrackers--and nothing particularly personalizes Chang (or the persona, for that matter). This is not a story, but a song, but one gets the sense that, much as he means to celebrate their difference, he hasn't actually had conversations with these people to get a sense for how these people view themselves. In a contemporary sense, this is like people who write about certain political factions but refuse to talk to them. It makes no sense except to exude moral superiority. I suspect that Lindsay means to dodge that accusation, but it's not here yet.

In "General William Booth Enters into Heaven (to be sung to the tune of "The Blood of the Lamb")", we see Lindsay's (or is it Booth's or the culture's) evangelistic spirit, the desire to convert. Everyone tries to convert (John Lennon's "Imagine" which imagines world peace if everyone became atheist, which every religion might lay claim to the same). My point isn't to argue the merits of having any particular religion or not, but rather that evangelism is an impulse shared by many.

All of this leads to the most problematic yet possibly and paradoxically his best poem, which fronts a curious paradox of its own: "The Congo". It was anthologized by Langston Hughes but reviled in the African American magazine, Opportunity. Some anthologists run from it while others see it as part of the dialogue about race.

The first part of the subtitle is where the poem goes down hill: "A Study of the Negro Race". This suggests a scientific or at least objective look at its subject. But why would the Congo signify the whole Negro Race? Might not a better title have been "a musical study of common African motifs" or something? This has the issues that "The Chinese Nightingale" has: stock imagery and a lack of personalization. The images here, though, are sharper and more vivid than those in "The Chinese Nightingale".

Like "General William Booth Enters into Heaven", the poem has an evangelistic purpose seen in it. One can see this in its second part of the subtitle and in the poem's structure:
(Being a memorial to Ray Eldred, a Disciple Missionary of the Congo River.)
1. Their Basic Savagery
2. Their Irrepressible High Spirits
3. The Hope of their Religion

There seems to be a progression from "Savagery" (which I cannot put anything but a negative spin on unless context suggests otherwise) to religion. Curiously, before the preacher enters, they already have another trait (which I can't spin as anything except as a positive): "Irrepresible High Spirits." Note that this is a "study" of seeing the subject's behavior in its nature, not of changing its nature as one might do in an experiment. Moreover, the "their" possessives suggest they already have these three traits. These ideas inform my final comment on what "The Congo" is. It might be informative as well to learn who "Ray Eldred" was and how he was intended to shape the poem (or not).

When I read the first three words ("Fat black bucks") and the first subtitle, I thought this would certainly be racist, but when you get to the end of the poem, you find out the bad "witch-doctors" are "lean" (which conveniently rhymes with "clean"). Fat and black are assonance, so likely Lindsay's only consideration here is in sound. What about "bucks"? Yes, it could equating with animals, yet at the end it separates "men and beasts." Also a buck might also also show strength, vigor and virility. But again, I suspect it's the consonance that attracts Lindsay to his choices (see again the simple "The Mysterious Cat").

See also how the Apostles are wearing "coats of mail." Why would they wear coats of mail in the twentieth century (in their day, they wore robes)? Oh, right. "Mail" rhymes with "unveil." For that matter why are the twelve apostles even there? In the faith they represent how bumbling believers like ourselves can become great men of faith. Maybe that answers why they're there--just not the coats of mail. Why the anachronism, Lindsay? Maybe because they represent a system of knighthood? Maybe one day it'll click.

The truly fascinating--even paradoxical--aspect of this poem is "The Congo" which is a country as a people, which is a country a place, which is a river, which is the entire African diaspora (according to the subtitle--does that include all of the human race, then?). The metaphor grows rich, gathers nutrients from the banks, and winds with the chorus:


This starts ominous in the first section, becomes a thing of beauty in the second, and a transformative process by the third. Its appearance in the third ushers in all of the changes. So the thing that needs to be reformed--"The Congo"--becomes refined by the thing that needs to be reformed: The Congo. How is that? Iron sharpens iron? Presumably, the preacher and the river (baptism) did it, but it remains a paradox as Lindsay doesn't elucidate or delineate all of the different Congos. Anyway, fun to ponder.

A more definitive interpretation awaits--from one who knows better the general usage of the terms one hundred years ago, and one who can fill in the context of the writer's own life. Maybe I was too generous, or not generous enough.

It is sad that the man had spent his life trying to grow the audience for poetry, worked himself to exhaustion, felt appreciation for his life's work dwindle, and decided to end it. Maybe he'd worked himself into a corner and had no other means to escape.

It's hard to say which poets impact which, but one can imagine that Lindsay may have had some influence on the Beats and Spoken Word poetry--not to mention bringing poetry to a wider audience. That's quite the dramatic pose in the above picture, and from the detailed description of how his poem was to be performed, that might have been a pose for reciting poetry.

I do think "The Congo" is worth studying although I can understand those who balk, especially without context (every time I enter the poem, I bristle a little until I read on). Untermeyer and other anthologists thought other poems worthy of study as well. Untermeyer dedicated twenty-one pages to the poet, which in his WWII text is equivalent to Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams combined. This may be because he'd lived through the era when Lindsay had his most impact on the culture.

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