Skip to content

Vachel who?

January 28, 2012 \pm\31 1:10 pm

Q. What do Vachel Lindsay and Bessie Smith not have in common?

A. The Oxford Book of American Poetry. She’s in it, he’s not.

Lindsay’s absence from the 1,200-page compendium perplexed me. I wrote to David Lehman, the editor, and asked why he chose to omit an early 20th century poet who was famous in his day.  Lehman didn’t reply.  I conducted further due diligence and discovered that Lindsay appears in neither The Norton Anthology of Poetry, a canonical volume, nor the new Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove. Twelve of Lindsay’s poems appear in The Mentor Book of Major American Poets¸ edited by Oscar Williams and Edwin Honig; Lindsay shares the pages with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,  Robert Frost and Marianne Moore, but that anthology was published in 1962.

Lindsay’s stature in the space of 50 years has declined dramatically.  A “Major American Poet” is now a quaint artifact. I maintain the man’s reputation deserves rehabilitation.

Lindsay viewed poetry as something more engaging than stanzas on a page and sought to resuscitate the oral traditions of the ancient Greek poets and medieval troubadours.  He was a performance poet long before performance poetry.  Lindsay’s public readings were interactive theater, with the poet encouraging audience participation. “The Congo,” his most famous poem, includes copious performance directions in the margins, perhaps for the benefit of others who might want to present the poem to listeners, as well as to enhance the experience of reading it on the page (e.g., “With a philosophic pause,” “With pomposity,” “With a great deliberation and ghostliness”; these directions are reminiscent of some of Erik Satie’s Dadaistic instructions for playing his compositions: “Light as an egg,” “With astonishment,” “Work it out yourself”).  Those who’ve seen Dead Poets Society may remember the students chanting key lines from “The Congo” in the cave where they hold their meetings: THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK, / CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A GOLDEN TRACK.

Lindsay earned his keep primarily through public readings. He incessantly toured the United States via foot, preaching his gospel of beauty and exchanging copies of his poems for room and board. On the road decades before Kerouac, Lindsay extolled the American spirit and idiom in his poetry. He was a predecessor of the Beats, a link between Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg.

Trying to survive in such a precarious manner ultimately broke Lindsay:  He drank a bottle of Lysol on Dec. 5, 1931.

MP3 recordings of Lindsay reading “The Congo,” “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” and four other poems are available for immediate listening on the University of Pennsylvania’s PennSound site: You will hear what has become a rarity:  a poet who utterly inhabits his work, who plays the English language as if it were a barroom piano.

In closing, I’ll post the first Vachel Lindsay poem I ever read. It’s in the Oscar Williams-edited anthology Immortal Poems of the English Language, which I bought for an English class in high school and replaced three years ago.


Factory windows are always broken.
Somebody’s always throwing bricks,
Somebody’s always heaving cinders,
Playing ugly Yahoo tricks.

Factory windows are always broken.
Other windows are let alone.
No one throws through the chapel window
The bitter, snarling, derisive stone.

Factory windows are always broken.
Something or other is going wrong.
Something is rotten—I think, in Denmark.
End of the factory-window song.



  1. January 28, 2012 \pm\31 5:36 pm 5:36 pm

    Vachel Lindsay had bad luck. His masterpieces — “The Congo” and “The Chinese Nightingale” — were based on ethnic stereotypes that aren’t acceptable any more. He meant well, and when he wrote that the black people come from savagery and are bound for glory, or that the Chinese immigrants are the tragic bearers of a suppressed greatness — I don’t think he meant that the rest of us are in a different condition. But there they are, the same stereotypes that have also been used much less kindly, and as Lindsay aged, on his way to madness and suicide, he developed anti-Semitic fantasies and sounded like any other bigot. Still, among his works there are some that would do any anthology proud. I particularly like “How Dulcinea del Toboso is Like the Left Wing of a Bird.”

  2. January 28, 2012 \pm\31 5:45 pm 5:45 pm


    To your point, he was a mentor to Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. DuBois liked his work, though not “The Congo.” I don’t see “The Congo” as a reflection of Lindsay’s attitudes, but as a persona poem told from the perspective of European explorers.

    And yes, I agree there are poems of his that would honor any anthology, like “William Booth Enters into Heaven” and “The Unpardonable Sin,” which has resonance today.

  3. Steven permalink
    January 29, 2012 \am\31 12:47 am 12:47 am

    Allen Ginsberg and his father Louis Ginsberg discuss Vachel Lindsay

  4. January 29, 2012 \am\31 8:44 am 8:44 am

    Thanks, Steven. I didn’t know about it. It made for interesting reading. At the bottom of the transcript, someone in the comments section posted a link to an article about Lindsay on Slate, another piece of interesting reading.

  5. January 29, 2012 \am\31 10:56 am 10:56 am

    No-one really reads Lindsay anymore, which is easy to understand but not to forgive. What Lindsay was, and what we need now, was a poet of the voice. He was in better control of the way a poem sounds (meter, assonance, consonance) than any other American poet. That these skills often got the best of him is irrefutable, but what he teaches us is that we have to remember the poem is a physical thing, that it is not merely about whatever the poem is saying, it is about how the poem is said. Without the merging of those two ways, the poem suffers, poetry suffers. I don’t expect there ever to be a redemption of Lindsay, but it would help poetry if people began to care about sound as much as Lindsay did.

  6. Christopher permalink
    January 30, 2012 \am\31 2:17 am 2:17 am

    Up to now he’s just been a name to me. This post prompted me to check him out, and his recording of “The Mysterious Cat” on PennSound has me bouncing up and down. I’ll be reading more of his poems. Thanks.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: