Monday, April 8, 2013

National Poetry Month—Vachel Lindsay "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan"

The vastly under-appreciated Illinois poet Vachel Lindsay is a personal favorite and I am on something of a mini-crusade to restore his reputation.
His rhythmic, performance driven style should resonate with younger folks, if they ever got a chance to hear him after the self-appointed guardians of correctness banished him from respectability when his most famous poem, The Congo was declared officially racist and stripped from text books and anthologies with the relentless efficiency of a Stalinist purge.  The poet was an un-person in the blink of an eye.
But Vachel Lindsay could win any poetry slam he entered.
Lindsay was born in Springfield, Illinois in 1879, the son of a successful local doctor.  The family lived in a handsome home next to the Illinois Governor’s Mansion.  Young Lindsay, a dreamy lad, was immersed in his home town where Lincoln was ever-present.  He was there when the great handsome tomb was built and dedicated becoming a pilgrimage sight for aging veterans of the great war.  He knew Lincoln’s old haunts, from the old State Capital to the ramshackle building across the street where Abe hung out his shingle.  He knew men and women who personally were close to the Lincoln family—and drug store braggarts who claimed that they were.

The family were devout Campbellites—members of the Disciples of Christ, an idiosyncratic, but then very liberal Protestant denomination with roots in the Midwest.  Lindsay attended Hiram College, the leading Disciples institution in Hiram, Ohio.  After graduation he decided to pursue a career as an artist and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Particularly interested in pen-and-ink illustration, he went to the New York School of Art, now The New School in 1904.  In the city the Midwestern boy was exposed to the thriving Bohemia of Greenwich Village which was buzzing with new theories of art.  Inspired, Lindsay took up poetry, aiming to revive its connection to music and performance.

In 1905 he self-published a collection of poems called Rhymes To Be Traded For Bread which he began peddling on the street to support himself.  The next year, modeling himself of the roaming troubadours of the Middle Ages, Lindsay began the first of his tramps on foot, sleeping in barns and trading his poems for food.  Many an astonished farmer was entertained by Lindsay’s highly theatrical readings of his own works after dinner.  The first trip took him 600 miles from Jacksonville, Florida to Kentucky. In subsequent years he undertook more such tramps, from Hiram to New York, and from Springfield to New Mexico in 1912.

In between his rambles he returned to Springfield and regaled the citizens with elaborate plans to improve and beautify their city by becoming living works of art.  

Meanwhile his work caught the attention of Harriet Monroe who promoted his it along with that of two other Illinois poets, Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters in Poetry Magazine.  General William Booth Enters Heaven was published in the journal in 1913 and The Congo a year later.  Suddenly, Lindsay was famous.

As regular editions of his work went to print, Lindsay became a hugely popular performer of his own work on the Chautauqua circuit and the vaudeville stage.  He was famous for his theatrical presentations and use of his art as stage decoration and in printed material accompanying the performances.

Lindsay struggled to support himself.  He remained committed to living the life a troubadour, but took occasional odd jobs.  He lived in a Spokane, Washington hotel room through most of the 1920’s where he met and married 23 year old Elizabeth Connor in 1925 and began raising a family.  If he had trouble feeding himself, he now had the burden of more mouths—and expectations.  A Poetry Magazine life achievement award of $500 helped finance a move back to his old family home in Springfield in 1929.  

Despite publishing two books that year, the Stock Market Crash wiped out his small inheritance from his parents.  Ill and desperate he launched a six month reading and lecture tour in 1931 to raise money for his family.  Most of the income was eaten up by the expense of the tour.  Desperate and discouraged, Lindsay committed suicide in December of that year by drinking a bottle of Lysol.

Although once one of the most popular poets in the country,  Lindsay was never well regarded by the academic establishment.  Despite his writing on aesthetic theory, he left no literary followers and established no “school” of poetry, although he did encourage and mentor younger poets like Langston Hughes.  Despite is radical personal politics and strong support of Black aspirations, latter Black critics regarded his most famous poem, The Congo as naively racist. The once widely anthologized poem disappeared from high school and college texts.  Within a decade of his death, Lindsay seemed destined for obscurity.

His home town has kept the torch of his memory alive.  The Lindsay home has been restored and is open as a State Historic site.  If you ring the doorbell most afternoons a friendly docent will give you a personal tour of the home.

Lindsey is also a gift to us history geeks.  He reveled in the stories of the plain mid-western people from whom he sprang.  In today’s poem he celebrates The Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryan, who gave so many hope.  He captures the electricity with which the famous Cross of Gold speech which won him the Democratic Party nomination for President in 1896 was received.

I know this is a long piece, but it is a wonderful poem!  Read it aloud and find its rich cadences and savor its passion and vivid language.

Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan

In a nation of one hundred fine, mob-hearted, lynching, relenting, repenting millions,
There are plenty of sweeping, swinging, stinging, gorgeous things to shout about,
And knock your old blue devils out.

I brag and chant of Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,
Candidate for president who sketched a silver Zion,
The one American Poet who could sing outdoors,
He brought in tides of wonder, of unprecedented splendor,
Wild roses from the plains, that made hearts tender,
All the funny circus silks
Of politics unfurled,
Bartlett pears of romance that were honey at the cores,
And torchlights down the street, to the end of the world.

There were truths eternal in the gap and tittle-tattle.
There were real heads broken in the fustian and the rattle.
There were real lines drawn:
Not the silver and the gold,
But Nebraska’s cry went eastward against the dour and old,
The mean and cold.

It was eighteen ninety-six, and I was just sixteen
And Altgeld ruled in Springfield, Illinois,
When there came from the sunset Nebraska’s shout of joy:
In a coat like a deacon, in a black Stetson hat
He scourged the elephant plutocrats
With barbed wire from the Platte.
The scales dropped from their mighty eyes.
They saw that summer's noon
A tribe of wonders coming
To a marching tune.

Oh the longhorns from Texas,
The jay hawks from Kansas,
The plop-eyed bungaroo and giant giassicus,
The varmint, chipmunk, bugaboo,
The horn-toad, prairie-dog and ballyhoo,
From all the newborn states arow,
Bidding the eagles of the west fly on,
Bidding the eagles of the west fly on.
The fawn, prodactyl, and thing-a-ma-jig,
The rackaboor, the hellangone,
The whangdoodle, batfowl and pig,
The coyote, wild-cat and grizzly in a glow,
In a miracle of health and speed, the whole breed abreast,
The leaped the Mississippi, blue border of the West,
From the Gulf to Canada, two thousand miles long:-
Against the towns of Tubal Cain,
Ah,-- sharp was their song.
Against the ways of Tubal Cain, too cunning for the young,
The longhorn calf, the buffalo and wampus gave tongue.

These creatures were defending things Mark Hanna never dreamed:
The moods of airy childhood that in desert dews gleamed,
The gossamers and whimsies,
The monkeyshines and didoes
Rank and strange
Of the canyons and the range,
The ultimate fantastics
Of the far western slope,
And of prairie schooner children
Born beneath the stars,
Beneath falling snows,
Of the babies born at midnight
In the sod huts of lost hope,
With no physician there,
Except a Kansas prayer,
With the Indian raid a howling through the air.

And all these in their helpless days
By the dour East oppressed,
Mean paternalism
Making their mistakes for them,
Crucifying half the West,
Till the whole Atlantic coast
Seemed a giant spiders' nest.

And these children and their sons
At last rode through the cactus,
A cliff of mighty cowboys
On the lope,
With gun and rope.
And all the way to frightened Maine the old East heard them call,
And saw our Bryan by a mile lead the wall
Of men and whirling flowers and beasts,
The bard and prophet of them all.
Prairie avenger, mountain lion,
Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,
Gigantic troubadour, speaking like a siege gun,
Smashing Plymouth Rock with his boulders from the West,
And just a hundred miles behind, tornadoes piled across the sky,
Blotting out sun and moon,
A sign on high.

Headlong, dazed and blinking in the weird green light,
The scalawags made moan,
Afraid to fight.


When Bryan came to Springfield , and Altgeld gave him greeting,
Rochester was deserted, Divernon was deserted,
Mechanicsburg, Riverton, Chickenbristle, Cotton Hill,
Empty: for all Sangamon drove to the meeting-
In silver-decked racing cart,
Buggy, buckboard, carryall,
Carriage, phaeton, whatever would haul,
And silver-decked farm wagons gritted, banged and rolled,
With the new tale of Bryan by the iron tires told.
The State House loomed afar,
A speck, a hive, a football, a captive balloon!
And the town was all one spreading wing of bunting, plumes, and sunshine,
Every rag and flag and Bryan picture sold,
When the rigs in many a dusty line
Jammed our streets at noon,
And joined the wild parade against the power of gold.
We roamed, we boys from High School,
With mankind, while Springfield gleamed, silk-lined.
Oh, Tom Dines, and Art Fitzgerald,
And the gangs that they could get!
I can hear them yelling yet.
Helping the incantation,
Defying aristocracy,
With every bridle gone,
Ridding the world of the low down mean,
Bidding the eagles of the West fly on,
Bidding the eagles of the West fly on,
We were bully, wild and woolly,
Never yet curried below the knees.
We saw flowers in the air,
Fair as the Pleiades, bright as Orion,
-Hopes of all mankind,
Made rare, resistless, thrice refined.
Oh, we bucks from every Springfield ward!
Colts of democracy-
Yet time-winds out of Chaos from the star-fields of the Lord.

The long parade rolled on. I stood by my best girl.
She was a cool young citizen, with wise and laughing eyes.
With my necktie by my ear, I was stepping on my dear,
But she kept like a pattern without a shaken curl.
She wore in her hair a brave prairie rose.
Her gold chums cut her, for that was not the pose.
No Gibson Girl would wear it in that fresh way.
But we were fairy Democrats, and this was our day.

The earth rocked like the ocean, the sidewalk was a deck.
The houses for the moment were lost in the wide wreck.
And the bands played strange and stranger music as they trailed along.
Against the ways of Tubal Cain,
Ah, sharp was their song!
The demons in the bricks, the demons in the grass,
The demons in the bank-vaults peered out to see us pass,
And the angels in the trees, the angels in the grass,
The angels in the flags, peered out to see us pass.
And the sidewalk was our chariot, and the flowers bloomed higher,
And the street turned to silver and the grass turned to fire,
And then it was but grass, and the town was there again,
A place for women and men.


Then we stood where we could see
Every band,
And the speaker's stand.
And Bryan took the platform.
And he was introduced.
And he lifted his hand
And cast a new spell.
Progressive silence fell
In Springfield, in Illinois, around the world.
Then we heard these glacial boulders across the prairie rolled:
‘The people have a right to make their own mistakes....
You shall not crucify mankind
Upon a cross of gold.’
And everybody heard him-
In the streets and State House yard.
And everybody heard him in Springfield, in Illinois,
Around and around and around the world,
That danced upon its axis
And like a darling bronco whirled.


July, August, suspense,
Wall Street lost to sense.
August, September, October,
More suspense,
And the whole East down like a wind-smashed fence.
Then Hanna to the rescue, Hanna of Ohio,
Rallying the roller-tops,
Rallying the bucket-shops.
Threatening drouth and death,
Promising manna,
Rallying the trusts against the bawling flannelmouth;
Invading misers’ cellars, tin-cans, socks,
Melting down the rocks,
Pouring out the long green to a million workers,
Spondulix by the mountain-load, to stop each new tornado,
And beat the cheapskate, blatherskite,
Populistic, anarchistic, deacon-desperado.


Election night at midnight:
Boy Brian's defeat.
Defeat of western silver.
Defeat of the wheat.
Victory of letterfiles
And plutocrats in miles
With dollar signs upon their coats,
Diamond watchchains on their vests and spats on their feet.
Victory of custodians, Plymouth Rock,
And all that inbred landlord stock.
Victory of the neat.
Defeat of the aspen groves of Colorado valleys,
The blue bells of the Rockies,
And blue bonnets of old Texas, by the Pittsburg alleys.
Defeat of alfalfa and the Mariposa lily.
Defeat of the Pacific and the long Mississippi.
Defeat of the young by the old and the silly.
Defeat of tornadoes by the poison vats supreme.
Defeat of my boyhood, defeat of my dream.


Where is McKinley, that respectable McKinley,
The man without an angle or a tangle,
Who soothed down the city man and soothed down the farmer,
The German, the Irish, the Southerner, the Northerner,
Who climbed every greasy pole, and slipped through every crack;
Who soothed down the gambling hall, the bar-room, the church,
The devil-vote, the angel vote, the neutral vote,
The desperately wicked, and their victims on the rack,
The gold vote, the silver vote, the brass vote, the lead vote,
Every vote?...
Where is McKinley, Mark Hanna’s McKinley,
His slave, his echo, his suit of clothes?
Gone to join the shadows, with the pomps of that time,
And the flames of that summer's prairie rose.

Where is Cleveland whom the Democratic platform
Read from the party in a glorious hour?
Gone to join the shadows with pitchfork Tillman,
And sledge-hammer Altgeld who wrecked his power.

Where is Hanna, bulldog Hanna,
Low-browed Hanna, who said: ‘Stand pat’?
Gone to his place with old Pierpont Morgan.
Gone somewhere...with lean rat Platt.

Where is Roosevelt, the young dude cowboy,
Who hated Bryan, then aped his way?
Gone to join the shadows with might Cromwell
And tall King Saul, till the Judgment day.

Where is Altgeld, brave as the truth,
Whose name the few still say with tears?
Gone to join the ironies with Old John Brown,
Whose fame rings loud for a thousand years.

Where is that boy, that Heaven-born Bryan,
That Homer Bryan, who sang from the West?
Gone to join the shadows with Altgeld the Eagle,
Where the kings and the slaves and the troubadours rest. 

—Vachel Lindsay

No comments:

Post a Comment