Monday, April 2, 2012

National Poetry Month—Vachel Lindsay "The Curse of Kings"

Vachel Lindsay striking a pose in one of his dramatic poetry readings, 1928.

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.

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.

Today’s poem represents Lindsay’s angry repugnance at the carnage of World War I.

A Curse for Kings

A curse upon each king who leads his state,
No matter what his plea, to this foul game,
And may it end his wicked dynasty,
And may he die in exile and black shame.

If there is vengeance in the Heaven of Heavens,
What punishment could Heaven devise for these
Who fill the rivers of the world with dead,
And turn their murderers loose on all the seas!

Put back the clock of time a thousand years,
And make our Europe, once the world’s proud Queen,
A shrieking strumpet, furious fratricide,
Eater of entrails, wallowing obscene

In pits where millions foam and rave and bark,
Mad dogs and idiots, thrice drunk with strife;
While Science towers above;--a witch, red-winged:
Science we looked to for the light of life,

Curse me the men who make and sell iron ships
Who walk the floor in thought, that they may find
Each powder prompt, each steel with fearful edge,
Each deadliest device against mankind.

Curse me the sleek lords with their plumes and spurs,
May Heaven give their land to peasant spades,
Give them the brand of Cain, for their pride's sake,
And felon's stripes for medals and for braids.

Curse me the fiddling, twiddling diplomats,
Haggling here, plotting and hatching there,
Who make the kind world but their game of cards,
Till millions die at turning of a hair.

What punishment will Heaven devise for these
Who win by others’ sweat and hardihood,
Who make men into stinking vultures’ meat,
Saying to evil still “Be thou my good”?

Ah, he who starts a million souls toward death
Should burn in utmost hell a million years!
--Mothers of men go on the destined wrack
To give them life, with anguish and with tears:--

Are all those childbed sorrows sneered away?
Yea, fools laugh at the humble christenings,
And cradle-joys are mocked of the fat lords:
These mothers’ sons made dead men for the Kings!

All in the name of this or that grim flag,
No angel-flags in all the rag-array--
Banners the demons love, and all Hell sings
And plays wild harps. Those flags march forth to-day!

—Vachel Lindsay

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