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Proudly Present Bard:
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Vachel Lindsay, 1928

Vachel Lindsay !

featured works:

And be sure to check out iPoet contributing editor, Chris Hayden's fantastic "answer song" in response to Vachel Lindsay titled: "Kongo Groove"

And just what is an Answer Song: "Years ago they used to put out what they called answer songs: For example, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters put out Work With Me Annie, and somebody answered with Dance With Me Henry." by Chris Hayden
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Bio: Born November 10, 1879, in Springfield, Illinois, USA, Nicholas Vachel Lindsay lived with his parents, graduating Springfield High School and attending Hiram College in Ohio. However young Vachel was "plagued with visions," and dropped out of school in turn of the century 1900 to study at the Art Institute of Chicago for three years, transferring in 1903 to the New York School of Art.

What happened next? (Excerpts from Modern American Poetry): ...His father, a doctor, supported Lindsay in his early writing career, when he was able to bring in little or no income from his work. With his family Vachel Lindsay was also able to travel in Europe and in China. In the summers of 1906, 1908, and 1912, Lindsay took walking tours from Florida to Kentucky, from New York City to Ohio, and from Illinois to New Mexico. On these tours he developed his own "rules of the road," stipulating chiefly that he barter for room and board by offering an evening's entertainment--reading his own poetry--or a half day's work the next morning...

Lindsay envisioned poetry fundamentally as a peformance, as an aural and temporal experience. Moreover, poetry was not meant simply to be read or even recited, but to be chanted, whispered, belted out, sung, amplified by gesticulation and movement, and punctuated by shouts and whoops. Lindsay's performances of his poetry were legendary...

Nevertheless, Lindsey's Congo is considered by some critics to be racist in tone, and iPoet deliberated mightily before deciding in favor of Vachal. We consulted the iPoet "board" (current listed poets).

Sparrow (who had actually first suggested Lindsay to us) had this to say, "He is a completely unique American poet, who (maybe anticipated) rap music, also he was a socialist who traveled where ever his ingenious and mercurial feet would take him. Allen Ginsberg wrote a great poem (Kaddish 44) about him. I used to read "the Congo" aloud in the schoolyard in high school."

We asked Chris Hayden (who in repsonse to Lindsey would go on to compose a brilliant "answer song" of his own, Kongo Groove ) what he thought. Mr. Hayden's considered reply:

"I feel that a guy who walked across the country performing and distributing copies of his poetry in exchange for bed and board belongs on your site unless he was advance man for Adolph Hitler.

The background material you sent me also indicates that the guy was no racist.

The poem itself? I suppose parts of it could be considered racist, but so could most gangsta rap. If there is any controversy, it might be because Lindsay was white--but disallowing a white author to write on black subjects/ in black idioms means there can be no mingling and cross fertilization of voices--and you can't stop it anyway.

I think (treading on dangerous ground here, and espressing something that as a poet I always get mad at other people for doing to my work) Vachel was trying as well as could - a white poet from Springfield, Illinois - to write in a voice similar to Jean Toomer in CANE or Langston Hughes's early work for example. The 1910's and 1920's were a time of great appreciation or appropriation of African and African American voices, subjects, etc in the arts, especially in the music--ragtime, jazz, dance etc--see Dixieland, New Orleans Jazz, the Blues, Louis Armstrong, and Josephine Baker. It seems he was caught up, excited, in the grip of this spirit when he did it. I think Hart Crane did a short one like it called "Black Tambourine".

If Lindsay fails in any way, it is because he spoke in the context of his times and because of the limited, sensationalized ideas/pictures of Africa or Africans.

...I don't know if you know comix, but one of my favorites is Wil Eisner's THE SPIRIT. It ran from 1940-1954 and featured a Buckwheat-like character named Ebony White. Though considered a parody today next to BOONDOCKS, Ebony was, for the times, a sympathetically depicted character. To sum up, I'd say give him the page. He is part of the American literary canon.

...Let me go you one further. I reread 'The Congo" last night. One method of composing poetry is comparable to making a mosaic (mosaicry?). Often the poet will first set his form, and then select and reject his words, the mosaic pieces or tesserae, placing them where needed.

I would have used different words in places than Lindsay, probably retitled a couple of sections and maybe changed up the ending. Maybe. I am still getting aftertastes and possible multiple nuaces on some of his vamps that is the mark of great poetry.

But, further, let me say this. I have worked very hard for years to get the rhythm he had here; the rhythm which in this case serves as the frame of the mosaic.

He, like Gershwin, like Elvis, like Jerry Lee Lewis (hear riff), like the Stones and others, had got hold of that jazz/blues/gospel style ryhthm.

I don't think young rappers are copying or expanding on Linsay -- I had heard the name but never read any of his stuff that I know until now. But in his poetry, he was partaking of a rhythmic stream of consciousness, soul canon, songbook, whatever you will, that they are drinking from now.

As I said, this is a voice, as you could tell by my work, that I have worked to use. To see that somebody was working in it almost 80 years ago is gratifying, and shows I am on the right track, and in mining in the vein of a well-settled school of literature. "

Amen to that, Chris.

Here is Chris Hayden's fantastic answer song in response to Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo". He calls it, "Kongo Groove".

Here's The absolute best online compilation of Vachel Lindsay poetry,
mirrored from this fine site.

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