Late in ’59, Eleanor Ruggles’ biography of Vachel Lindsay was published and there was briefly a revival of interest – most of it doubtful – in Lindsay as a chanting performing poet. Two other biographical books had been published, a first by Edgar Lee Masters in 1935, a second in ’52, a fictionalized biography, by a then-young Mark Harris.
This new book brought out Kenneth Rexroth and Granville Hicks, veterans by then of the political-poetry wars. Rexroth had not much good to say about where Lindsay fit: naively American, a dreamer of the (false) American Dream. Today, Rexroth guessed, Lindsay would be a “mildly rightish liberal, a common-sense New Dealer,” essentially a patriotic Midwestern populist, “hopelessly naïve.” The poetry had been “not very good.”
For Hicks, Lindsay stood against – or ran differently from or parallel to – modern poetry. “He was enthusiastic and hopeful; the moderns are secretive and dark.” Yet Harriet Monroe published him in 1913, and Yeats deemed him “the great native American genius.” When Monroe printed VL’s poem about the Salvation Army’s General Booth (“General Booth Enters into Heaven”) in Poetry she made sure to include the parenthetical instructions for bass drum, banjo, flute, etc., that made it a poem with a difference: one meant to be chanted, sung, performed.
In ’59 he was “eccentric and faintly embarrassing.” He’d literally walked around the Northwest in the first years of the 20th century, provisioned with a pack of poems and no money. He traded poems and talk for food, and announced to astonished citizens of small towns in Oregon and Washington State that “I am the sole active member of the ancient brotherhood of the troubadours.” In the non-Poundian sense of the term, he might have been right at that moment.
Lindsay made performance poetry – poetry printed as a score for chanted performance – something Rotary Clubs and high-school assembly attendees knew as part of the modern American poetic landscape. It’s NOT that – as Time mag put it in its November 23, 1959 issue – Vachel Lindsay was out of date and that “chanting about the heartland seemed naïve to readers caught by the puzzles of The Waste Land.” No. The trick would be whether we could ever – in light of these dismissals at the end of the 50s – see that the Eliotic collaged dramatic monologues and snatches of ritual on the one hand and the boomlay-booming scored chants of another Midwesterner were actually part of the same movement.
The Vachel Lindsay PennSound page has a few crucial recordings, including "The Congo" and one of my favorites, "The Mysterious Cat."
sources: Rexroth in The Nation, Nov 28, 1959, p. 404; Hicks in Saturday Review Nov 21, 1959, p. 39. Ruggles’ bio is called The West-Going Heart (Norton).