like the idea of Vachel Lindsay rather than the practice of reading his work, or even listening to it, the often made apology of some of his defenders who maintain that his works are meant to be performed, not scanned in anthologies. As Lindsay was entranced by song and its subversive adeptness of slipping past a censoring intellect and infest and infect the soul with all manner of radical and subtle emotional stirrings, his work was meant to be exclaimed and dramatized for their power to be fully felt and fairly surmised.
Fair enough, I say, but too often what I find in his work is the cadence of a creaky gate swaying in a steady wind, or a swing rattling on its chain. He seeks to grasp the moment of when he discovers the unchanging difference between right and wrong; he wants to create an emotional response in the reader that will not tolerate injustice nor stand for suffering; he wants the poetry of the period to influence the listener to cease with their odious doses of bad faith and to instead live genuinely, fully, not taking a breath nor another life for granted. All this is well and good, but to me it is hokey. His task was to grant everyday things and ordinary lives a dignity they hadn't been given before, but in doing so he manages to add yet another thick layer of metaphorical tonnage that keeps us further from the metaphysical presence he is longing for.
I have a difficult time even considering his writings the evidence of a fevered imagination setting up and alternative universe, of a sort, in his quest to unearth and reveal the true nature of the everyday. The Congo, I think, is racist bombast, pure and simple, an example of a well-intentioned progressive in spirit trying to pay homage the culture of a people whom whites kidnapped and subjugated with slavery; he comes off as condescending and half baked. I think he only added to the problem he wanted to remedy. There is a difference between VL attempting to write something he called a history of the negro race and Duke Ellington, a black composer and intellectual, taking ownership of his own ancestry , traditions and , most importantly, the stereotypes of his race and culture and creating some astounding art. Good though his intentions were, VL's poem is paternal , presumptuous and racist by attitude and application; there is the fundamental assumption that Africans and those of African descent were incapable of telling their own story. Ellington, along with a good amount of the work of Langston Hughes coming out the Harlem Renaissance redefined the terms. VL's attitude is simply hard to sit through without a session of exaggerated defenses and hearty condemnations. Spirited debate is fine, of course, but it seems to me that Ellington's "jungle music" is the superior work of art becomes the genius, verve and timelessness of the composer and his singular orchestra's work puts one in the center of the music, not a field of footnotes and gutter sniping. The seeming irony of a black artist using the world "jungle" to describe his own music seems irrelevant at best.
I understand the interest Allen Ginsberg had in Lindsay, since VL would, at the time, be the closest America had to a William Blake. Blake, however, gave into his visions to the extreme and allowed them to cohabit with him in his daily life; there incredible things he maintained in his public life about his visions and his dialogues with angels that he spoke of as a matter -of -fact.
The further evidence is Blake's work which is truly unique, ungainly in syntax, but completely unforgettable as to how the universe was structured, at the core, rubbing against the flesh of the god or gods that created the heavens and the earth. Blake zipped past the clichés and ready-made paradigms that available to him and created something from whole cloth. His work broadened and became denser as he grew older; he wasn't much interested in getting others to change their behavior so much as he was in creating a vivid sense of what it is everyone man, woman and child will have to face.
He considered himself a poet of the Inevitable. Lindsay, of course. An intriguing intersection of influence and cross influence; you can see how Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs were attracted to Lindsay not just as a public poet , but a public visionary, someone who could capture the public's imagination with broad , sweeping movements of image and colorful narrative. Lindsay did, of course, argue through his career a series of conclusions informed by a firm sense of what was right and wrong in society and wrote in such a flamboyant fashion that he might seduce, persuade, cajole those attracted by his theatricality to change the limited way they came to regard the world. He desired to instill in his listeners (and readers) the notion that everyone has a humanity that cannot be reduced by economic oppression or removed by harsh laws. It was the idea, a powerful one, that the morally upright thing to fight for--fairness, justice, equality, democratic virtues--were self-apparent, or would become so once the best case was made with the most persuasive language only one who is touched by the muse can write and recite, compose and exclaim.
Dylan and Ochs perhaps had an easier time, being songwriters connected with a host of progressive causes--civil rights, anti-war movements largest among them--and it was their skill at composing brooding, simple, compelling melodies to hammer away at their inspired rhetoric that kept their songs, their lyrics in the public mind. Much of the oft repeated support of his work, even at its most anemic ,is the puffery one suspects zealots contrive in a mission to raise the importance of a hero they've embedded deeply into the soft tissue of their consciousness. This is something that we find with writing about Dylan--so many elaborations and comparisons that the apologies are more nuanced than Dylan's actual work. All the same, there is a strong connection, an awareness, a deliberate alignment on Dylan's part with a tradition other than rock and roll. The claims that Dylan was influenced by Lindsay, the Beats, Whitman, or "the usual Modernist suspects" are far from fantasy. The influences are traceable, noticeable, conspicuous in a great many songs, like "Desolation Row", "Visions of Johanna", "Memphis Blues Again", "Gates of Eden"; surreal though rock and roll geniuses Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley may seem and have been in their work and personas, the aforementioned songs definitely came from exposure to a good number of modern poets, ranging from the Symbolists through Whitman, Eliot, Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg.
Those influences are in Dylan's work; how much he absorbed of what he read is the wrong question, but rather how well. Dylan, as any good artist would, took what he liked and what he found useful in musical styles and literary modes and made them his own. Dylan’s accomplishment, his singular bit of real genius, was blending Chuck Berry with his personal version of street level surrealism. Nothing like it existed in lyric writing before it--and I am not insisting that Dylan is the one who made song lyrics poetry, a notion I've railed against for years--and to diminish or dismiss literary influences in the creation of this body of work is, I think, short sighted. This is the kind of ruthlessness of the creative process no one really likes to talk about--it is the cliché of the amateur borrowing as opposed to the professional, who steals, who literally talks ownership of what he came across. VL is part of the circle of influences, more for inspiring a public persona and purpose than for direct influence on the work. Like it or not, VL did set the groundwork for what a public artist with literary/musical inclinations would be, and Dylan is among the generation of songwriters who adopted JL's conceit for their own purposes.
Along with Ginsberg, who desired to become a the voice of a perceptions that found expression before a conservative superego diluted whatever power might have been had in the first thought, songwriters who had grown up with Lindsay's work were inspired to write about things that were meant to resound beyond the music hall, wrote for his audience, which is valid on the face of it, but his temperament is closer to that of a songwriter than a poet on the grandest scale. It was, for Lindsay about what would sell, in a manner of speaking; his is also a cautionary tale against pleasing an audience too well, as there is the threat that will not let you change. And that is the frustration that kills a talent that has the potential to evolve.