Saturday, August 24, 2013

Visionary Bombast

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.


  1. Thank you for writing a piece about Lindsay, someone who doesn’t fit comfortably into the canon of critically-accepted modern poets. You get big kudos from me for discussing him at all. That said, I have to confess that I am a fan and defender of his work, in part (but not entirely) because of who he was and what he stood for. Lindsay was flawed as a writer and hamstrung by a limited technical skill and vocabulary of imagery. But I think it is wrong to dismiss him as “hokey” or to imply that he should be held to the same standards as the Imagists and other modernist poets. Lindsay came from a different tradition and spoke to a different constituency. He was at heart a Victorian socialist and Christian populist of the late 19th Century who prodded his readers to live up to the moral standards OF THAT ERA. Many of his failings were those of the Midwestern world he emerged from.

    I think it is wrong to call “The Congo” racist – it is fill with caricatures, but they are not meant to advocate white supremacy. Rather, they are meant to stress the uplifting aspects of the Christian faith over what Lindsay (and most Americans of his time) thought were the benighted qualities of native African religion. The power of “The Congo” is not the remedies he hoped to offer the African people, but the sweeping idealism and dramatic rhythm contained in its language.

    Lindsay was a visionary who invited comparisons with Blake, but his vision was rooted in the verities of rural Illinois rather than any systematic cosmology. His achievements were smaller than Blake’s, but the essence of his work was also more tender and poignant. Ultimately, I don’t think Lindsay wrote for his rather fickle public, except in moments of financial desperation – remember, he pissed off the people of Springfield, Illinois by bombarding them with plans for civic betterment in his poems. He was an old-fashioned troubadour, almost ridiculous in his idealism, rather than a “jazz poet” as some termed him. To portray him as a panderer to the tastes of the crowd isn’t on the mark.

    I agree that Lindsay’s temperament is close to that of a songwriter – whether this conflicts with the ability to achieve art on a “grand scale” is debatable. What we think of as the songwriting form today – verse with rhyme and meter – is not a lesser form to more exotic modes. (That’s another debate…) Lindsay wrote in the form of religious hymns and folk poetry, prefiguring Woody Guthrie and Dylan in certain ways. I may be forgiving him for too many literary sins, but I also think it is not inappropriate to put him in the context of his time and his background. And I do find more love in the man – and in his work – than in the elitist effusions of Pound and Eliot.

  2. You raise a number of provocative points in the addendum to your Lindsay post. There is clearly a traceable line between Lindsay’s style of grandiloquent performance poetry and the earnest versifying of Dylan and the rest of his singer/songwriter brethren. Lindsay had a number of goals when he declaimed his folksy yet high-flown verse – he wanted to express his heart, to spread the gospel of beauty, to educate and uplift. He consciously combined the role of entertainer and preacher in a way that Dylan was accused of doing but rarely actually attempted. Lindsay actually wanted to change the world in very specific ways – in his poetry he adhered to a vision of a Christian utopia that was far closer to the moral reformism of, say, Francis E. Willard than the dour conservatism of a T. S. Eliot. Dylan rebelled against being a prophet, a leader of his generation; Lindsay embraced such a role. Dylan’s fans agonized over his various moral convolutions, feints and evasions; Lindsay’s audience mostly wanted to hear the whoop and holler and supposedly “jazzy” rhythms in his poems, not his prescriptions for peace and justice. Lindsay’s achievements provided a basis for the lyric effusions of Dylan, Mitchell, Simon, etc., but their goals as public figures were different from his. The three songwriters just named got rich, while Lindsay ended his life by drinking Lysol after his public lost interest. Perhaps the lesson here is that the successful singer/songwriters of the ‘60s sang of themselves, whereas Lindsay took on a more difficult and selfless mission, one much harder to sustain. Maybe a dose of Chuck Berry would have helped.


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