[Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931)]
Student: Allen said the other day when he mentioned you were coming that you might say something about Vachel Lindsay
Louis Ginsberg: Vachel Lindsay? No, not particularly. I used to like him. He’s called “The Poet in Vaudeville” [Lindsay himself referred to his compositions as "the Higher Vaudeville'] and he had a very strong rhythm, he accented it. For instance, he had some lines that, if I can remember.. “Big fat bucks in a wine-barrel room, ram-bam-bam, bam able”. Right, “In the Blood of the Lamb”. Do you remember some of the lines?
AG: Actually, is there a Lindsay in the library?
Student(s): Yes, there is one
AG: Could someone get the Lindsay. We can do that too. It’s “Fat black bucks in wine-barrels…”
Louis Ginsberg: “Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel…”
AG: “Barrel-house king”
Louis Ginsberg: “Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable”
Louis Ginsberg: “Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom”. Well, he was quite a fad for one time, but the noise. It was a little bit too loud for the poetry, which needed to be a little bit more subtle. But he had his vogue, one day.
Louis Ginsberg: That’s right.
AG: And I think both of them.., they seemed, when I started reading John Crowe Ransom and New Criticism and more intellectual approaches to poetry, or non-physical approaches, or metaphysical approaches, Lindsay seemed like an American crank..
Louis Ginsberg: Yeah
AG: ..and sort of provincial. But, as years go by, I realized that he was writing in classic rhythms that very few people have ever tried or accomplished in America, and it’s sort of like a hit of what could have been done, maybe on a more sublime scale, but real solid as it is, as it stands. If we get that volume, I’ll try and read some in a while.
Louis Ginsberg: Do you think we’ll have time?
AG: Yeah, we’ve got an hour.
Louis Ginsberg: Alright, we’ll listen to you. But here’s a poem, always my favorite, “Ode on A Grecian Urn”, by Keats. Allen and I were in Rome one day and we were in the house where Keats lived and we were very depressed by the tragedy of Keats, but while he was living he wrote some poems. An ode. He saw a Grecian urn. He loved things in Greece. He saw a beautiful Grecian urn. Now we may see many beautiful things, and we pause. But if we were asked to explain it, we couldn’t. In other words, what’s the difference between a poet and an ordinary person? I think the big differences are two – One, the poet feels deeply, but, more than that, he can express eloquently and beautifully what the average person can’t express. For instance, sometimes I’ll write a poem and I’ll get letters saying, “Thank you for writing the poem”. Or we come off the platform, “Thank you”. And I used to wonder “Why are they thanking me?” And then I realized. I am expressing, the poet is expressing, well, beautifully, eloquently, marvelously, permanently, what people cannot express. The poet, you could say, is a voice for the voiceless. (Robert) Browning said the poet helps the person release the splendor hidden deep in him. How often do you hear a poet, you read a poem, or even you hear a good speaker, expressing marvelously what you felt dimly, and you say, “Ah, that’s what I feel”. And you have an inner expansion. So, well, I was diverted a little bit.
AG: I want to make one check.
Louis Ginsberg: Yeah
AG: How many here have read “Ode on a Grecian Urn”? Raise your hands. So almost everybody has. How many have not?
Louis Ginsberg: Well, then you know this poem.
AG: There’s one person in the class who hasn’t, so it’s worth doing
Louis Ginsberg: So I don’t have to read it over, (I’ll) just (read it) once, and then we can listen to comment(s) [Louis then reads Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, first three and final stanza] – Just a few points. One, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard”, what can that mean? Anybody? It’s a paradox.
AG: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter..” still..
LG: That’s right.
Student: It means that what you hear in your imagination is always more beautiful.
Louis Ginsberg: In other words, the anticipation may be greater than the actual realization. But I think that if we wanted an implication, at least from my viewpoint, I think what is implied here in this stanza. “Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave/ Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;/ Bold Lover, never never cast thou kiss/ Though winning near the goal – yet do not grieve;/ She cannot fade , though she has not thy bliss/ For ever will thou love, and she be fair!”. The implication is, as I take it, as follows., But, before I say that, I want to repeat what I said before that what poetry does is to express marvelously what the average person cannot. Now another thing poetry does is to reveal the glory of the commonplace. But a third thing, and I think that arises from this poem, is this – that whereas man dies, the poet dies but his art, his poem, lives on, so that poetry can, by its beauty, perpetuate an emotion or beautiful thought. Suppose Keats had thrilled at this vase, but had never been able, as a poet, to express it? We would have lost something beautiful in the language. So another thing poetry does, as you can see in Shakespeare and other great poets, is to make permanent ideas, so that they can sparkle on the forefinger of time. And then the last, this is a puzzle, this is a paradox, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty..” There’s a tough nut to crack. Because, on earth, we cannot know truth, although we may know beauty. Could it be that in a Platonic sense the ideal truth and the ideal beauty blend and harmonize? I’ll leave you with this enigma. Thank you for listening.
AG: Lindsay was brought up and we have a volume so I’m going to read a few fragments of Lindsay. I first heard it from.. Stay, Lou..
Louis Ginsberg: Alright. I’ll let you have the center.
AG: Nah, I make my own.
Louis Ginsberg: I’ll compromise.
AG: Can I have a cigarette? Could I have a cigarette?
Student: Do you want one of these?
AG: Yeah, I guess so. I first heard Lindsay from my father, though he says..
Louis Ginsberg: Well, I don’t remember. This was thirty years ago.
AG: You met Lindsay, didn’t you, at one point?
Louis Ginsberg: Yeah, I met him. I belonged to the Poetry Society of America, where he used to come as a poet and we listened to him, Robert Frost, and all the other well-known poets. They took you there, (Allen).
AG: Yeah. What did Lindsay sound like? Do you have any idea?
Louis Ginsberg: Well, he had a booming voice that when he began to talk frightened people, because they were not used to poets being so..what they though, you knowm boisterous and loud. They were used to the quiet poets. Read that, Al.
AG: Well, there’s Lindsay’s comment on the poetic voice itself. William Jennings Bryan, do you know who William Jennings Bryan was? Presidential candidate against “Teddy”, Theodore Roosevelt, and anti-bank man, and also anti-gold standard, so he had this great magnificent poetic line, which he delivered in a great speech in front of a Democratic Convention when America was going to go on to the Gold Standard. “Thou shalt not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!”. So a poem by Lindsay, memoralizing the.. Bryan had a reputation for being, like, a silver-mouthed rhetorician - “Bryan, Byan, Bryan, Bryan” is the title of the poem, “The Campaign of Eighteen Ninety-six as Viewed at the Time by a Sixteen-year-old, etc.”. Lindsay’s comment on that voice. (So this is about the same time written at that booming voice of Esenin and Mayakovsky, “at the top of his voice”) [ Allen reads a little Lindsay – “In a nation of one hundred fine, mob-hearted, lynching, relenting, repenting millions,/ There are plenty of sweeping, swinging, stinging gorgeous things to shout about,/ And knock your old blue devils out./ I brag and chant of Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,Bryan"…"Bartlett pears of romance that were honey at the cores/ And torchlights down the street to the end of the world.”] – It’s just that one..
Louis Ginsberg: Allen, how about the…
AG: this is Lindsay, it’s just that one Lindsay thing on Bryan, which is Lindsay picking up on the tradition of the great American crank, which is the great American poetic tradition from weird Poe, through late hermetic Melville, solitary Emily Dickinson, through Lindsay himself, through Hart Crane, who we’ll get to. “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” (to be sung to the tune of “The Blood of the Lamb”)
Student: (singing) “Are you washed in the blood, in the soul-cleansing blood, are you washed in the blood of the lamb?. Two,three, are you..”
AG: Go on, General William, who enters here, on his death, an elegy, I suppose for his death. Do you know this poem, Louie?. (William Booth) was the founder of the Salvation Army (bass drum beaten loudly) – so it’s going to be accompanied [Allen reads from Lindsay – “Booth led boldly with his big bass drum”…”And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place/ Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb?”] – there’s a couple of nice lines that I missed, like; ‘Oh, shout Salvation!, it was good to see/ Kings and Princes by the Lamb set free/ The banjos rattled and the tambourines/ Jing-jing-jingled in the hands of Queens”. That’s a remarkable rhythm, and, actually, few American poets wrote in that rhythm, and those rhythms are very ancient. They’re Greek dance rhythms. If you see analyses of the Greek choral rhythms, in the Greek plays, the Chorus, which commented on the play, was a musical and dance chorus, though, translated, now it’s just a chorus. They actually were rhythms danced and chanted by the Chorus, and because they were danced, there were odd skipping ones, like duh-duh-dah, duh-duh-dah, duh-duh-dah [ Allen sounds out rhythm] – with a whole group of people, a masked Chorus, maybe twenty people, moving across the stage in those rhyhms. That particular interest was (Ezra) Pound’s interest, when he discovered that poetry was originally linked to music and then back to physical dance.
Louis Ginsberg: But his influence didn’t last too long, though.
Louis Ginsberg: Yeah
AG: It’s going to spread out right now.
Louis Ginsberg: Well, but I mean, I don’t think he’s read as much as some other poets.
AG: He’s read less than he was in the ‘20s.
Louis Ginsberg: Well, he’s read by experts, like you.
AG: Well, he was read in the ‘20’s, but.. pardon me?
Student: Didn’t he go around, dream up his own..
AG: Yeah, he was one of the first heavy beatniks, and a Buddhist, a Swedenborgian-type.
Louis Ginsberg: He used to walk and sell his poems, not to sell them, but give his poems in exchange for a night’s lodging and go to the door of a farmhouse - “I have no money but if you let me sleep here and give me a meal I’ll read you some of my poems”. He was successful in doing that, before the people had a chance to say anything he’d start to read.
AG: He had a book called Rhymes to be Traded for Bread..
Louis Ginsberg: That’s it.
AG: ..that was interesting.
Louis Ginsberg: That was the one.
Student: He went on to do himself in tho’, didn’t he?
AG: Shot himself in a hotel room in Springfield, Ohio [Illinois]
Student: Didn’t he drink a bottle of Lysol
AG: A bottle of Lysol, that’s right. You’re right , drank a bottle of Lysol. Lewis (Macadams)? [poet Lewis Macadams is also attendant in class]
Lewis Macadams: There’s a beautiful story. When you were saying about him going from home to home in the South., He wrote the precursor to Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” called “The Hobo’s Handbook”, [actually, "A Handy Guide For Beggars"] which Vachel Lindsay wrote about the South.
AG: Have you read that?
Lewis Macadams: Yeah, it's a wonderful book.
AG: I once read through the entire Collected Works of Lindsay, in Paris, and I really liked it. It was very solid. We’ll get on to “The Congo”, which is his great sound masterpiece. How many have read “The Congo”? And how many have not? So it’s actually more than one, Never heard of “The Congo”? what a situation! - “The Congo – A Study of the Negro Race (Being a memorial to Ray Eldred, a Disciple missionary of the Congo River)” . And it’s divided into three sections - it’s a little bit like (Edgar Allen) Poe’s “The Bells”, divided into three alternative emotional, alternative rasas, or alternative emotional sections – (I) Their Basic Savagery, (II) Their Irrepressible High Spirits, and (III) The Hope of Their Religion.” I’m going to read it all through…
Student: Do you have a date on that?
AG: A date on this? Yes, I think so. I can check it out. No, I can check it out later for you (since) it would mean thumbing through the book instead of reading through the poem [Allen begins then reading, in its entirety, “The Congo..”.. “Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room/ Barrel-house Kings with feet unstable..”.. “Mumbo-jumbo will hoo-doo you”] – he has notes on pronunciation and tone, like “Slow philosophic calm” with “Heavy bass. With a literal imitation of camp-meeting racket, and trance”. So, actually, there’s some music intended here. It’s such a white-chauvinist or civilization-chauvinist piece that, if you compare it to what’s going on in the Brazilian jungle now, you realize that Lindsay was an idiot, politically, culturally, except that there’s kind of an exaggeration of the preaching and a sort of simplistic exaggeration that makes it almost like an archetype of minstrel show burlesque, both in the music and in the imagery, but at times really exquisite. Like “Blown past the marsh where the butterflies play..Blown past the white ants’ hill of clay.” So there’s a funny combination of genius and stupidity, which is actually perfect American. As you have it in Whitman, as you have it in Melville, in “Billy Budd” or “The Confidence Man” (well, that is, Melville is much more intelligent than that, but), the genius and stupidity that you’ll have in Burroughs, or in Kerouac, or in myself, actually.
Student: Charles Ives?
AG: Charles Ives, yeah, it’s the American crank!
Student: How about Mark Twain?
AG: Well the same stereotypes that they took and elevated to a kind of aesthetic prettiness.
Louis Ginsberg: They evaluated Lindsay. They called him “The Poet in Vaudeville”. He was more attractive as an act, rather than the intrinsic poetic merits.
Student: Did he actually work in Vaudeville?
Louis Ginsberg: Well, no. They called him “The Poet in Vaudeville” because, when he read his poetry, it seemed more like an act, in its exaggerated rhythm. You were going to..
AG: Yeah, what time is it?
Louis Ginsberg: Half past late! No.
AG: There’s time.
Louis Ginsberg: It’s 7.30.