Here’s a piece for today’s U. S. holiday: President’s Day.
Long-time readers here know that’s not going to be simple, but it may be interesting.
For some time in this project I’ve thought I’ll have to deal with Vachel Lindsay. In the early days of poetic Modernism a century ago, when no one knew exactly how that movement would turn out, Lindsay was a force to be reckoned with, with a life story and approach to his art that was so outsized, that if he hadn’t actually existed, and instead you created him as a character, you would be charged with unrealistic and exaggerated imagination.
In the great American tradition of bohemian artistry, Lindsay was not well-off, not Ivy League educated, nor born in some cultural capitol. By force of will he decided that he would make his way in the increasingly business-oriented world of the 20th Century as a poet.
How’d that work out? Better than you might imagine, if only for a time. He made most of his bones touring the country intensively, reciting his poetry in a flamboyant style. Much like the life of a musician, it worked only to the degree that he was able to keep up a relentless road-dog touring schedule. Between tours, what time he had to write was also the time that he fell into debt and doubt.
If you think that poetry should be, at least in part, a spoken art form, Lindsay was there before. If one wants poetry to be appreciated as a popular form, with no academic prerequisites, Lindsay lived that. If you want poetry to be a force for social good, Lindsay too. Slam poetry? Lindsay was doing that before there was a name. Poetry inspired by and linked with vernacular music? Lindsay, a century ago.
Vachel Lindsay is not doing the hokey-pokey here, but performing poetry.
So why haven’t I presented Vachel Lindsay before today? Three reasons.
One, he wrote a lot of bad or flawed poetry. Awkward, sentimental, not particularly striking in imagery, and despite his spoken word and musical inclinations, not always in tune with my sense of music.
Secondly, though he always claimed his heart was in the right place, his treatment of other cultures was so clumsy and ignorant that it’s too often indiscernible from racism. This isn’t a close call, or some case of modern politically correct revisionism, even in his own era this was noticed. It was more than 50 years ago when I first ran into one of his set pieces, “The Congo,” and from that I figured I was done with Vachel Lindsay.*
These are both general reasons why Lindsay is not seriously considered along with his contemporary Modernists of the early 20th Century. But there is another, more personal reason: I fear the Vachel Lindsay in myself. When I see in my own writing awkwardness and flawed art, when I stop to consider the un-earned audacity of my own spoken word and musical expression, when I catch myself assuming that good intentions are sufficient, when I write here of other cultures and experiences, and despite my provincial and limited knowledge of them, perform works associated with them—then I fear I’m becoming my own variation of Vachel Lindsay. I continue to do those things anyway, stubbornly—again, like Lindsay.
Art is not just a place to model human potential. It’s also a revelation of human failures. Bad art can inspire good art. Failures illuminate as much as successes.
With that long introduction, let me now tell you that today’s piece, “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (in Springfield Illinois)” is still worthy of four minutes of your attention. Unlike China or the Congo, Lindsay knows Lincoln’s adult hometown of Springfield Illinois, as it was his hometown too. “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” is not a piece that extends language, it has no clever images that re-calibrate how you experience something, its word-music is not so beautiful that you’d be drawn to it before you even care what it’s about. We have long celebrated Abraham Lincoln as the President of our greatest national traumatic event, the American Civil War, fought over our greatest national sin, slavery. So, the poem has only an emotional, empathetic message, but this is all art delivers to us however plain or fancy the wrapping.
President’s Day is not a simple holiday today. Here’s my performance of Lindsay’s Lincoln poem. I kept the music simple enough and in that hometown key of C. The high melody part that sounds like a synth patch is actually 12-string guitar run through a lot of time and modulation effects and a compressor. The player is below:
*Here’s a recording of Lindsay reading part of “The Congo” which gives some idea of his performance style and also his manifold issues with understanding and appropriating African experience. And here are some excerpts of remarks on the poem and Lindsay.
2 thoughts on “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”
There is something about Vachel Lindsay that connects writers to him as you described. He was one of the best known American poets during his lifetime and by that, should have been able to make a living from writing. Instead he spent a disproportionate amount of time using poetry like currency, trading it for a bed and a meal to get through a night. Instead of entering a pantheon of American writers, he died in obscurity, a suicide. I enjoyed your performance of the Lincoln poem and how you will continue to plow this field. I also hope to hear more from you about Vachel Lindsay.
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As I tried to convey in my post, Lindsay is difficult for me. Summarizing my post to my wife last night, I told her “Lindsay tried to do everything I like to see done, he just didn’t do it very well.”
Yet this morning, as I see your comment, I remind myself of my own dictum: All Artists Fail.
Perhaps I need to honor the attempt more, need to restate that what he failed to do very well (IMHO), few others were even trying to do. I’m no historical innocent, I know the racial and natavist attitudes that so repel me in some of Lindsay’s work were not unique to him, that they were widespread then (and are not that rare now). This week too I’ve been thinking if I can respond usefully and cogently to your recent post on remembering the Marx Brothers.
It did feel good this month, after thinking that I could locate no Lindsay poem I could find the spirit of, that said something distinct and valuable, that I could perform whole-heartedly, when I found a core in “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” I could inhabit on a sorrowful President’s Day. That’s part of what is rewarding about this project: not just performing Carl Sandburg or Emily Dickinson who I can relate to easily, but connecting and reacting to the those writers where that connection isn’t as easy for me to find.
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