Three Aprils and a Poet

Born and raised in upper New York State, CARL CARMER is a former teacher, an essayist, a regional writer of distinction, and the editor of the famous Rivers of America series. In the paper which follows, he gives us three memorable moments in his friendship with Vachel Lindsay, moments which will illuminate that magnetic poet for those who never had the good luck to hear him.

by CARL CARMER

1

ON A cloud-hung April morning in 1915 during a Harvard postgraduate year, I entered Emerson Hall to hear a lecture on Tennyson and found the genial and thoughtful Professor Bliss Perry already at his desk. Sprawled on a chair beside him another man, apparently in his early thirties, slept soundly. His legs, short for his long torso, were stretched out in front of him, and the soles of his mud-caked tan shoes had thinned to twin perforations. Spotted with mire from their cuffless ends to his shins, his dark blue trousers were worn to a sheen below his belt. His thin gray jacket, though too tight about his shoulders, hung full below them in wrinkled folds. Deep-set above high cheekbones his eyes slanted obliquely from their outer edges downward toward the end of the high ridge that was his nose, and his wide mouth was blanketed by a protruding upper lip so ample that the fold at its middle was surprisingly deep.

Professor Perry said that in a course about a poet long dead it was sometimes worth while for a class to hear a living poet. The man beside him, he said, had walked some ten miles to be in Cambridge at this moment. Posterity would remember him as the author of many fine poems, and especially of “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven.” “The name of our guest,” said Professor Perry, “is Vachel Lindsay.”

The closed lids suddenly lifted, revealing circles of gray blue so overwrought with yellow that the resemblance to cats’ eyes was startling. The poet came swiftly to his feet and stepped lithely down to the edge of the platform.

“Booth led boldly with his big bass drum,”he chanted resonantly — and at once every listener’s separate heaven was invaded by a blaring Salvation Army Band which marched at the head of a tatterdemalion route. I had read the poem the year before in the magazine Poetry, and had been annoyed by the author’s directions printed beside it: “Bass drums louder and faster . . . Banjos . . . Flutes.” Now, as the poet himself marched the platform with Booth’s army, his voice somehow evoked these instruments and I wondered how I could have been so lacking in understanding.

The banjos rattled and the tambourines
Jin-jing-jingled in the hands of queens!

Tennyson was a pale wraith within us as Lindsay’s bold accents beat the living daylights out of our polite concepts of poetry.

Hearing Lindsay that morning had made, I discovered, an indelible impression on me. When in the next few years I read of his triumphs, I felt a peculiarly personal sense of satisfaction at having appreciated him early in his career. The seedy minstrel of the Harvard classroom was in steady demand as a reader at universities, clubs, and public lecture courses. Many Americans had been stirred by the man from Springfield, Illinois, who had chosen to learn his America the hard way — by tramping long highways of the South and West and reading to housewives, stationmasters, farmers, mechanics his Rhymes To Be Traded for Bread. The verses were bringing him more than the occasional backdoor handouts which he had won when he, like his favorite folk-hero, Johnny Appleseed, “was a man of lonely walking.”

Lindsay was in love with America. His serenades for his beloved extolled buffaloes, automobiles, bronchos, movie queens, politicians, California whales, prize fighters, and home towns — particularly his own. He was holding up to Americans a flattering word-portrait, and its beholders preened themselves before it as if it were a mirror. It was a far from true likeness for, as he described the process, he was recalling to the minds of a swiftly changing society the virtues of what he chose to call “The Old Court-house America.” His scorn for a standardized America, a nation of vain pretensions to culture and yielding conformity, was vitriolic.

It was in another April, when I was an instructor at the University of Rochester, that I made arrangements for Lindsay to give two readings. A fashionable women’s club would hear him in the morning and he would read at the college that afternoon.

I did not see the poet until just before luncheon with the English Department. He was in a towering rage. His hostess at his morning appearance, he said, had decided that because the day was bright and her tulips were out he should read in her formal garden. The sun had lent little warmth, and both he and his audience had shivered. “ My voice went straight up,” he said. “At the end of my first poem I was so sure that I was inaudible that I turned to my hostess, who reclined behind me on a chaise longue, and said, ‘Can you hear me?’

“‘No, we can’t, Mr. Lindsay,’ she said sweetly, ‘but go right ahead, it doesn’t make any difference.’”

At the luncheon the poet recovered from his wrath to discuss his method of reading: “You have heard a performer in vaudeville talk a song above the melody played by the pit orchestra?" Though I was sure that they had not, the professors nodded gravely. “That’s what I try to do,”said Lindsay. “I talk my songs. Though the orchestra isn’t playing, I try to suggest that it is. You might call my work the ‘higher vaudeville.’”

After lunch we strolled to the campus, and there I found that my enthusiastic recommendations at college assemblies had brought results. The auditorium was full, and a queue stretched far down the outside walk. A telephone call to nearby East High School procured happy coöperation. Soon we were in a vast assembly hall filled with university and high school students. The poet’s smile was ecstatic.

“This is more like it,” he whispered as I rose to introduce him.

He opened with the “Kallyope Yell” which he said should be delivered in a “mass whisper” as University of Kansas students gave their “Jay Hawk Yell.” The poem described a world at peace, a circus world, and one of the lines read, “Every day a circus day.” At this, cupping his hand to his ear, he paused and shouted, “What?" then answered himself with an apologetic “Well, almost every day.”

When he came, a moment later, to “Bands a-playing every day,” the packed balcony exploded into a deafening “WHAT?" Bashfully but blissfully he replied, “Well, almost every day.”

After that he yelled at the audience and they yelled back for more than an hour. When he roared with syncopated drumbeats into “The Congo,” a Negro boy took to the aisles, dancing wildly to the jazz rhythm. When, after instructions to his hearers, he began his tribute to the old abolitionist John Brown with the shout “I’ve been to Palestine,” the windows of the hall shook with the chanted choral response: “What did you see in Palestine?”

Afterward I pulled Lindsay, exhausted but exalted, away from the rhythm-intoxicated, autograph-seeking crowd. I suggested refreshment but he looked at me reproachfully and said, “I never drink alcoholic beverages.” Then his face darkened. “I have only an hour to rest before a dress-up dinner those women arranged for me,” he said, “and no tuxedo. This suit is all I’ve got.”

2

IN THE mid-twenties at the beginning of a DeepSouth April, a student brought news to my office at the University of Alabama. His fiancée, he said, was attending Gulf Park, a girls’ junior college on the Mississippi coast, and had written him that Vachel Lindsay while lecturing there a few weeks before had come down with influenza. The illness had lasted so long that he had had to cancel the rest of his schedule, and the president of the college had persuaded him to take a job teaching modern poetry. “The class meets on a platform in a live oak tree,” said my student. “They climb up a ladder.”

I wrote at once suggesting to Lindsay that he give a reading in Tuscaloosa, and he replied that he would come.

He arrived on a sun-drenched morning. Though he was in his mid-forties, he looked no older than when I had last seen him. He was in a jolly mood but I was troubled by an unforeseen happenstance. The president of a Tuscaloosa bank had just installed a basement cafeteria for his employees, and because of his pride in it had requested that the next visiting celebrity should be its first luncheon guest. Since the president of the University had agreed to honor the same meal, I regarded the invitation to Lindsay and me as practically a command.

Both of our companions, I told the poet fearfully, had a consuming interest in real estate, and I doubted my ability to lead the conversation into other channels. He ignored my gloom, in his enthusiasm for reporting on himself. “Gulf Park is wonderful,”he said. “I am in love with one girl or another all the time and that is very good for me.”

The luncheon began stiffly and the dreaded subject came up sooner than I had anticipated.

“Lindsay,”said the president of the University briskly, “where are you from?”

“Springfield, Illinois.”

“How’s real estate up there?”

My heart sank but Lindsay began to talk. In the next twenty minutes it seemed to me he gave the number, history, and current appraisal of every lot in his home town. Later, I escorted the president of the University to his office door.

“More sense than most of the darn fool poets you bring here,” he said gruffly.

When I rejoined Lindsay he grinned at me. “Among my recent works is The Golden Book of Springfield,” he said.

That evening, as we neared the Liberal Arts College a pretty senior approached. “Mr. Lindsay, I have looked forward to our meeting for a long time.”

“And I from the beginning of time,” said the poet, beaming and bowing.

As he watched the hall fill until it was crowded to more than capacity, Lindsay became nervous and excited. “This may well be the largest audience I’ve ever had,” he said. “I think we should turn out most of the lights.”

Though I protested, knowing that this would disappoint many who had come as much to see him as to hear him, he insisted on so dimming the room that he would be a mere silhouette on the platform. I gathered that he had resented published suggestions that he was more performer than poet, and wished to reduce to a minimum his famous gestures, poses, and facial expressions in order to let his poems speak for themselves.

Perhaps if I had not prepared his audience for the uninhibited shouter I had heard in Rochester, Lindsay might have accomplished what he meant to do. As the program developed, however, I observed that he was not letting himself go and was striving for precise and meaningful nuances which I suspected would be lost on hearers whom I had led to expect physical rather than intellectual eccentricities. Nevertheless, in my chair near him on the platform, I felt his happiness. When he came to the final selection, “The Chinese Nightingale” (which he then regarded as his masterpiece), his low chanting came out of the half-light to create a mood which for a few minutes stilled the restive and displeased crowd. The last lines of the poem —

“Spring came on forever,”
Said the Chinese Nightingale —

he spoke so slowly and with such calm assurance that I knew that he had identified himself with the bird and that he believed that spring would always continue within himself.

At my house later, Lindsay was in an ecstasy, convinced that he had made his greatest appearance. He insisted on enlisting the Tuscaloosa intelligentsia (invited there to meet him) in playing his poemgame, “King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba,” and I was amused, after he chanted “King Solomon had ten thousand horses,”to hear them sheepishly replying in unison, “We are the horses.”

After he had returned to his Gulf Park classes high in “Friendship Oak,” his happy state continued. “All of America is trying to sit in my lap,” he wrote me. Months later he wrote again from Spokane, Washington: “I still look back on Tuscaloosa as my last real platform appearance. I rather made a mess of it at Princeton.

“ I am writing a book now — and feel so literary I may never speak again. . . . It is curious how among a year’s hundred dramatic experiences one will remain, though no more vivid than the others at the time. In such a case, it must be a deeper genuineness of the episode. . . . I remember all Tuscaloosa with love and happiness.”

After this letter I had no more direct contact with Lindsay — but I kept up with him as best I could. I went to New York to live, and in that city I read of his marriage. Friends who saw him occasionally, reported to me on his life. He was father of a boy and a girl. Seattle, in which he had settled with the high hope of being a creative influence, was a disappointment. Its businessmen seemed unable to tell the difference between a true poet and a writer of rhymed doggerel, and they kept suggesting subjects that were typical of Chamber of Commerce thinking.

And so, my friends told me, he had packed up the family and gone home to Springfield — “The mystic Springfield in which I always live, wherever I may happen to be.” He had dreams for Springfield, my informants said — a magnificent cathedral and a great world university — and though he advised himself to wait for the dream to come true, he was not born with patience, nor could he acquire it. Bitterness welled in him, and also the realization of the continuing truth of a paragraph that he had written years before: “There is just one way to convince citizens of the United States that you are dead in earnest about an idea. It will do no good to be crucified for it, or burned at the stake for it. But if you go broke for a hobby over and over again . . . they will notice your idea at least.”

One evening my poet-neighbor and close friend, the late William Rose Benét, dropped in to see me on his way home from his editing job at the Saturday Review of Literature.

“I saw Lindsay today,” he said. “He tried to sell us some poems. It’s a strange thing that posterity will be reading his best work with admiration — I’m sure of that — and yet there was nothing he showed us that we wanted to buy. It was out of step somehow. When he left the office I could see that he was terribly discouraged.”

I heard the rest of the story as if those who recited it were the chorus of a classic tragedy. Back to Springfield and the knowledge that America no longer wanted to sit in his lap. Back to the house in which he was born, the house in which Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister had lived and where she had given a gay farewell party for her brother-in-law who had at last “amounted to something” and was going to Washington to be President of the United States. Back to debts he was unable to meet, to sneers from prosperous businessmen who could pay their way and more, back to jibes about “halfcracked poets,” back to the knowledge that the vision of his home town which had come to him as a revelation would not be realized in his lifetime.

Newspaper headlines told me of his death, by his own hand, in 1931. Spring had not come on forever — though he had believed it would, with certainty, years ago.