The Congo

Richard Hyland on Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo"

It’s virtually the centennial of Vachel Lindsay’s The Congo (1912, published 1914). But the poem has gone through hard times. Despite its enormous initial popularity, Lindsay’s poem has become an embarrassment. Its overt racist imagery has put it under erasure: little taught and little anthologized.  Still, a recitation of the poem appears, without any indication of the controversy, in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society. And Lindsay is surely a precursor to a range of performance poetry. PennSound made available a recording of Lindsay reading the poem on our Lindsay page. The Library of America includes the poem in volume one of their great anthology of modernist American poetry (see my 2000 conversation with LOA editor Geoffrey O’Brien).  Al Filreis recorded a Poem Talk on the poem — with A.L. Nielsen, Michelle Taransky, and me. Our interest is not to put a happy spin on the poem but rather to see what the poem can tell us about American racsim, including the racism of a poet of the left like Lindsay, who was far more supportive of the rigths of African-Americans than most of his  contemporaries.

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