Vachel Lindsay

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.

Watson, Lindsay, what's the difference?

Speaking of Vachel Lindsay... Helen Sewell Johnson, one of the funniest and sharpest and kindest people I know, passes along a story of Lindsay, as follows:

Lindsay visited Agnes Scott College for a reading before I was there and I still remember one of my professor's description of the event. The college president at the time was a very small man, a Presbyterian minister, Dr. Gaines. He gave a flowery introduction to Lindsay and then pronounced, "and now, I present Mister Watson." Lindsay pounced up to the podium, shaded his eyes, assumed a semi-squatting position, peered from one side of the hall to the other and shouted, "Paging Sherlock Holmes." She further described his "lion's mane of yellow hair," which he flung about as he danced around the podium performing "The Congo." The audience, I gather, was transfixed.

Noncanonical Congo (PoemTalk #26)

Vachel Lindsay, "The Congo"

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

Many of us read Vachel Lindsay in school--at least until he was removed from the anthologies. Few of us have heard the recordings of Lindsay performing--not just reading, but truly performing--his poems, "The Congo" most (in)famously. So we PoemTalkers decided to try our hand at the first section of Lindsay's most well-known poem. Al suggests that readers and listeners must attempt to "get past" the obvious racism (even of the opening lines), but Aldon Nielsen takes exception to that formulation, and off we go, exploring the problem and possibilities of this poet's foray--Afrophilic but nonetheless stereotype-burdened--into African sound and, more generally, the performativity of a culture.

Charles Bernstein finds this "one of the most interesting poems to teach," and adds: "[Lindsay] felt there was something deeply wrong with white culture, that it was hung up, ... that it was disembodied, that it was too abstract." All the problems of the poem, Charles notes, remain present when one reads or hears it. It's all there. It's not a "bad example" of something; it makes its own way (or loses its way) in the modern poetic tradition, as it is.

What can Lindsay teach us today? Michelle Taransky is sure that young writers can learn from Lindsay's experiments, and not just in sound--but also in the way he uses marginal directions, which serve as performance (or production) cues. She commends Lindsay for making available to us the realization "that a poem doesn't have to be read in a monotone way....and that they [young poets today] can read a poem in a way that seems appropriate to them at that time."

Aldon doesn't want to "get past" the tension between Lindsay's desire to make a progressive statement and the racist content in the poem; as a whole, this work creates a tension that is "absolutely at the core of American culture." Aldon is hesitant to use the phrase "teachable moment" (which during 2009 has been a phrase that is dulled from facile overuse in the "ongoing conversation" about race) but that--teachability--is about the sum of it: to teach this poem is to gain access to a central American discussion.

Noncanonical Congo (PoemTalk #26)

Vachel Lindsay, 'The Congo'

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

Many of us read Vachel Lindsay in school — at least until he was removed from the anthologies. Few of us have heard the recordings of Lindsay performing — not just reading, but truly performing — his poems, “The Congo” most (in)famously. So we PoemTalkers decided to try our hand at the first section of Lindsay’s most well-known poem. Al suggests that readers and listeners must attempt to “get past” the obvious racism (even of the opening lines), but Aldon Nielsen takes exception to that formulation, and off we go, exploring the problem and possibilities of this poet’s foray — Afrophilic but nonetheless stereotype-burdened — into African sound and, more generally, the performativity of a culture.

Charles Bernstein finds this “one of the most interesting poems to teach,” and adds: “[Lindsay] felt there was something deeply wrong with white culture, that it was hung up, ... that it was disembodied, that it was too abstract.” All the problems of the poem, Charles notes, remain present when one reads or hears it. It’s all there. It’s not a “bad example” of something; it makes its own way (or loses its way) in the modern poetic tradition, as it is.

What can Lindsay teach us today? Michelle Taransky is sure that young writers can learn from Lindsay’s experiments, and not just in sound — but also in the way he uses marginal directions, which serve as performance (or production) cues. She commends Lindsay for making available to us the realization “that a poem doesn't have to be read in a monotone way…and that they [young poets today] can read a poem in a way that seems appropriate to them at that time.”

Aldon doesn't want to “get past” the tension between Lindsay’s desire to make a progressive statement and the racist content in the poem; as a whole, this work creates a tension that “absolutely at the core of American culture.” Aldon is hesitant to use the phrase “teachable moment” (which during 2009 has been a phrase that is dulled from facile overuse in “ongoing conversation” about race) but that —teachability — is about the sum of it: to teach this poem is to gain access to a central American discussion.

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