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.

Lindsay’s virtual black face makes the poem persona non grata in contrast to a quasi-canonical (but increasing forgotten) poem such as Alan Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”  Tate’s white face performance, which elides black people and slavery, is surely as troubling as Lindsay’s embrace of what he fantasied as Africa’s positive alternative to what  both saw as the  woes of American culture. Perhaps these fundamentally contradictory poems –  Lindsay’s anti-literary brashness (and extorversion) and Tate’s hyper-literary refractoriness (or introspection) — are two peas in the American pod.

Or then again, what if we thought of this poem in comparison to such European dystopian works as Marinetti's "Futurist Manifesto" from just a few years earleir; let's call it Disturbed Modernism

 Rutgers Distinguished Professor of Law Richard Hyland has been sitting in on my modernist poetry seminar at Penn. He wrote the essay published here for the class. I would imagine no high school teacher (Robin Williams’s character aside) teaches this poem now – but I would be interested to know if I am wrong. If I am not, this is a loss for a discussion of poetry that would do well to be in every high school classroom. But poetry that is problematic -- can't we now say "The Congo" is yet another difficult modernist poem?! -- and especially poetry that is not affirmative in ways that are  untroubling  for contemporary readers -- is not on our K-12 curriculums nor in too many college lit classes either. (A modest proposal.)

And yet perhaps poetry’s best that settles (pleases?) least.


1931 reading from PennSound:

  • The Congo 1 (2:11): MP3
  • The Congo 2 (2:34):  MP3
  • The Congo 3 (2:50):   MP3
  • Text of the Poem (1912, published 1914) at University of Toronto


    For me, the hard work this week is to figure out what to do with The Congo.

                This is one of the most innovative and powerful poems of the 20th century. I heard it for the first time in high school when our English teacher read it from his desk to students who at once were transfixed. I was mesmerized, and I still am. I had no idea that it was possible to do something like that with words. The poem with its haunting rhythms immediately worked its way into my body and hasn’t left. The most insidious part of it is that this poem proceeded to set my standard for what poetry is. No other poem, in any language, has had this kind of physical impact on me. Once I felt that, I became converted, was unwilling to accept any poetry that didn’t match it. I was hoo-dooed by the Mumbo-Jumbo. There are very few poems in any language that burrow like this one does into the body, into the deep realms of the imagination, and take it over. This is an awesome achievement.

                This alone should make this poem one of the great objects of American culture. It is innovative, visually and aurally powerful, overwhelming to the imagination, and persuasive. And yet posterity has decided that it is not a great poem. Greatness is a different category, points to a different territory. That term requires a moral achievement which is denied The Congo because, when we read it today, it calls up racial stereotypes that, over thousands of years have played such a disastrous and oppressive role in world history. One reason why we deny the poem the attribute of greatness is because it frightens us, it reminds us that these stereotypes still live within us.

                It is perhaps worthwhile to try to state clearly what it is about this poem that we fear. As I understand it, the poem conveys the notion that what it calls “negroes” are different from us. The poem begins with a title: Their Basic Savagery. Negroes are inherently savage. Savagery is constitutive of who they are. They are like wild animals but somehow worse, because they are inhabited by an evil god. They are filled with blood lust, they react to other tribes and races by putting them in a pot and eating them. In this they fundamentally differ from us, white people, because we are inherently open to reason and subject to a merciful God.

                White people created civilization. Negroes will never rise above their savage nature. When negroes are transported into the modern white world, they do not rise to the occasion. Instead, their savagery reasserts itself in a savage version of modern culture.

                The proof can be found in their rhythms. Those rhythms, as we hear them in jazz and the gospels and the blues and African work songs are bodily rhythms. They do not have rhythms or harmonies that open to reasoned analysis. Western diatonic harmony has equal temperament. Negro music has the blue note (a flattened third). Negro music follows the natural harmonic series, uncorrected by the diatonic scale. The same is true of the syncopation that characterizes negro rhythm. Syncopation is an unexpected disturbance or interruption of the “regular” flow of rhythm, it places stress and accent where it wouldn’t normally occur. Most dance music is syncopated, and therefore of the body. Dancing is in this sense the denial of reason. 

                The proof of the irrational and bodily nature of that aspect of culture the poem calls “negro” is this poem itself, which uses those methods to get inside us. The poem demonstrates that these rhythms are uncontrollable, that they cannot be subjected to reason. These are the rhythms and harmonies of When the Saints Go Marchin’ In, another of these musical experiences that, once experienced, never depart. Very few of those who have ever heard The Saints ever forgets it, and very few can hear it without moving their bodies and wanting to tap their feet. There’s not all that much like that in classical music—the theme from Bolero, the William Tell Overture.

                The awful truth of The Congo is that its rhythms take us over, white or black, and don’t let go. We white people are no different from the negroes we disdain, have always disdained, still disdain. The terrifying fact is that the irrational we found in them lives inside us a well, is a projection of a part of our own essence, and all it takes to awaken it is a few lines on a page. This is the scandal of the poem, a scandal the poem demonstrates rather than asserts. Those savage negroes dancing in files along the riverbank, that’s us.

                White religion, Christianity, tries to repress this truth. White religion can decree that Mumbo-Jumbo will die in the jungle, that it never again will hoo-doo you. It can redeem us from the sin of non-rational negro rhythms, call us back to the empire of reason. But somewhere out there, there is still the vulture, out there in the lone mountains of the moon, and it tells us that the Mumbo-Jumbo is still there.

                At this point, the poem comes back around, sneaks up behind us, and, while we are congratulating ourselves on our new-won racial enlightenment, it whispers Booh. Our victory over racism, incredibly hard won, is an agreement that Black people are no different from us, that every group of people, regardless of skin color and religion and gender and the size of their earlobes can thrive in a world of Reason. All can succeed at school, can lead major organizations, and write wonderful books.

                But what then about the Mumbo-Jumbo? What we don’t admit is that the irrational lives inside us all as well, that we are all inhabited by haunting rhythms, that we have urges and desires that can create amazing works and that also can occasionally burst out in uncontrolled ways and lead to crime and mob violence and sexual assault. What The Congo not only points out but demonstrates is that the irrationality that Western civilization for millennia projected onto Black people is an aspect of our own selves and culture, the part we have always hoped to repress, the part that it is the role of the university and organized religion to talk us out of. El sueño de la razón produce monstruos, Goya claims. And maybe so. But Reason produces its own monsters. Anyone who lived through the Vietnam War knows that, or the Iraq War.  

                In the end, The Congo demonstrates the multiplicity of our nature, that it is a creature of both rhythm and reason. To the extent we reject this poem, even if we find a politically correct way of putting it behind us by calling it racist, we deny something true and authentic about ourselves. Racism is a horrible thing and has had, and continues to have, horrendous consequences. But it is somehow even worse to deny ourselves.