July 29, 2000

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In 1906 he walked from Jacksonville, Florida, to Kentucky. Two years later he ambled from New York City to Hiram, Ohio. In 1912 his feet took him from Springfield, Illinois, to New Mexico, with time out in Kansas to work as a harvest hand. His self-given mission was to bring poetry to the people. The people Salvation Army general William Booth, one of his subjects, would call the submerged tenth of the population. Placed in time between Walt Whitman and John Steinbeck, his concern was for the next door neighbors. Everyone. Everywhere. Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, known best to us by his last two names, wanted to give them a voice of rhythm, and show them how to use it to tell their own stories.

Lindsay began life in Springfield, Illinois, in a house at 603 South Fifth Street. He would die there, over fifty years later. Graduating from the local high school, he went on to study medicine at Ohio's Hiram College, but dropped out after his third year, took another year off, then began studying at the Chicago Art Institute, before heading east and switching to the New York School of Art. It was about this time that he began writing poetry and reported having mystical visions. "And some had visions, as they stood on chairs, / And sang of Jacob, and the golden stairs, / And they all repented, a thousand strong / From their stupor and savagery and sin and wrong / And slammed with their hymn books till they shook the room / With "glory, glory, glory," / And "Boom, boom, BOOM."

Told by his teachers he wasting his time at art, he began trying to sell his poetry on New York's prosaic streets. When a volunteer position teaching Art turned into a paying job he settled down to his writing, interspersed with cross-country perambulations. When his self-published work caught the eye of (and a favorable review from) midwestern novelist Hamlin Garland, his work began bringing acclaim and publication. His book "General William Booth Enters Heaven." came out in 1913, helping to cement his reputation.

Part poet, part self-promoter, Lindsay has not just been taking in the scenery, on his travels he passes out three self-published volumes of his work . In the years between 1916 and 1922 he tours across the U.S., giving readings. Actually, "readings" is an understatement. His poems are written with strong rhythmic cadences and in Lindsay's manic, flamboyant performances turn to almost pure theater. Described by Mike Goldsberry and Tracy Flemming as, "a thump, a whistle, and a wheeze of a calliope" the straight-forward rhymes talked to audiences in their own language. "Booth led boldly with his big bass drum -- / (Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?) / The Saints smiled gravely and they said: "He's come." / (Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)...Every banner that the wide world flies / Bloomed with glory and transcendent dyes. / Big-voiced lasses made their banjos bang, / Tranced, fanatical they shrieked and sang: -- / "Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?" / Hallelujah!" Lindsay meant for the drum beats and the banjo bangs to be sounded as he read. He was out to impress. And not the professors of literature. He wrote, as he put it, "for Americans who work the soil and own the soil they work."

 

© 2000 David Minor / Eagles Byte

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