Vachel Lindsay: A Madman Who Burst His Rivets
on a Head of Steam

By Gary Lehmann


In these days when poetry is very much a literary art, it is interesting, even fun, to encounter a poet who takes us back to poetry's roots as an oral art form, one who recited his verses on street corners, dancing like a tambourine man—singing and wailing out an endless stream of words in a kind of mock opera. He shouted and sang passages. He rocked his arms around like a street evangelist and even convinced his audience to come in with the odd chorus or refrain.

I am speaking of the much-maligned poet Vachel Lindsay. In his lifetime, the poetry establishment, indeed most of society, called him a "buffoon" [The New York Times], "an apocalyptic jazzite," and "crazier than a bedbug" [Teddy Roosevelt]. Even today, the Academy of American Poets does not recognize him. When the famous British poet, John Masefield, came to America, he declared Vachel Lindsay "the best American poet." This high praise may actually have been a form of ironic sarcasm peculiar to the British sense of humor. Nonetheless, many people took Lindsay to be insane and, in fact, they might all be right without impinging one iota on Vachel Lindsay's basic genius.

Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, as he was known at birth, came into this world on November 10, 1879. He was the son of a well-known physician who felt so guilty after three of his daughters died of scarlet fever that he installed a bathroom in his home. He feared that he might have brought the disease into his own household and forever after repaired directly to the bathroom when returning home to do a thorough washing up before mixing with what remained of his family. Vachel Lindsay was largely brought up by his mother who fondled and pampered him.

In high school he was seen as effeminate and was teased as "Rachel Lindsay." He excelled at English and track. He wrote poetry which was secretly recognized and later encouraged by his teacher, Susan Wilcox, who saw in his work the faint echoes of Edgar Allan Poe. The comparison is quite apt in many ways. Over the years, Lindsay kept up his correspondence with his old high school English teacher, offering Ms Wilcox a first glimpse of his new poems. She always gave him a supportive, if critical, voice in return. As any writer will attest, this is one of the most important gifts the world can bestow on an artist.

For the most part, Vachel Lindsay's poetry is forgotten. The few people who know of his work are aware of his "Congo," a racist diatribe based on African dance rhythms, and "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven," a lengthy evangelical poem about the founder of the Salvation Army. Unfortunately, the ardent nature of these poems has cast Lindsay as a fanatic, and the characterization has never been lifted.

Still, it is a complete mistake to dismiss Vachel Lindsay as a mere nut case. His "Kallyope Yell" is an example of his most mature and fine work. In it he sings the song of the Republic as seen from street level.

Part I starts out with an assertion that reveals Lindsay's defensive posture toward the world. "Proud men/Eternally/Go about/ Slander me,/ Call me the 'Calliope.'/Sizz…../Fizz….." Lindsay was always rejected by the poetic establishment of his day and a newspaper reporter did slander him by calling him a poetic calliope, by which we can suppose he meant a noise maker and not a poet at all.

In Part II, Lindsay turns this slur into a proud statement of his philosophy. "I am the Gutter Dream,/Tune-maker, born of steam,/Tooting joy, tooting hope./I am the Kallyope," Here, Lindsay takes the negative term "calliope" and turns into the more sonorous "Kallyope." (The word rhymes with hope.) To vanquish the enemy, we must sometimes become the enemy. Here he transforms himself into his own effigy. He sees himself as they see him, and, in their image, he sees something of virtue. The calliope is the noise making steam driven instrument of circuses and by implication he becomes the transmuted calliope, a right fine singing poet called the Kallyope.

You say I am a calliope. Perhaps I am, the "People's idol everywhere," "Music of the mob am I." "See the flags: snow-white tent. See the bear and elephant, See the monkey jump the rope. Listen to the Kallyope, Kallyope, Kallyope!" He is really getting into it now! Suddenly, the poet has transformed himself into the "Soul of the rhinoceros/ And the hippopotamus." He becomes the voice of the people, the translator of the voice of the loon, jaguar, cockatoo, owl, lion, you name it. "Hail, all hail the popcorn stand."

In Part III, he further embraces the image of himself as wildman poet. "Born of mobs, born of steam,/ Listen to my golden dream." Why should we listen? "I will blow the proud folk low,/Humanize the dour and slow,/I will shake the proud folk down,/(Listen to the lion roar!)/ Popcorn crowds shall rule the town."

Lindsay has become the calliope. The word comes from the Greek muse of eloquence. The interplay between the working man's golden dreams and the brotherhood of steam is exactly the nature of his song. He sings his songs on street corners to entertain the common people, the same ones who come to the circus, the same ones who make the great Republic great.

It is worth noting that the America of Lindsay's dream, c.1906 to 1931, was dominated by steam engines: steam tractors, steam factories, steam locomotives, steam circus music. Steam itself is just a machine sweating. It's perfect! It is what Walt Whitman said we would become. It's the populist paradise where all the wild forces of the world are confined and their energy is redirected to the betterment of mankind. There, at the center of the ring, the gaudy drum major of the whole parade, is Lindsay himself. "I am the Kallyope, Kallyope, Kallyope!"

It's a vision of the workingman's paradise. "Gone the war on land and sea/ That aforetime troubled men./ Nations all in amity,/Happy in their plumes arrayed/ In the long bright street parade./ Bands a-playing every day./ What?/ Well, almost every day…./ Willy willy willy wah hoo!/ Hoot, toot, hoot, toot,/ Whoop whoop whoop whoop,…/ Sizz, fizz . . . . ." You can almost hear the machinery of his worker's paradise clanking and whirling along creating harmony and amity for all. "Willy willy willy wah hoo!"

It's a joyous celebration! "Steam shall work melodiously,/ Brotherhood increase./ You'll see the world and all it holds/ For fifty cents apiece." Let prolific industry take want out of the equation and what do you get? "Every day a circus day./ What?/ Well, almost every day."

It's an apocalyptic vision of total transformation, and in some ways it has come true. "Nevermore the sweater's den,/ Nevermore the prison pen./ Every soul/ Resident/ In the earth's one circus tent!/ Every man a trapeze king." It's magic!

In Part IV, instead of a dog-eat-dog world where everyone has to endure the taste of raw dog flesh in his mouth, Lindsay envisions a world where everyday is a race, and it doesn't really matter who wins, because everyone is "fit and fine," carried along by the general excitement. All the beasts that have dogged mankind's collective heels for millennia are at last contained in their cages. Maids are happy. Children have only cries of joy, because at last the peaceful kingdom has sprung to life.

In Part V, the vision is expanded to include the entire universe. The "Kallyope," now "Tooting hope, tooting hope, tooting hope, tooting hope," "Shaking window-pane and door/ With a crashing cosmic tune,…Voicing planet, star and moon, Shrieking of the better years." And yes even after this prophet has passed, other "Prophet-singers will arise," for "I am but the pioneer/Voice of the Democracy;/ I am the gutter-dream,/ I am the golden dream,/ Singing science, singing steam./I will blow the proud folk down,/ (Listen to the lion roar!)/ I am the Kallyope, Kallyope, Kallyope,/Tooting hope, tooting hope, tooting hope, tooting hope,/ Willy willy willy wah hoo!"

Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, in all his madness and energy, offers us nothing less the American dream served up on a steaming platter. And to prove that he saw himself as a prophet one need only read of his many treks across America preaching his gospel of hope and prosperity. The first one started in 1906 when 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-appointed mission was to bring the good news of poetry to the people. He wanted to give them a voice of rhythm, loud and strong, worthy of their mighty nature. He wanted to show them how to celebrate, how to make their lion ROAR!

One of the most ancient tasks of poets is to act as seers, visionaries who know without really being able to prove, what the future holds. In Lindsay's manic sort of way, his flamboyant performances, virtually pure street theater, described by Mike Goldsberry and Tracy Flemming as "a thump, a whistle, and a wheeze of a calliope," gave American working men and women the courage to see that their hard work and dedication to their own future would result in an earthly paradise just like they had been told when they stood on some foreign shore trying to decide whether to throw it all over for a gamble in the New World. Lindsay meant the bang of the drum and plunk of the banjo bands to ring out across the New World. With a passion not less than that engendered by religion, Vachel Lindsay sang out his poetry not for the pompous professors of literature, who took him to task for things he did not understand, but for the glory of those Americans who work everyday and sweat hard to create a better world.

Previous  Home  Next