Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Inventions of Spokane and Springfield and Vachel Lindsay's Dilemma

Most of us have a poet or two we start reading aloud after a few drinks with friends on a holiday weekend while the wind is flexing the windows and the rain is pounding.  

On the table in front of us are the paperback anthologies from college like Modern Poets of the Twentieth Century with its round glass bottom imprints on the cover and inside pages, just below the words “carpe diem!!” written long ago during a seizure of understanding.  Also on the table are the collected works of favorites.  Yeats.  Check!  Auden.  Check!  Billy Collins.  Check!  Eliot.  Check!  William Stafford.  Check!  Sandburg.  Check! Lindsay.  Check!  Each book tossed there from the shelves, sloshing the wine out of the glasses onto the table cloth and sometimes the books.  

Recently, out of a pile much like that, on an evening much like that, I pulled out Vachel Lindsay’s Collected Poems, turned to his reminiscence of the 1896 presidential election -- William Jennings Bryan, the democrat, against republican William McKinley -- written 23 years after the election by a poet at the top of his fame, recalling what it was like to be a 15 year old boy in Springfield who was completely taken by William Jennings Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan.

He brought in tides of wonder, of unprecedented splendor,
Wild roses from the plains, that made hearts tender,
All the funny circus silks
Of politics unfurled,
Bartlett pears of romance that were honey at the cores,
And torchlights down the street, to the end of the world.

This poem is Lindsay’s yearning for and love of his invented and idealized western culture. It tells the story of how the west rose up in the form of the populist Nebraska newspaper editor and lit a prairie fire that swept him to the nomination and where his perceived economic radicalism terrified the eastern establishment. As Lindsay tells it:

There were truths eternal in the gab and tittle-tattle.
There were real heads broken in the fustian and the rattle.
There were real lines drawn:
Not the silver and the gold,
But Nebraska's cry went eastward against the dour and old,
The mean and cold.

Today, we mostly see Bryan as the old fool in Inherit the Wind prosecuting young John Scopes on behalf of the state of Tennessee, but in 1896 he was a young phenom taking on the presidential campaign in an entirely new way. Bryan’s campaign in 1896 broke new ground by throwing out the convention of the front porch campaign, the presidential candidate staying home, meeting
with weighty delegations, while surrogates did the dirty jobs of grasping hands, touching money and begging for votes, or buying them. 

Bryan speaking in Salida, CO from the train car, 1902.
Donna Nevens Collection
Bryan was a political innovator.  He was the first to fully employ the new, nationwide railroad system for political purposes, taking his campaign to train stations and court houses all across the country. It was novel seeing a presidential candidate and the crowds, particularly young westerners like Lindsay, followed him with ardent enthusiasm. Just one year older than the constitutional requirement for the Presidency, the young Mr. Bryan seemed to be ahead, but McKinley closed strongly, beating Bryan by 500,000 votes out of 13,500,000 votes cast and 271-167 in the electoral vote.

Electoral College Map, 1896.   Bryan is Blue

As I read, I choke-up in several familiar and emotional places, even though I’ve read this poem most years for at least the last 50.

Like here:

And of prairie schooner children
Born beneath the stars,
Beneath falling snows,
Of the babies born at midnight
In the sod huts of lost hope,
With no physician there,
Except a Kansas prayer,
And the Indian raid a howling through the air.

Or here:

Election night at midnight:
Boy Bryan's defeat.
Defeat of western silver.
Defeat of the wheat.
Victory of letterfiles
And plutocrats in miles
With dollar signs upon their coats,
Diamond watchchains on their vests and spats on their feet.
Victory of custodians, Plymouth Rock,
And all that inbred landlord stock.
Victory of the neat.
Defeat of the aspen groves of Colorado valleys,
The blue bells of the Rockies,
And blue bonnets of old Texas, by the Pittsburg alleys.
Defeat of alfalfa and the Mariposa lily.
Defeat of the Pacific and the long Mississippi.
Defeat of the young by the old and the silly.
Defeat of tornadoes by the poison vats supreme.
Defeat of my boyhood, defeat of my dream.

Read the entire poem here. It's worth it.

Lindsay’s composition of Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan in 1919 came at a point where he was beginning a slow slide that would find him, in 1924, in room 1129 of Spokane’s Davenport Hotel where he hoped to find the time and the energy to stop his creative decline and be the writer he once was.  He was broke and largely alone, save for his correspondence with his literary friends and supporters.

There were several causes of his creative decline, but a big part of it was two poems he had written several years before that had made him as famous as any American poet.

Lindsay was a performance poet and the value of his words to his audiences came from the unique ways he said, chanted and yelled the words.  General William Booth Enters Heaven, about the founder of the Salvation Army, set to the tune of its anthem, Are you born in the blood of the lamb? and The Congo, what he called a study of the negro race, became the essence of his art. He called his performance poems 'the higher vaudeville' but they came with a big cost.

I persuaded the tired businessman to listen at last. But lo, my tiny reputation as a writer seemed wiped out by my new reputation as an entertainer.  That same year he wrote:  I am touring as of old, yelling my damned head off.   

In Spokane, he was in his mid-forties, felt that he was full of ideas and energy, but creatively stuck with the poems, audiences and presentations he fashioned as a much younger man.

Lindsay came from a prosperous doctor’s family in Springfield, Illinois and was part of the triumvirate of Illinois poets who gained great cache in the twenties. They lived on a near straight line about 80 miles long north and west of its start in Springfield, going through the Spoon River country where Edgar Lee Masters, the cranky, owlish, bleakish lawyer wrote and Galesburg, where Sandburg was born a year before Lindsay.

Lindsay was born in a house a block from the Illinois governor’s mansion and four blocks from where Abraham Lincoln lived as a Springfield lawyer. Lincoln's sister-in-law once lived in the house before Doctor Lindsay, Vachel's dad, bought it.  Lincoln visited the place often.  So, when he wrote Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, he really knew what he was talking about.  

His father prospered and pushed his son in a doctorly direction while his mother wanted him to be an artist.  He declined both, though he made a show about becoming both. Ultimately, he decorated a lot of his poetry with his drawings. 

Lindsay would have liked much of today's Internet – at least the "long tail" part, the part that connects obscure interests to many smaller audiences.  He was a self publisher and used his own two feet to deliver his work.  Twice in his life, he took his poems on several month-long walks across the country, producing content before, during and after. Rhymes To Be Traded For Bread was one tramping about book.  Another was A Handy Guide to Beggars, Especially Those of the Poetic Fraternity.  He hoped that his poetry would become a kind of currency that would sustain him on the road in lieu of money.  His poetical Bitcoin worked. He was fed, housed and inspired on the road.

I have recited with a mixture of scolding and solemn exhortation several of my poems which I thought embodied 'The Gospel of Beauty.' I have given this brief entertainment on the steps of hotels after supper; in the harvest field; to an English class in a California college; to a house full of prim invited guests; after dinner on the farmers’ tables; in lonely crossroads groceries to loafers; in the dark to the assembled cowboys on alfalfa and cattle ranches; to country editors in their sanctums.  Some of these people liked the entertainment.  Some did not.
He had an earnest, straightforward air, kind of like those activist fundraisers on the street today at the Pike Market, hands extended and teeth glistening:
“You, Sir, look like you might help me save the whales.”
In New Mexico, at the end of 1912 and on a walk from Springfield to Seattle, Lindsay got word that Poetry Magazine would publish General William Booth Enters Into Heaven in its January, 1913 edition and he knew this was the national vindication of his talent.  And it came just in time.  He was tired of the rigors of walking across America:
I have slept with the ant, the flea and the rest. In Illinois I met Mr. Bite-Bite; in Missouri Mr. Crawl-Crawl and Mr. Jump-Jump; in Kansas and Colorado Mr. Pinch-Pinch, and in New Mexico the whole family.
He jumped on a train and headed to California where he was working on another passion, arguably the first American book of motion picture criticism, The Art of the Moving Picture, which he published in 1915, just after he published The Congo. You'll see the cinematic influence particularly on Bryan Bryan Bryan Bryan. The first audience for The Congo was in Chicago and included William Butler Yeats and Carl Sandburg, Yeats coming up and Lindsay already answering Yeats' question:

What are we going to do to restore the primitive singing of poetry?
Yeats was instrumental in getting Lindsay to be the first American poet to read at Oxford, where he was a smash.  According to Mildred Weston’s wonderful book about Lindsay’s five years in Spokane, “Poet in Exile”, Lindsay came to Spokane for the first time in 1922 to read his poems, but a mix-up cancelled the reading, though he visited a couple of friends and had a lunch where he met a local lawyer, Ben Kizer, whom Lindsay had corresponded with over the years and who was one of the community investors in the now nine year old Davenport Hotel, the jewel of the city’s downtown.  
Kizer liked Lindsay, loved poetry and thought he could make a match with Lindsay and Spokane that would have business value for the town and creative value to the poet.  He wrote with an offer to live at the Davenport where Kizer and Louis Davenport, the hotel’s manager, would provide a subsidy.  Kizer felt it couldn’t hurt if a big name poet was musing about the charms of Spokane in print.  Initially, Davenport thought so too.
Ben Kizer could write a letter.  He once wrote to the poetry editor of the New York Times and proposed marriage, never having met her.  After a bit of follow-up, including a picture of him in a subsequent letter and a visit to New York, they did get married!  Lindsay said yes as well and moved to Spokane in July of 1924. Ben's daughter, Carolyn, became one of the best poets the state lever produced, winning the Pulitzer Price in 1984 and once was married to Stimson Bullitt.  
Soon, Lindsay was describing a kind of dual citizen of two American towns he saw as possessing magic, citizen of Springfield, guest of Spokane. He wrote in a letter to Sara Teasdale, his first love, though unrequited, that he was now in a land of forests, meditation and sanctuary and I have the best promise of isolation and quiet.

Davenport Lobby
Mildred Weston describes Lindsay’s arrival in Spokane in another way, as a collision.  He was frequently on the lips of Spokane’s citizens who heard or read of his fantastical behavior.  He assumed he had the run of the hotel and did, wandering around late at night, stoking the fire and staring into the fireplace.  He staged poetry events, which he called poetry games, with dancers swaying to the rhythms of his poems and the banging of pots with wooden spoons.  He would have loved poetry slams today, though probably would have complained that there was not enough movement to them and a dearth of chanting.

In an oral history, Robert Frost described Lindsay’s different, unusual behaviors, praising at least, their authenticity: 

“You could say there was something a little strange about him, lofty, and he did some crazy things and he knew how to do them without trying.  Some of these poets seem to get in a corner and gnaw their fingernails and try to get a dark corner, you know, and try to go crazy so they will qualify.  There’s none of that in Vachel.  He was just crazy in his own right; he did some of the strangest things.”

Among the behaviors most often talked about in Spokane was his habit of bringing French Boudoir Dolls into the Davenport dining room and having wait staff set them up in high chairs.  Lindsay would chat with them as he dined alone.  Boudoir Dolls were fashionable in the twenties – made of cloth and dressed in style, they had long legs and fancy hair, some came with cigarettes in their fingers or lips.  He got the dolls while trying to buy something else and was shown the dolls by mistake.  He bought two, thinking it was a big joke.  Many guests didn’t get the funny part.

Lindsay was a virgin when he came to Spokane, partly because of his religion and partly because of his father's hectoring him on the danger of venereal
disease. However, he met and married Elizabeth Connor, a Spokane teacher then 23 years old. They soon created another guest for the hotel, a little girl.  But the rooms were too small and they moved briefly to an apartment and then to Browne’s Addition on 2318 West Pacific where the couple had another child, a boy.
While they kept the rooms at the Davenport as a kind of office where he would tend to his official duties of greeting prominent guests, the headquarters of Spokane poetry was now on a quiet street above the Spokane River where poetical movement shook the apartment and adjacent apartments and the pots lost their shapes to the frequent banging on them.
Lindsay was bipolar, epileptic and subject to seizures.  He was also diabetic.  His physical health and new responsibilities were ratcheting up the demons in his fragile mental make-up. Creating more mayhem in his life was the fact that there was never any money and now two children and a wife. 

His money came from the trains and the high school and community auditoriums and theaters and the endless hotels making up the grueling performance circuit.  He made little shrines in the rooms he stayed in, pictures of the family arranged just so on the night stand where he would put down his pen after writing a letter home and turn out the light. 

The next night, it was The Congo and Booth, Booth and The Congo, mixed in with a handful of others.

While on the road he was writing a new book on film to take into consideration the Talkies which he didn't like very much.  It was never published.

In 1929, the Seattle Times reported that an overflow crowd at the University of Washington stormed the stage after his performance when they realized he was not going to read The Congo.  One night in 1930 he was mobbed in Ashville, North Carolina for refusing to read it.

I wrote “The Congo” in 1913 and was through reciting it FOREVER in 1920.  I am the agonized prisoner of my 34th year, no matter that I am 51…I am the prisoner of a stunt with all the creative force thwarted – and to me welcomed only as a stunt, not a message, and to me, The Congo and Booth are as stale as the oldest thing in a dusty cellar or dusty attic.”

Lindsay left Spokane in 1929 after being evicted from The Davenport in 1928.  In a fragment of a letter that he never sent, he said he was approached by a subordinate of one of the people who had invited him. In summary, Lindsay says he was told that his work was too high brow, that he needed, in Lindsay’s words, to be socially a lounge lizard and absolutely at the disposal of people worth a million dollars … I discover the hospitality of this town was bunco from first to last.

Worse than anything, given his financial state, he was presented with a bill for his entire stay. 

Lindsay’s eviction is a curious event that doesn’t jibe with his relationship to Kizer and others in the city’s elite who were among the first 100 investors of the hotel.  They chose Louis Davenport to build and run the hotel after they had pulled together the financing from the community.   

But, looking at the financial history of the hotel, I find that in 1928, Davenport began the process of buying out the original 100 investors.  He sold bonds around the region and had completed the buy-out early in 1929 and funded an expansion in 1929.  So it was Louis Davenport, I think, who was fully in charge of the hotel and felt comfortable sending an underling to confront Lindsay and deliver the message – and the bill.

Lindsay was disdainful of money but conflicted about the fact he needed it.  On his beggarly walks as a young man, his poems and performances served as money he could enjoy, but as a father and husband, his lack of money was a constant humiliation.  If you wanted Lindsay to leave the room, bring up the topic of money.

Lindsay and his family left Spokane for Springfield in the Spring of 1929, his pride and ego making him unable to reveal to some friends that they were actually leaving Spokane.  It was all very clumsy.  Remaining behind him were 39 columns he had written for The Spokane Chronicle and the Spokesman Review, little lectures about his concepts of
beauty and the need of great cities to support their own artists and artisans. They are collected by Shaun O'L.  Higgens in Troubadour in the Wild Flower City.  Lindsay wrote a fair amount of poetry in Spokane but not much of it about Spokane. He wrote as much poetry to the Spokane Librarian, Ora Maxwell, than he did to Spokane.  There is a plaque featuring Lindsay’s residence in the beautifully redone Davenport, now moved to the lobby from Room 1129. 

In the Winter of 1931, Lindsay returned from his last reading tour and was clearly shattered both physically and financially, with $96 in cash in his pocket and debts of $4,000.  After a fitful evening, his wife finally went upstairs to sleep.  Lindsay arranged photographs of his family on a table in the dining room, lit a couple of candles, went to the kitchen where he filled a teacup full of Lysol and drank it down.  The family claimed his death was heart failure for several years before the real cause came out in a biography done by Edgar Lee Masters.  

Lindsay's poetry is vanishing, and some of it deservedly so.  The Congo is a testament to the casual racism that existed when it was written -- existed within the Woodrow Wilson White House -- where he performed it, by the way, as well as in Lindsay himself and nearly all his audiences. It's an artifact and no more a Study of the Negro Race as it is vaudeville black face.  It is merely a performance and it seems pretty crude today.  

I don't read much of Lindsay anymore, mostly going to his books to find a cool quote for a speech, like Booth died blind but still by faith he trod.  I have remained loyal to Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, however, because I like the optimistic voice it has, Lindsay's top-of-the-game voice, along with representations of that day's rough and tumble political partisanship.  And, Lindsay's version of the West comports with mine.  I read it once a year at least and always to an audience -- sometimes to friends, once to a class on politics and sometimes, just to my dog.  

Most of the commentary subsequent to Lindsay's death reflect what Frost thought of him -- crazy, yes, but at least authentically so. The poet and novelist James Dickey, starts gentle but ends a bit harder though with the same idea of respect for its authenticity. In a review of Lindsay's Collected Letters, Dickey has Lindsay's life a raw account of the manner in which a man of compassion and of oddball, shamanistic insight, was fashioned into a freak, or better still, a carnival geek. 

Whatever caused his great decline, few poets have given themselves so completely to their imaginations.  His time in Spokane was a typical invention. When Lindsay was there, Spokane was hardly what its citizens saw, but to him, it was a great walled city, full of the spirit of the arts and Lindsay's ideas of beauty, music and rhythm and any other enthusiasm Lindsay was interpreting at the moment.   Springfield was the same, an invention with some inherent magic emanating from the legend of Lincoln, the freshness of the west and Lindsay's desire to fashion American myths, especially western myths, as great as the Greeks. In these places and the many hamlets he poked his head in around the country, he was truly happy only for moments, and then only recovered it after he moved on and invented the next place before the eyes of its surprised citizens.   

Lindsay Reading The Congo

General William Booth Enters Into Heaven

Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight

Lindsay and the Librarian