Vachel Lindsay: Contribution as American Poet

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      Born in Springfield, Illinois, Nicholas Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) studied in Chicago and then in New York, then tramped across 11 inches of USA and began to write verses in which he would often barter for food and lodging. He was the second memorable poet, associated with the ‘Chicago Renaissance’. Like Sandburg, he was associated with Abraham Lincoln: “I be prairie lawyer”. He was also equally devoted to Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan. He was in fact, brought up in Illinois during the period of agrarian and populist revolt against the emergent urban industrial economy. In 1912, he undertook the walking tour of the United States. As a poet, he was a celebrant of small-town Midwestern populism and creator of strong, rhythmic poetry designed to be declaimed aloud. His main poetical works are - General William Booth Enters into Heaven and Other Poems (1913), The Congo and Other Poems (1914) form a curious link between the popular, or folk, forms of poetry, such as the Christian gospel songs and vaudeville (popular theater) on the one hand, and advanced modernist poetics on the other. The Chinese Nightingale and Other Poems was published in 1917. An extremely popular public reader in his day, Lindsay’s readings foresee “Beat” poetry readings of the post-World War II era that were accompanied by Jazz Music. His work was dramatic and full of incisive rhythms and one whose imagery was drawn from a broad American background.

      To popularize poetry, Lindsay developed what he called a “higher vaudeville,” using music with a strong rhythm. The method enjoyed only limited success but he retained the hope that he might become a great singer of everyman. Above all, he wanted to ‘reconcile culture and manliness’. This idealism is clearly evident in his Golden Book of Springfield (1920) in which he vividly depicts an Utopia based on the ‘Gospel of Beauty’. As his audience dwindled and he could no longer support himself by his poetry readings. He suffered from depression and dejection. His last published work was a book of political essays The Litany of Washington Street (1929). His Collected Poems appeared in 1923 and a revised edition in 1925. A volume of letters written by to him appeared in print in 1979. Being a racist by today’s standards, his famous poem “The Congo” (1914) celebrates the history of the Africans by mingling jazz, poetry and time. He immortalized such great figures on the American landscape as Abraham Lincoln (“Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”) and John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”), often blending facts with myth. Predictably, some of his hopes remained unrealized and so he committed suicide. Curiously, he remains a noble literary figure whatever may be his thoughts and actions.

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