Sixth Friend: Vachel Lindsay, “Factory Windows are Always Broken”

I hope you brought a gift, because today is this friend’s birthday – Vachel Lindsay turns 138 years old today, having been born in Springfield, Illinois in 1879. Mr. Lindsay was quite popular early in his career, but his popularity began to decline later in his life and, unfortunately, has waned more since then. He started out selling self-published work on the streets, in New York in 1905 and during treks across the country on foot in 1906, ’08, and ’12. He caught a break when Poetry Magazine, at the time still new and already influential in the literary world, published “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” in 1913, and “The Congo,” which we’ll get to shortly, in 1914. Once his popularity took off, his tours and public performances were very successful, but his fame peaked early. His fortunes declined until, in 1931, he committed suicide by drinking a bottle of Lysol.

Though his reputation never reached the heights of the mid- to late-1910’s, Mr. Lindsay has never been forgotten, either. Friend and fellow poet Edgar Lee Masters wrote a biography of him a few years after his death, and he still shows up in anthologies of American literature. One thing that may work against him is that his most famous poem, “The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race,” also happens to be of the sort that requires a trigger warning these days, and was also fairly controversial even in his own lifetime. It’s not the one I memorised for the Hundred Friends project since it’s far too long, but it’s interesting enough that I’ll go ahead and excerpt a bit:

I. THEIR BASIC SAVAGERY

Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
     A deep rolling bass.
Pounded on the table,
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
Hard as they were able,
Boom, boom, BOOM,
With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.
THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision.
I could not turn from their revel in derision.
THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK,
     More deliberate. Solemnly chanted.
CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A GOLDEN TRACK.
Then along that riverbank
A thousand miles
Tattooed cannibals danced in files;
Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song
And a thigh-bone beating on a tin-pan gong.
     A rapidly piling climax of speed & racket.
And “BLOOD” screamed the whistles and the fifes of the warriors,
“BLOOD” screamed the skull-faced, lean witch-doctors,
“Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle,
Harry the uplands,
Steal all the cattle,
Rattle-rattle, rattle-rattle,
Bing.
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,”
A roaring, epic, rag-time tune
     With a philosophic pause.
From the mouth of the Congo
To the Mountains of the Moon.
Death is an Elephant,
Torch-eyed and horrible,
     Shrilly and with a heavily accented metre.
Foam-flanked and terrible.
BOOM, steal the pygmies,
BOOM, kill the Arabs,
BOOM, kill the white men,
HOO, HOO, HOO.
Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
     Like the wind in the chimney.
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
Listen to the creepy proclamation,
Blown through the lairs of the forest-nation,
Blown past the white-ants’ hill of clay,
Blown past the marsh where the butterflies play: —
“Be careful what you do,
Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
     All the “O” sounds very golden. Heavy accents very heavy. Light accents very light. Last line whispered.
And all of the other
Gods of the Congo,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.”


That certainly sounds rather negative, but do read the whole thing, because it does improve from there, moving on to “Their Irrepressible High Spirits” in Part II, and concluding in Part III with “The Hope of their Religion,” that is, the Christian faith which replaced their native paganism. Mr. Lindsay was concerned for the welfare of African-Americans, and meant this poem to be taken in a positive light. He even corresponded with Joel Spingarn, then Chairman of the Board of Directors of the NAACP; Mr. Spingarn acknowledged his good intentions, but objected to the emphasis on the Negroes’ “savagery,” and how it supposedly set them apart from other races. There’s a good deal more that one could say about the social aspect of the poem, but that’s well beyond the scope of this post; I mention it only because it’s especially interesting.

Moving on to the poetry itself, though, among the first things one notices about the work is the emphasis on sound. I recently wrote about Edgar Allan Poe’s use of the sound of words, but Lindsay takes this a step further than that and even provides directions for how to read this out loud, as if he’s conducting an orchestra or giving direction on a play or movie. He believed that poetry should have a strong musical quality, and his writing and public recitations reflected this. In fact, you can listen to a recording of him reciting the poem himself; it’s truncated and hard to follow because of the audio quality (I recommend following the text while listening), but it’s an amazing performance, and reminds me of just a few other poets, like Carl Sandburg or W. B. Yeats, though neither of them are at this level. Ezra Pound once commented that poetry decays when it strays too far from music, and music decays when it strays too far from dance. No one exemplifies this better than Mr. Lindsay.

This gives us the key to appreciating the poem that I did memorise, “Factory Windows are Always Broken,” which may otherwise appear a bit underwhelming:

Factory windows are always broken.
Somebody’s always throwing bricks,
Somebody’s always heaving cinders,
Playing ugly Yahoo tricks.

Factory windows are always broken.
Other windows are let alone.
No one throws through the chapel-window
The bitter, snarling, derisive stone.

Factory windows are always broken.
Something or other is going wrong.
Something is rotten–I think, in Denmark.
End of factory-window song.

Now, I’m unsure of the context of this poem. He was, I gather, a Left-leaning Christian, so it’s easy to imagine the factory windows as an allegory for workers’ rights, or something else along those lines. What makes interpretation difficult is that it ends so abruptly. The first two stanzas give us a pair of observations, that factory windows are always broken, and chapel windows are not. The narrator then ponders for two lines about something being wrong, with a reference to Hamlet, and then suddenly he announces the “End of factory-window song.” The character Hamlet is rather famous for endlessly philosophising and procrastinating his task to avenge his father’s death, and it’s like Mr. Lindsay’s narrator not only doesn’t want to do anything about “something or other [that] is going wrong,” he doesn’t even want to think about it.

As for the sound of the poem, this does have his typical strong rhythm and regular rhyme scheme, which makes his poetry fun to recite and, helpfully for me, easy to remember. The line about the “bitter, snarling, derisive stone” is one I can almost hear him dwelling on, to emphasise each word’s ugliness. So, today let’s celebrate Mr. Lindsay’s birthday by reading this, or perhaps one of his other poems, whichever you like, the way poetry is supposed to be read – out loud.

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