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,
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.”…