Vachel Lindsay's Best Poems and Commentaries by Job Conger
Though a big piece of Job Conger "lives" to recite his favorite Vachel poems to living audiences at libraries, civic organizations, parties, special events, effigy burnings, whatever ya got,  such occasions seldom permit more than a snapshot through the camera of Conger's understanding of the poet. The poems shared here, all public domain,  present more of a snapshot -- perhaps an 8 x 10 instead of the 5 x 7 he shows you when he recites. His hope in what follows is that you will consider these a springboard from which you will reap a portrait of the poet through your mind's camera. That your vision will guide you to a better understanding of the man through your additional learning.

Conger tells audiences he meets, "I hope my reciting inspires you to do likewise, not to please me, but to reap the satisfaction and delight you give to yourself and your family and friends when you do. I know such an outcome is possible because I have witnessed it happen to me and to others."

TThe following poem is typical Vachel in many ways. When a visitor to the Vachel Pages e'd me asking about his family name Skootsky and wondering why it appeared in an obscure poem entltled ""Excuse Me if I Cry Into My Handerchief" in Vachel's final collection of new poems Every Soul is a Circus in 1929 and as "Rigamarole Rigamarole" published in The Poetry Quartos also in 1929 (as explained in volume 3 of Dennis Camp's superb three-volume magnum opus). I reached for my first edition of Every Soul', transcribed the poem and sent it to Mr. Skootsky and his brother Samuel. Since I already had text on my hard drive, and since I enjoyed the poem more, every minute I spent transcribing it, I wanted to share it with you. Included is the introduction I sent with the e to the Skootskys.

The poem below by Vachel Lindsay was transcribed by Job Conger from Every Soul is a Circus by Vachel Lindsay, First Edition, The MacMillan Company, October, 1929. In this transcription, sections of the poem appear with breaks in sections as the author appears to have intended them; not broken by end-of-page requirements. This approach should be considered the transcriber’s "best deduction;" not a definitive production.

Excuse Me if I Cry Into My Handkerchief
[A story for mature infants and immature older people.]

by Vachel Lindsay

Three Russian musicians, classical court composers, slept in the attic,
An East River Attic, in a state of mind splenetic.
A sky lighted turret of the Fish Market Tenements. Sorrow was their seneschal.
Sorrow was official, made them medieval, was steward and major-domo,
For each ceremonial.

The cutest was the flutist.
The slide trombone
Was the moaner.
Psaffonoff was a scoundrel, a rounder and a bounder, and a violinist,
Yet loyal to the turret and the hall.
Listen to the story of their fall.

Neighbors in that castle hall tried to stop their fall.
A wop electrician in especial gave Sunday papers to keep them quiet,
Gave them cents on rents, crusts and hot dogs by way of diet,
Rags
To wrap their bones withal.

By Brooklyn Bridge, all year through composing classical symphonies!
The cutest played – "Haggledy, piggledy, rilly-ra-loo,"
On a flute of crystal, bird-like tone. Yet made it blow Slavically, with a groan.

The Moaner played – "Lolly-pop, eat the pup, belly-mo-lay,
Kersniff, kersniff, eat him today,"
But Slavically, on his slide trombone, as he sat all alone by the telephone.
Psaffonoff seemed saying – "Alas, alas, poor Cock Robin lies under the glass."
Classically, classily, Slavically, slowly, playing his speaking violin,
Having for speed a great incapacity; touching the strings with fingers thin.

Sorrow was their seneschal, sorrow was their all.
Excuse me if I cry into my handkerchief.

Under the skylight they watched for the daylight, scrawny, half dead.
Blood royal and bar sinister!
And flames in the head.
With Slavic Asiatic emotionalism, they quarreled all night over
Cannibalism,

And Ivan Pre Skootsky Skay Var.
Yelled about sex and behaviorism, Dostkoyeffsky, Turgeneff, Kroporkin,
Rachmaninoff, and Marie Whatya Macaller, Tolstoy and some other feller,
Eugenics, aesthetics, aromatics and the like!
Dialogued about physiology, pathology, astrology,
Elections, electrons, atoms, molecules, morons,
Psycho-analysis, mythology, the Soviet, the Universal Strike.

At dawn slow music would penetrate
The neighbors deciding to vacate,
Music to make them hesitate.


II

For Christmas week, when luck was good, they sold a sugared cacophony,
Or a hymn, or a part-Brahms melodee, to be played Slavically, crawlingly.
Then Vodka drank, on the thinning winnings.
Made free, made free,
Their neckties new, their morals loose, at a place of glee called
"The Pig and the Goose."

Once, when spring came in a day, each thought to bear one maid away,
A gold-haired Mehitable who could purr.
Two Slavically moaned to her of obstetrics, Russia, and the like,
Straight on to the Universal Strike.
Psaffonoff, scoundrel, had no plan. Hid with her behind the door.
Squeezed her just like some hired man.
Each Cossack thought himself engaged. She liked to see three Cossacks crawl.
But loved the electrician proud and tall! Wop who was bigger than a cop!
Married him that very week. Her flirting, sad to say, was very sneak.

Sorrow was their seneschal. Sorrow was their all.
Excuse me if I cry into my handkerchief.

Cock-robins under the skylight-glass!
There in the attic with moans ecstatic, three Cossacks moaned disclosures grave.
Each exposed himself her slave. Quiet, for once, in conversation,
Said softly, without telling the nation, that the bridegroom was a knave.
Yes the three were brave. Despite their ache, said "What’s the use?"
Declared a truce, for Red Hair’s sake, and gave the winner game good speed,
(The jokes were broad, the talk was loose)
At the place of glee called "The Pig and The Goose."

Far off in Spokane, Washington, that wop electrician sells his wares.
Electric builbs and stoves and mats. Blown-out fuses he repairs.
Ht turns on currents that would kill anyone but Mehitable.
Mehitable ties packages and brings about some wreckages.

Three Slav musicians climb the stairs within their New York knightly hall,
Sorrow is their seneschal. Each man at the skylight glares.
Nothing to eat, no one to love. They sit in broken Morris chairs.
Sorrow is their all. Love brought about their fall.
Excuse me if I cry into my
Zkqechechookerchief, my handkerchief, my handkerchief,

The chicken-faced two, forgiving her, sing of her sweet former days
As Melisande, upon the wall, Rosamund within the maze,
Right classically.
To show thereby her fires were true, her brows were high.
They know not why they’re losing style.

Psaffonoff, who was rough in play, the ape-faced one, writes classics grand,
That call her "Theda, White of Hand," makes queer slow time songs to show,
Her fires were high, her ways were low.
He knows not why he’s losing style.

Love brought about their fall. Yet not complete as yet. They play no blues at all.
Nor Mammy tunes nor saxophone at all, nor for The Vitaphone.
They have not played for the phonograph, nor the radio so rude,
Only the neighbors say – "These men intrude."



When Gassy Thompson Struck It Rich
by Vachel Lindsay

He paid a Swede twelve bits an hour
Just to invent a fancy style,
To spread the celebration paint
So it would show for just a mile.

Some things they did  I cannot tell;
They're not quite proper for a rhyme,
But I will say Yim Yonson Swede
Did sure invent a sunflower time.

One thing they did that I can tell
And not offend the ladies here:
They took a goat to SImp's Saloon
And made it take a bath in beer.

That enterprise took management.
They broke a wash-tub in the fray,
But mister goat got bathed, all right,
And bar keep Simp did too, they say.

They wore girls' pink sraw hats to church
And clucked like hens. They surely did.
They bought two hotel frying pans
And in them down the mountains slid.

They went to Denver in good clothes
And kept Burt's Grill Room wide awake.
They cut about like jumping jacks
And ordered seven-dollar steak.

They kept the waiters whirling round
Just wiping up the smear and smash.
They tried to buy the State-house flag.
They showed the janitor the cash.

And Old Dan Tucker on a toot,
Or John Paul Jones beforet he breeze,
Or Indians eating fat, fried dog
Were not as happy  babes as these.

One day in hills near Cripple Creek
With cheerful swears, the two awoke.
The Swede had twenty cents, all right,
But Gassy Thompson was clean broke.

-- Commentary by webmaster Job Conger   
    The moment I finished the last line the first time I read this poem to myself, I felt that if Mark Twain could have written one poem before he made the bigtime as a purveyor of piquant prose, THIS is the poem he would have written. Lucky for us Vachel Lindsay came along and wrote it
     Soon after reading it, I put it to music with my guitar accompaniment The  words,  in verse OR song, delight alisteners when I share them.



The Broncho That Would Not Be Broken

by Vachel Lidnsay

A little colt – broncho, loaned to the farm
To be broken in time without fury or harm,
But black crows flew past you, shouting alarm
Callinng "Beware," with lugubrious singing . . . . .
The butterflies there in the bush were romancing
The smell of the grass caught your heart in a trance,
So why be a fearing the spurs and the traces,
O broncho that would not be broken of dancing?


You were born with the pride of the lords great and olden
Who danced through the ages in corridors golden
In all the wide farm-place the person most human
You spoke out so plainly with squealing and capering,
With whinnying, snorting, contorting and prancing
As you dodged your pursuers, looking askance,
With Greek-footed figures and Parthenon paces
O broncho that would not be broken of dancing.

The grasshoppers cheered. "Keep whirling," they said
The insolent sparrows called from the shed
"If men will not laugh, make them wish they were dead."
But arch were your thoughts, all malice displacing,
Though the horse-killers came with snake-whips advancing
You bantered and cantered away your last chance.
And the scourged you with Hell in their speech and their faces,
O broncho that would not be broken of dancing.

"Nobody cares for you," rattled the crows,
As you dragged the whole reaper next day down the rows.
The three mules held back, yet you danced on your toes.
You pulled like a racer, and kept the mules chasing,
You tangled the harness with bright eyes side glancing,
While a drunk driver bled you, a pole for a lance,
And the giant mules bit at you – keeping their places.
O broncho that would not be broken of dancing.

In that last afternoon, your boyish heart broke.
A hot wind came down like a sledge-hammer stroke.
The blood-sucking flies to a rare feast awoke.
And they searched out your wounds, your death-warrant tracing,
And the merciful men, their religion enhancing,
Stopped the red reaper, to give you a chance.
But you died on the prairie and scorned all disgraces,
O broncho that would not be broken of dancing.



During my visit to a local elementary school, reciting Vachel and talking about his life to students, I noticed a 5th grade teacher having a problem as I recited "Broncho." When I finished the poem, I approached her to ask what was wrong, and it was obvious the poem had inspired a tear or two. Her eyes were read and cheeks moist. And I was almost drawn to tears. For the first time I fully understood what an excellent poem, recited as it is meant to be recited, can do. To this day, it is the most requested poem (by those who know Vachel) when I am asked to share hist story. It is absolutely one of my favorite VL poems, and I hope it will become one of yours as well. For the record, the Vachel poem most requested by good people who know of him, but not much, is "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight."

THE BOOKER WASHINGTON TRILOGY
(A Memorial to Booker T. Washington)

I. Simon Legree -- A Negro Sermon

Legree's big house was white and green.
His cotton fields were the best to be ssen.
He had strong horses and opulent cattle,
And bloodhounds bold, on chains that would rattle.
His garret was full of curious things:
Books of magic, bags of gold,
And rabbits' feet on long, twine strings,
But he went down to the Devil.

Legree, he sported a brass button coat,
A snake-skin necktie, a blood-red shirt.
Legree he had a beard like a goat,
And a thick hairy neck and eyes like dirt.
His puffed-out cheeks were fish-belly white.
He had great long teeth and an appetite.
He ate raw meat, 'most every meal,
And he rolled his eyes till the cat would squeal.

His fist was an enormous size
To mash poor niggers that told him lies:
He surely was a witch-man in disguise.
But he went down to the Devil.

He wore big hip boots, and would wade all day
To capture the slaves that had fled away,
But  he went down to the Devil.

He beat poor Uncle Tom to death,
Who prayed for Legree with his last breath.
Then Uncle Tom to Eva flew
To the high sanctoriums, bright and new;
And Simon Legree looked up beneath,
And cracked his heels and ground his teeth,
And went down to the Devil.

He crossed the yard in the storm and the gloom.
Legree went into his grand front room.
He said  "I killed him, and I don't care."
He kicked a hound, he gave a swear,
He tightened his belt, he took a lamp.
Went down cellar to the webs and damp.
There in the middle of a mouldy floor,
He heaved up a slab, he found a door,
And went down to the Devil.

His lamp burned out, but his eyes glowed bright.
Simon Legree went down all night --
Down, down to the Devil.
Simon Legree, he reached the place,
He saw one half of the human race,
He saw the Devil on a wide, green throne,
Gnawing the meat from a big ham bone,
And he said to Mister Devil:

    "I see that you have much to eat.
     A red ham bone is surely sweet.
     I see that you have lion's feet.
     I see your frame so fat and fine,
     I see you drink your poison wine --
     Blood and burning turpentine."

And the Devil said to Simon Legree:
     "I like your style, so wicked and free.
      Come sit and share my throne wtih me,
       And let us bark and revel."
And there they sit and gnash their teeth,
And each one wears a hop-vine wreath.
They are matching pennies and shooting craps.
They are playing poker and taking naps.
And old Legree is fat and fine:
He eats the fire, he drinks the wine --
Blood and burning turpentine --
 
Down, down with the Devil;
       Down, down wtih the Devil;
            Down, down with the Devil.

This is one of my favorite top ten Vachel poems, and I recite it along, especially when Halloween is in season.  Much of the success during my recitals comes from my parents who were born in the South. My mom had a Cochran, Geo'gia accesnt you could cut with a knife, and  when I am deep into the wine and good company, or reciting this fabulous poem, I have a Georgia accent too.  Because of these modern times, I substitute "slaves" for "niggers" in the third verse. When I share with educators or an audience where I have firmly established the historic context of this poem, I say ALL of what Vachel wrote. He was without equivocation, without a racially prejudiced corpuscle in his body.  In my recital, it ends following a dramatic crescendo in the last three lines and it echoes for about two to three seconds as people realize what has hit them. And if it incites interest in Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin . . . . . that's one more reason to share this poem!



The Potatoes’ Dance

(a poem game)

by Vachel Lindsay

       I

"Down cellar," said the cricket,
"Down cellar," said the cricket,
"Down cellar," said the cricket,
"I saw a ball last night.
In honor of a lady,
In honor of a lady,
In honor of a lady
Whose wings were pearly white.
The breath of bitter weather,
The breath of bitter weather,
The breath of bitter weather,
Had smashed the cellar pane.
We entertained a drift of leaves,
We entertained a drift of leaves,
We entertained a drift of leaves,
And then of snow and rain.
But we were dressed for winter,
But we were dressed for winter,
But we were dressed for winter,
And loved to hear it blow
In honor of a lady,
In honor of a lady,
In honor of a lady,
Who makes potatoes grow,
Our guest the Irish lady
The tiny Irish lady
The airy Irish lady,
Who makes potatoes grow.

II

Potatoes were the waiters
Potatoes were the waiters
Potatoes were the waiters
Potatoes were the band,
Potatoes were the dancers
Kicking up the sand,
Kicking up the sand,
Kicking up the sand,
Potatoes were the dancers
Kicking up the sand.
Their legs were old burnt matches,
Their legs were old burnt matches,
Their legs were old burnt matches,
Their arms were just the same.
They jigged, and whirled and scrambled
Jigged and whirled and scrambled,
Jigged and whirled and scrambled
In honor of the dame,
The noble Irish lady,
The saucy Irish lady,
The laughing Irish lady
Who makes potatoes prance.

III

"There was just one sweet potato.
He was golden, brown and slim.
The lady loved his dancing,
The lady loved his dancing,
The lady loved his dancing,
She danced all night with him.
She danced all night with him.

Alas, he wasn’t Irish,
So when she flew away,
They threw him in the coal-bin,
And there he is today,
Where they cannot hear his sighs
And his weeping for his lady,
The glorious Irish lady,
The beauteous Irish lady,
Who
Gives
Potatoes
Eyes."


The fine painting Vachel created as a visual perspective of this poem hangs on the south wall of the Lindsay family living room at Vachel Lindsay Home State Historic Site, 603 S. Fifth Street in Springfield, Illinois. It is one of  about six Vachel poems I'vemost recently memorized. Why so recent? I concluded that I owe it to audiences to include in my reciting repertoire, poems whose style and focus I do not personally embrace on a visceral level as I happily embrace so many of his poems. I've leared how a lot of children's humor which elicited squeals of delight earlier in the evolution of American society, no longer work such magic. And that's okay. Would Vachel laugh today at what makes children laugh today? Not likely. It's just a different world.  That said, adults appreciate many aspects of "Potatoes," and kids of all ages enjoy the final 12 lines of this poem. Here is Vachel's joyful, innocent whimsy at its best. I  memorized the poem because the painting inspires conversation among visitors, and what better opportunity to recite a poem that goes with the painting?   The other Vachel art in the living room connects to his poems "The Wedding of the Rose and Lotus" and "The Tree of the Laughing Bells," both very mature poems with wonderful histories of their own. But the stories behind them are so complex, most innocent bystanders (visitors) have neither the time nor the interest in engaging more than a few polite words about the art. "The Potatoes' Dance" is a terrific poem for the room and gives all a glimpse of Vachel's lighter side.



To The United States Senate
by Vachel Lindsay

And must the Senator from Illinois
Be this squat thing with blinking half-closed eyes?
This brazen gutter idol, reared to power
Upon a leering pyramid of lies?

And must the Senator from Illinois
Be the world's proverb of successful shame,
Dazzling all the State house flies that steal and steal,
Who, when the sad State spares them, count it fame?

If once or twice within his new-won hall
His vote had counted for the broken men;
If in his early days, he wrought some good --
We might a great soul's sins forgive him then.

And must the Senator from Illinois
Be vindicated by fat kings of gold?
And must he be belauded by the smirched,
The sleek, uncanny chiefs in lies grown cold?

Be warned, O wanton ones, who shielded him --
Black wrath awaits. You all shall eat the dust.
You dare not say: "Tomorrow will bring peace;
Let us make merry, and go forth with lust."

What will you trading frogs do on the day
When Armageddon thunders thro' the land;
When each sad patriot rises, mad with shame,
His ballot or his musket in his hand?

In the distracted states from which you came
The day is big with war hopes fierce and strange;
Our iron Chicagos and our grimy mines
Rumble with hate and love and solemn change.

Too many weary men shed honest tears
Ground by machines that give the Senate ease.
Too many little babes with bleeding hands
Have heaped the fruits of empire on your knees.

And swine within the Senate on this day,
When all the smothering by-streets weep and wail;
When wisdom breaks the hearts of her best sons;
When kingly men, voting for truth, may fail --

These are a portent and a call to arms.
Our protest turns into a battle cry.
"Our shame must end, our States be free and clean."
And in this war we choose to live and die.

For Vachel to live today, his poetry must work today. I feel this poem works as magnificently as any poem he has written, but I am as interested in how it works for YOU. What do you think? Write with your feedback, sign my guestbook at the bottom of my home page, and I'll tell you more about this poem.  atc@aeroknow.com

Honor Among Scamps
by Vachel Lindsay

We are the smirched. Queen honor is the spotless
We slept thro' wars where Honor could not sleep.
We were faint-hearted. Honor was full-valiant.
We kept a silence Honor could not keep.

Yet this late day, we make a song to praise her.
We, codeless, will yet vindicate her code.
She who was mighty, walks with us, the beggars.
The merchants drive her out upon the road.

She makes a throne of sod beside our campfire.
We give the maiden-queen our rags and tears.
A battered rascal guard have rallied round her.
To keep her safe until the better years.

This poem evokes an picture of lost men who understand both their incapacity to do the right thing and their acknowledgement, their reverence of a higher standard. I see a circle of 13 men around a campfire while in the background the shambles of the city smoulder under a threatening sky. Many Vachel poem fans, among them me, who applaud his professed allegiance to a high moral calling, find themselves ready to sit at the campfire with Vachel and the others. The picture this poem conveys is a surrender to the current state of affairs. I chafe against this state of surrender. His life was an exhortation of urging moral striving while his practical inaction beyond words in that regard led to few more-serious poets (and the community of Springfield, Illinois) from taking him seriously. We know how we chafe at parents and politicians who shout "Do as I say; don't do as I do." While I chafe against the hypocrisy that statement facilitates, I appreciate the effort to preserve the hope, like a secret scroll of wisdom hidden in a hollow tree.  In this poem, Vachel admits his moral incapacity to act; only to preserve the code. The world grows from those who act. Maybe the poet lacks the capacity to act, while those who act too often are unblessed by the capacity to exercise higher moral standards in their acting. What do YOU think?

 

Niagara
                 by Vachel Lindsay

Within the town of Buffalo 
Are prosy men with leaden eyes.
Like ants they worry to and from 
(Important men, in Buffalo),
But only twenty miles away
A deathless glory is at play: 
Niagara, Niagara.

The women buy their lace and cry: -- 
"O such a delicate design," 
And over ostrich feathers sigh, 
By counters there, in Buffalo. 
The children haunt the trinket shops, 
They buy false-faces, bells, and tops,
Forgetting great Niagara.

Within the town of Buffalo 
Are stores with garnets, sapphires, pearls, 
Rubies, emeralds aglow, -- 
Opal chains in Buffalo,
Cherished symbols of success, 
They value not your rainbow dress:-- 
Niagara, Niagara

The shaggy meaning of her name 
This Buffalo, this recreant town, 
Sharps and lawyers prune and tame; 
Few pioneers in Buffalo; 
Except young lovers flushed and fleet 
And winds hallooing down the street: 
"Niagara, Niagara."

The journalists are sick of ink: 
Boy prodigals are lost in wine, 
By night where white and red lights blink, 
The eyes of Death, in Buffalo. 
And only twenty miles away 
Are starlit rocks and healing spray:-- 
Niagara, Niagara.

Above the town a tiny bird,
A shining speck at sleepy dawn, 
Forgets the ant-hill so absurd, 
This self-important Buffalo. 
Descending twenty miles away 
He bathes his wings at break of day -- 
Niagara, Niagara.

. Since discovering this poem several years ago, I've had a problem with the last stanza not yet shared here, but about to be. Dennis Camp's superlative trilogy about VL should be obtained and savored by good folks who want to know more about VL. I won't parrot Camp, but I hope I can say without fear of plagarizing, that VL added a "war stanza" to the poem in 1917 shortly before it first appeared in print. I don't think the stanza serves the poem or the point of the poem. I include it here only because VL included it in his Collected Poems published in 1925. When I recite this excellent poem, I NEVER include the following stanza.

What marching men of Buffalo 
Flood the streets in rash crusade? 
Fools-to-free-the-world, they go, 
Primeval hearts from Buffalo, 
Red cataracts of France today 
Awake, three thousand miles away, 
An echo of Niagara, 
The cataract Niagara.

VL is very cinematic in many of  his poems. "Niagara" is a fine example. Many Lindsay poems read like screen plays for film vignettes.  Consider Abe Lincoln Walks At Midnight, The Congo and certainly, The Santa Fe Trail. 
        Stanza one of "Niagara" opens with a mind's eye cinematic pan over Illinois legislators in session when it's late May and Pate Phillip is playing God for every note he can wring out of the tune. Instead of Niagara, substitute Carpenter Park. Visit Carpenter Park and you'll know why I suggest this. 
        Stanza two surveys any craft boutique in downtown Springfield. Any camera crew who ventures further west than Fourth Street for this vignette will be shot on sight. I can think of five places to film kids having fun in downtown Springfield in 1965. I can't think of one place for kids in downtown Springfield today. What a flippin' shame! Okay, send  a crew to Chuck-E-Cheese, but they're dead meat if the cross Chatham road, okay? 
        Stanza three, I KNOW there's one jewelry store in downtown Springfield. It's where Ackerman's Music used to be.
         For stanza four give me a telephoto view of the entry to the rich wood finished offices at the southeast corner of 6th at Adams. I'm not against sharps and lawyers, but if we're going to photograph them I want to photograph the kind VL had in mind. For the "winds hallooing" line, give me a close up of a Hardee's burger wrapper, blowing south down Fifth Street by the YWCA and Governor's Mansion. Give me just a quick half second of the house south of that. That would be Vachel Lindsay's house. 
        Penultimate stanza (for my version) has a collage of nighttime neon downtown. Then give me a moonlit view of the Sangamon River at the end of the stanza. 
        Final stanza opens on a bridge above the Sangamon River with a few cars going over it. Then to a view of a few birds playing in the water below by the riverbank. On the final statement of Niagara, show me an old pickle relish jar with the label almost soaked off, half buried in the mud by the bank. The label seems to flap in the eddy of the slow current, and you can see some flies on the dry top rim of the open jar. We've lost Eden, but we can always dream of Niagara from the wilds of Springfield, Ill Ennui.

 
The Mouse That Gnawed the Oak Tree Down 
                                                    by Vachel Lindsay
The mouse that gnawed the oak tree down 
Began his task in early life. 
He kept so busy with his teeth 
He had no time to take a wife. 

He gnawed and gnawed through sun and rain 
When the ambitious fit was on, 
Then rested in the sawdust till 
A month of idleness had gone. 

He did not move about to to hunt 
The coteries of mousie-men. 
He was a snail-paced, stupid thing
Until he cared to gnaw again. 

The mouse that gnawed the oak-tree down,
When that rough foe was at his feet -- 
Found in the stump no angel-cake 
Nor buttered bread, nor cheese nor meat --
 The forest-roof let in the sky.
"This light is worth the work," said he. 
"I'll make this ancient swamp more light,"
And started on another tree. 

This is the first Vachel Lindsay poem I ever recited from memory solo in public.  The occasion was my first visit to a meeting of Poets & Writers Literary Forum (of Springfield, IL) at Barnes and Noble, in 1993. 
       The poem was written in 1914 -- after VL had found some fame after years of writing and felling no trees. The hyphenated words are Lindsay's style. The end combines two stanzas, with no space halving the eight lines, as my source for this poem indicates.
   I recited another Lindsay poem and two of my own that night. I chose this poem because in many ways it is an ideal poem to my provincial mind. It's a poem of lofty intent, analogous to more than one parallel universe and easy to remember. The language is accessible. I especially like the poem because it is redemptive. I HATE denouements of hopelessness. 


The Dream of All the Springfield Writers
                                    -- by Vachel Lindsay
I'll haunt this town though gone the maids and men,
The darling few, my friends and loves today.
My ghost returns, bearing a great sword-pen
When far-off children of their children play.

That pen will drip with moonlight and with fire.
I'll write upon the church doors and the walls.
And reading there, young hearts shall leap the higher
Though drunk already with their own love calls.

Still led of love and arm in arm, strange gold
Shall find in tracing the far-speeding track:
The dauntless war cries that my sword-pen bold
Shall carve on terraces and tree trunks black.

On tree trunks black, beneath the blossoms white
Just as the phosphorent merman, bound for home
Jewels his fire-path in tides at night
While hurrying sea babes follow through the foam.

And in December, when the leaves are dead
And the first snow has carpeted the streets
And young cheeks flush a healthful Christmas red
And young eyes glisten with youth's fervor sweet --

My pen shall cut in winter's snowy floor
Cries that in channeled glory leap and shine.
My Village Gospel, lying evermore
Amid rejoicing, loyal friends of mine.


The poem above was written in 1914. The first book of poetry he had published was in bookstores and he was acknowledged as a star. He was happy and content, confident of his future. He would later remark in his dispair that all the poems which people really liked were written before 1918. This was one of them. He continued to write until his death in 1931.


A Curse for the Saxophone
              
by Vachel Lindsay

When Cain killed Abel to end a perfect day,
He founded a city called the city of Cain,
And he ordered the saxophones to play.
But give me a city where they play the silver flute,
Where they play the silver flute at the dawn of the day.
Where the xylophone and saxophone and radio are mute,
And they play the Irish Harp at the end of the day.

When Jezebel put on her tiaras and looked grand,
Her three-piece pajamas and her diamond bosom-band,
And stopped the honest prophets as they marched upon their way,
And slaughtered them and hung them in her hearty wholesale way,
She licked her wicked chops, she pulled out all her stops,
And she ordered the saxophones to play.
But give me a Queen whose voice is like the flute,
Queen of a city where the saxophone is mute,
Who can dance in stately measure, in an honest, solemn way,
Where they play the Irish harp at the end of the day.

For the Irish Harp moves slowly, though the Irish heart beats fast
And both of them are faithful to their music at the last,
And their silence after music is the conqueror at last.

What did Judas do with his silver thirty pieces?
Bought himself a saxophone and played "The Beale Street Blues"
He taught the tune to Nero, who taught it to his nieces
And Rome burned down to the saxophones that played "The Beale Street Blues."
Now it comes by wireless, and they call it news!

When Henry the Eighth married his last wife,
He carried underneath his coat a well-edged butcher knife,
But he affected to be glad, affected to be gay,
And he ordered the saxophones to play.

But give me a wedding where the silver flutes at dawn
Bring visions of Diana, the waterfall and fawn!
Give me a wedding where the evening harp is singing,
And Irish tunes bring Irish kings, their strange voices ringing.
Like songs by William Butler Yeats or noble Padraic Colum,
Give me a wedding that is decent, sweet and solemn,
Not based on brazen dances and hysterical romances,
Where they order the saxophones to play!

When John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln the good,
He hid himself in a deep Potomac wood,
But the Devil came and and got him and dragged him down below,
And took him to the gate -- and the rest you know,
Twenty thousand pigs on their hind legs playing
"The Beale Street Blues" and swaying and saying:--

"John Wilkes Boooth, you are welcome to Hell,"
And they played it on the saxophone and played it well.
And he picked up a saxophone, grunting and rasping,
The red-hot horn in his hot hands clasping,
And he played a typical radio jazz;
He started an earthquake, he knew what for,
And at last he started the late World War.
Our nerves all razzed, and our thoughts all jazzed,
Booth and his saxophone started the war!

None but an aassassin would enjoy this horn.
Let us think of the Irish flute in the morn,
And the songs of Colum and the songs of Yeats,
And forget our jazzes and our razzes and our hates.
Let us dream of the slow great seraphim wings
of the good and the great sweet Irish kings!

-- Vachel hated jazz music. Living in hotels on the reciting tours where the sound of early 20s jazz, particularly the saxophones, permeated the walls and kept him awake at night, he despised not only jazz music but the destruction he thought it was bringing to the morals of the country. Vachel credited his friend Stoddard King for knowing of the jazz song "The Beale Street Blues" and said King deserved half the credit for this poem.


On the Building of Springfield

                                    by Vachel Lindsay

Let not our town be large, remembering
That little Athens was the Muses' home,
That Oxford rules the heart of London still,
That Florence gave the Rennaissance to Rome.

Record it for the grandson of your son --
A city is not builded in a day:
Our little town cannot complete her soul
Til countless generations pass away.

Now let each child be joined as to a church
To her perpetual hopes, each man ordained;
Let every street be made a reverent aisle
Where music grows and beauty is unchained.

Let science and machinery and trade
Be slaves of her and make her all in all,
Building against our blatant, resetless time
An unseen, skillfull, medieval wall. 

Like Nuremburg against the robber knights,
Let her keep out the wealth bereft of sense,
Putting her ban upon the stupid toys
Of private greed and greasy arrogance.

Let every citizen be rich toward God.
Let Christ, the beggar, teach divinity.
Let no man rule who holds his money dear.
Let this our city be our luxury.

We should build parks that students from afar
Would choose to starve in, rather than go home,
Fair little squares with Phidian ornament,
Food for the spirit, milk and honeycomb.

Songs shall be sung by us in that good day,
Songs we have written, blood within the rhyme,
Sung as when old England still was glad --
The purple, rich Elizabethan time.

Say, is my prophecy to fair and far? 
I only know, unless her faith be high,
The soul of this, our Nineveh, is doomed.
Our little Babylon will surely die.

Some city on the breast of Illinois,
No wiser and no fairer at the start
By faith shall rise redeemed, by faith shall rise,
Bearing the western glory in her heart.

The genius of the Maple, Elm and Oak,
The secret hidden in each grain of corn,
The glory that the prairie angels sing 
At night when sons of Life and Love are born.
.
Born but to struggle, squalid and alone,
Broken and wandering in their early years.
When will they make our dusty streets their home
Within our attics hide their sacred tears?

When will they set our vulgar blood athrill
With living language, words that set us free?
When will they make the path of beauty clear,
Between our riches and our liberty?

We must have many Lincoln-hearted men.
A city is not builded in a day,
And they must do their work, and come and go
While countless generations pass away. 


    
THANKS to KM who visited my web site recently and asked for more Vachel Lindsay. 
    The heart of any poet remains at home, no matter where he/she wanders. St. Louis is still in the heart of "Tough Stuff" Eliot, and the more he struggles against it, the more he proves the point. Springfield was very imbedded in the heart of VL and his writing about Springfield was undertaken not to suck up to the old home town for commercial purposes -- "write about Springfield and sell more books to Springfieldians" was not between his lines. 
    Please consider how VL's insistence on "builded" is to make the meter ring right. If he had said "built in a day," it wouldn't have worked. He was a better poet. Also understand "medieval" is FOUR syllables -- again, VL's skill at work. If you're typical Midwesterner you pronounce it midEval -- WRONG. Pronounce it medi (as in medicine) E val. The meter is crystaline here if you can see it and appreciate it. 
    When, for the sake of sharing each word and comma as they appeared in print, I consulted the 16th printing of Vachel Lindsay Collected Poems originally unleashed in 1925, I was surprised to find a stanza missing. The stanza was included in the version I memorized when with the Vachel Lindsay Repertorie Group. That stanza -- which I included here from memory, is the one that begins, "Like Nuremburg against the robber knights..." VL is at his scathing best in this verse. I'm guessing that politics kept it out. In 1924 and 25 when the anthology was coming together and the USA was riding the "roaring 20s" for every plug nickel it was worth, (I'm guessing) people frowned on any notion that spoke against "private greed." And the phrase "greasy arrogance" hits the ethos of the age like a brickbat. Even today I'd hate to be known as a poet filled with greasy arrogance. Arrogance I can live with, but greasy arrogance is the lowest of the low, probably untenable for gentle sensitivities in 1925. I STILL include that stanza when I recite the poem!
    After perusing the collection of Lindsay and finding five or six books which included this poem, and finding that extra verse in NONE of them, not even the version featured in Dennis Camp's three volume set, I consulted his volume 3 which contains notes about the poems. I was beginning to fear that verse was the result of an acid soaked pork rind I might have tossed down the hatch at a New Salem reading some years ago. HOW E VER, on page 851 of The Poetry of Vachel Lindsay, complete & with Lindsay's drawings, edited by Dennis Camp, I found, "In Tramp's Excuse and Village Magazine I, there is an extra stanza after line 16..." and he quotes it. VL wrote the poem in 1908. If you can find the three volume set by Camp, I urge you to purchase it, even if you have to sell all your Tom T. Hall records to cover your check. ("I remember the day Clayton Delaney died" -- TOM, I'd just as soon forGET the day.) 

The Strength of the Lonely
                     (What the Mendicant Said)
                                                            by Vachel Lindsay
 The moon's a monk, unmated, 
Who walks his cell, the sky. 
His strength is that of heaven-vowed men 
Who all life's flames defy. 

They turn to stars or shadows,
They go like snow or dew -- 
Leaving behind no sorrow -- 
Only the arching blue.


The last time I saw the woman who was probably the final great love of my life (I won't forget you EM), I sang this song to her on the way to Champaign to order a Sharp television set from one of her daughter's boy friends who promised a discount. I can seldom watch the frippin' thing without thinking of her. I recite this as a poem because it's beautiful and poignant when the audience is really in tune with me (or vice versa, no pun intended), and I sing it as a song when I've had a few belts, my guitar is within arms' reach and I'm not risking anything by singing a beautiful malady. A pretty girl is like a malady. . . but I digress.  If I were to be privileged with an epitaph, this would be it. Vachel wrote it in 1914. 

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