Vachel Lindsay RIP

Vachel Lindsay performing

Seventy seven years ago today Vachel Lindsay, one of my favorite poets, despairing over finances, killed himself.

Lindsay was born into a prosperous family in Springfield, Illinois in 1879.  His father, a doctor, pushed Vachel into studying medicine, but the young man was more interested in art.  Much to his father’s dismay, Lindsay bolted from medical school and headed to New York to enroll in an art school.  While there, he developed an interest in poetry.

He began writing poetry and selling his poems on the streets of the Big Apple.  He launched off on the first of his several long treks, a 600 mile walking jaunt from Florida to Kentucky giving readings and trading his poems for food and lodging.  He made other trips by foot from New York to Ohio and from Illinois to New Mexico.  My interest in Lindsay came from an article I read by Paul Horgan, one of my favorite writers, about hearing Lindsay perform in Albuquerque, NM.  Horgan’s book Tracings inspired me to find out more about Lindsay and read some of his poetry.

I don’t know if it was the poetry, the recounting of meeting Lindsay by Horgan, or the strangeness of Lindsay’s life that struck a chord with me.  I read all of his poems, many of them out loud (to myself, of course), which is how they were meant to be read, as Lindsay performed them.  I read a few out loud to MD, and I stumbled onto the bizarrest phenomenon.  I’m not a weepy kind of guy by nature; I don’t cry at funerals, weddings, sad movies, sad books, etc.  But when I tried to read one of Lindsay’s poems out loud, I began to snuffle and couldn’t go on.  I can read the poem silently straight through without feeling even much of a twinge of emotion, but whenever I try to read it aloud, I can’t make it through.

What is the poem?  General William Booth Enters Heaven. (William Booth was the founder of the Salvation Army) When I get to the following lines a few stanzas down trying to read aloud, I kind of lose it, and I don’t know why.

Booth died blind and still by Faith he trod,
Eyes still dazzled by the ways of God.

From there on, I can’t read aloud any longer.  I’ve tried a dozen times, but it gets me every time.  Even if I read it aloud alone.

After Lindsay’s walking treks and his promotion by some famous poets of his day, he achieved some measure of financial success.  He lost out on a great love who married someone else much more financial successful than he.  He continued to roam and perform, while living here and there.   He ultimately married a much younger wife (23 years old; Lindsay was 45) and began having children.

In an effort to provide for his growing family he was under the financial gun.  He embarked upon six-month poetry reading journey throughout the East and Midwest.  After this tour, Lindsay and family moved into his childhood home in Springfield, Illinois.  Given the size of the house and the long move (Lindsay and family were living in Spokane, Washington at the time), his finances became even more strained.  He published a couple of books of poems, did odd jobs, and continued to travel and perform.

His health began to fail, and, along with the country, Lindsay sank into depression.  On December 5, 1931, at age 52, he killed himself in his childhood home by drinking a bottle of Lysol.

Because she knew how much I loved Lindsay’s poetry, MD found for me a tape (one of the old cassette tapes) of Lindsay performing a number of his poems, including General William Booth Enters Heaven, the Congo, and a poem I didn’t know existed until I heard it on the tape: The Flower Fed Buffaloes.

The Flower-Fed Buffaloes

The flower-fed buffaloes of the spring
In the days of long ago,
Ranged where the locomotives sing
And the prairie flowers lie low:
The tossing, blooming, perfumed grass
Is swept away by wheat,
Wheels and wheels and wheels spin by
In the spring that still is sweet.
But the flower-fed buffaloes of the spring
Left us long ago,
They gore no more, they bellow no more,
They trundle around the hills no more:-
With the Blackfeet lying low,
With the Pawnees lying low
Lying low.

As well as being beautiful in its simplicity, this poem speaks to what has happened to us nutritionally.

The tossing, blooming, perfumed grass
Is swept away by wheat,…

But the flower-fed buffaloes of the spring
Left us long ago,
They gore no more, they bellow no more,
They trundle around the hills no more…

(Gotta keep these posts with a nutritional theme, you know, or I get hassled.) Fortunately, the buffalo are making a comeback.  In Lindsay’s time there were but a few left.  Today the herd numbers into the tens of thousands and buffalo meat can be had most anywhere.

In all our moves, I’ve somehow misplaced by Lindsay tape, but I did an online search and found all the same recordings that were on the tape, so you and I can now listen to them at will.  Here is the link to them all.  If you don’t listen to anything else, at least listen to ‘The Flower-Fed Buffaloes.’ But before you listen, read it yourself aloud so that you can compare your reading with Lindsay’s.

The recordings included ‘General William Booth Enters Heaven,’ which I can listen to without emotion.  It’s only when I read it aloud.  Strange.  And, my reading of it aloud is much, much different than Lindsay’s.  I had read it aloud (at least as much of it as I could) at least 20 times before I heard Lindsay read it. And stranger yet, when I read it aloud mimicking Lindsay, it doesn’t get to me.  It only does me in when I read it the way I read it before I heard Lindsay read it.

Enjoy the poetry from a bygone era when one could make a living (sort of) as a traveling poet.

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17 thoughts on “Vachel Lindsay RIP

  1. When I started my seccond career as a cabaret singer, I found to my amazment, and dismay, that the lyrics of some songs got to me in a way when I was singing that reading them, and learning them, never had before.
    I think this is both wonderful and appalling, depending on the situation.

  2. What a beautiful poem Buffaloes is. What a horrible way to die Lysol would be!

    Don’t you mean 77 years ago?

    Yep. Fixed it. Thanks.

  3. God speaks in silence! But we humans speak in words, pictures and gestures! A beautiful poem will strike such a spiritual accord that no science will explain. Words have such an enormous power because they carry an energy with them that at times defies logic. I dont cry in movies too, I do at funerals have to admit. But a good poetry makes me vulnerable as well, not often! But especially when I drink wine. Is it me or does wine make one not only mellow but extra sensitive and sentimental?

  4. i cry all the time! And I will behave from now on, no more bickering about Vadim. I dont want you to punish me. I will cry then too! Thanks for a beautiful post! Is there a chance we can hear MD sing later? Are you going to tape it?

    We are going to tape it.

  5. Reminds me a bit of “Highlands” by Bob Dylan, which is inspired of course by “My Heart’s In The Highlands” by Robert Burns

    BD’s version:

    Well my heart’s in the Highlands gentle and fair
    Honeysuckle blooming in the wildwood air
    Bluebelles blazing, where the Aberdeen waters flow
    Well my heart’s in the Highland,
    I’m gonna go there when I feel good enough to go

    Windows were shakin’ all night in my dreams
    Everything was exactly the way that it seems
    Woke up this morning and I looked at the same old page
    Same ol’ rat race
    Life in the same ol’ cage.

    I don’t want nothing from anyone, ain’t that much to take
    Wouldn’t know the difference between a real blonde and a fake
    Feel like a prisoner in a world of mystery
    I wish someone would come
    And push back the clock for me

    Well my heart’s in the Highlands wherever I roam
    That’s where I’ll be when I get called home
    The wind, it whispers to the buckeyed trees in rhyme
    Well my heart’s in the Highland,
    I can only get there one step at a time.

    I’m listening to Neil Young, I gotta turn up the sound
    Someone’s always yelling turn it down
    Feel like I’m drifting
    Drifting from scene the scene
    I’m wondering what in the devil could it all possibly mean?

    Insanity is smashing up against my soul
    You can say I was on anything but a roll
    If I had a conscience, well I just might blow my top
    What would I do with it anyway
    Maybe take it to the pawn shop

    My heart’s in the Highlands at the break of dawn
    By the beautiful lake of the Black Swan
    Big white clouds, like chariots that swing down low
    Well my heart’s in the Highlands
    Only place left to go

    I’m in Boston town, in some restaurant
    I got no idea what I want
    Well, maybe I do but I’m just really not sure
    Waitress comes over
    Nobody in the place but me and her

    It must be a holiday, there’s nobody around
    She studies me closely as I sit down
    She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs
    She says, “What’ll it be?”
    I say, “I don’t know, you got any soft boiled eggs?”

    She looks at me, Says “I’d bring you some
    but we’re out of ‘m, you picked the wrong time to come”
    Then she says, “I know you’re an artist, draw a picture of me!”
    I say, “I would if I could, but,
    I don’t do sketches from memory.”

    “Well”, she says, “I’m right here in front of you, or haven’t you looked?”
    I say,” all right, I know, but I don’t have my drawing book!”
    She gives me a napkin, she says, “you can do it on that”
    I say, “yes I could but,
    I don’t know where my pencil is at!”

    She pulls one out from behind her ear
    She says “all right now, go ahead, draw me, I’m standing right here”
    I make a few lines, and I show it for her to see
    Well she takes a napkin and throws it back
    And says “that don’t look a thing like me!”

    I said, “Oh, kind miss, it most certainly does”
    She says, “you must be jokin.'” I say, “I wish I was!”
    Then she says, “you don’t read women authors, do you?”
    Least that’s what I think I hear her say,
    “Well”, I say, “how would you know and what would it matter anyway?”

    “Well”, she says, “you just don’t seem like you do!”
    I said, “you’re way wrong.”
    She says, “which ones have you read then?” I say, “I read Erica Jong!”
    She goes away for a minute and I slide up out of my chair
    I step outside back to the busy street, but nobody’s going anywhere

    Well my heart’s in the Highlands, with the horses and hounds
    Way up in the border country, far from the towns
    With the twang of the arrow and a snap of the bow
    My heart’s in the Highlands
    Can’t see any other way to go

    Every day is the same thing out the door
    Feel further away then ever before
    Some things in life, it gets too late to learn
    Well, I’m lost somewhere
    I must have made a few bad turns

    I see people in the park forgetting their troubles and woes
    They’re drinking and dancing, wearing bright colored clothes
    All the young men with their young women looking so good
    Well, I’d trade places with any of them
    In a minute, if I could

    I’m crossing the street to get away from a mangy dog
    Talking to myself in a monologue
    I think what I need might be a full length leather coat
    Somebody just asked me
    If I registered to vote

    The sun is beginning to shine on me
    But it’s not like the sun that used to be
    The party’s over, and there’s less and less to say
    I got new eyes
    Everything looks far away

    Well, my heart’s in the Highlands at the break of day
    Over the hills and far away
    There’s a way to get there, and I’ll figure it out somehow
    But I’m already there in my mind
    And that’s good enough for now

    The RB version:

    My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
    My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer –
    A-chasing the wild deer, and following the roe;
    My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

    Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North
    The birth place of Valour, the country of Worth;
    Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
    The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.

    Farewell to the mountains high cover’d with snow;
    Farewell to the straths and green valleys below;
    Farewell to the forrests and wild-hanging woods;
    Farwell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.

    My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
    My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer
    Chasing the wild deer, and following the roe;
    My heart’s in the Highlands, whereever I go.

    Very nice. Thanks.

  6. The phenomenon you describe, in my non-medical expert observation, reminds me of seizures that some people experience when they hear a particualr voice or see a a particular light sequence. Although the poetry strikes an emotional chord, perhaps it strikes a neurological one as well, which would explain why the experience is consistantly the same each time you read the poetry out loud. Just a thought.

    Mary

    Could well be. I hope so, in fact. I’d rather think I was having a seizure than that I was blubbering like a baby out of sentimentality.

  7. Thank you so much for this post. I just read it to my very best friend, an elderly blind man who opened his one-story home to me when I could no longer go up a flight of stairs at my own. He has been regaling me with Vachel Lindsay poems since I met him eighteen years ago. When my friend was in the 10th grade at Evanston Township High School in Ill., Lindsay did a reading and supplied volumes of his poetry. My friend (now 94) recalls that they were then required to read them all. The poems certainly left an indelible impression (‘Boomelay-boomelay-boomelay-BOOM!’).

    As an aside, I cannot listen to Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” without crying. And it can come upon me in an instant, as when my sister played a Copland CD on Thanksgiving and suddenly I was leaking on my turkey. It was sort of difficult to explain that I was affected by the music instead of being inordinately grateful for the meal and the company.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for writing.

  8. Lindsay was born 50 years too late. He would have done well on the collegiate circuit that really took off after WWII. During his 5 years in Spokane, 1924-1929 he was far from impoverished. He lived in the fanciest hotel, The Davenport, which was renown for being the first hotel in the country with air conditioning and many other innovations. One employee was assigned full time to washing the coins and the Purple Bull signature drink at one of its bars, the Matador Room, came with a hand-blown glass swizzle stick souvenir. His financial stress during the Great Depression probably came [I’m guessing] from buying stock with 80% borrowed money and then having a hell of a margin call when the stocks tanked. The blue collar people who lost most of their savings when their banks failed did a better job of recovery.

  9. Great post, thanks. I had never heard of him, and I grew up in Spokane Washington! Nice bit of history.

    I know what you mean about how some poetry or other words can really make you get emotional. I’m like you, not really emotional, but some songs really get me. It’s probably due to the way that the brain is so good at connecting present events to the past. Emotions are sort of like brain shortcuts to bypass the time it takes to recall the event rationally/logically, but instead quickly makes the association to some past event. It’s a good division of labor between left brain / right brain. So there may be some connection from that poetry line that chokes you up to something either in your past or in your thoughts.

    I posted before on your blog that Joni Mitchell is my all time favorite singer/songwriter.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joni_mitchell

    One of hers that can make me misty eyed (for a reason I don’t understand), is “My Best To You”. This is one of the few songs she performed that she didn’t write. It was written in 1942.

    Here’s a Youtube audio of My Best To You. I understand it seems sappy, but it still gets to me:

    So Here’s To You, Dr. Mike and MD!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeRtPUIsnEM

    Here are the lyrics:

    So here’s to you
    May your dreams come true
    May old father time
    Never be unkind
    And through the years
    Save your smiles and your tears
    They’re just souvenirs
    They’ll make music in your heart

    Remember this
    Each new day is a kiss
    Sent from up above
    With an angels love
    So here’s to you
    May your skies be blue
    And your love blessed
    That’s my best to you

    Remember this
    Each new day is a kiss
    Sent from up above
    With an angels love
    So here’s to you
    May your skies be blue
    And your love blessed
    That’s my very best to you

    Nice song. I had never heard it. Thanks for sending.

  10. Thank you for posting the link for the recording.
    When I first read The Congo I knew that I needed to hear it read aloud from someone who truly understood the primitive, savage rhythm and tone of the poem. Who better than Lindsay himself?

    Who indeed better than Lindsay. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  11. Hi,

    I dont understand what exactly the poem ‘flower-fed buffaloes’ talks about. I really like it because it sounds so beautifull but i don’t understand the theme of the poem or um… basicly what he’s trying to say! Could you please help me? English is not my first language therefore i find it a little hard. Please could you guide me, and my love for Vachel Lindsay’s beautiful poems.

    Emma.

    About 50-75 years before Lindsay wrote his poem there were vast herds of buffalo (estimated at around 100 million animals) that roamed the plains and woodlands of America and Canada. After being extensivelly hunted for hides and meat, the herds dwindled until Lidsay’s time at which point they were almost extinct. When he wrote the poem there were maybe 500-1000 buffalo in existence. His poem is lamenting the demise of these magnificent animals.

  12. Hi Michael,

    I have long been a Lindsay fan. I love how you have captured the effect his words have on you. I am performing a one person show I created and adapted from Vachel Lindsay’s writings on his walks across the country. It’s called “Peddler of Dreams”. It is being presented at the Chicago Fringe Festival on Sept. 3, 5 and 7, 2015. I do read “Flower Fed Buffaloes” in it. Vachel Lindsay was a courageous, visionary artist dedicated to realizing a more profoundly beautiful world.

    It was encouraging to hear your words about reading work aloud, and how it impacts one’s spirit.

    Warm Regards,

    Steve Duchrow

    • Thanks very much for the kind words. I have long been a Vachel Lindsay fan, and I would love to come see your show in Chicago. Unfortunately, I will be out of the country on the dates you listed. Any chance of your show coming to the West Coast?