Poetry Friday: 1926 (part 4)

I really have to get done with Sinclair Lewis’s novel…1926’s poetry is getting harder and harder to track down.  So, today, I went up to the literature section of the Suzzallo/Allen library, and found one of the only books of poetry published in 1926 that’s available to me—Vachel Lindsay’s Going-to-the-Stars.  Lindsay is most famous for a poem called “The Congo”, which was the poem prized by the “Dead Poets Society” in the movie of that name (“Then I saw the Congo, creeping through the black, cutting through the forest with a golden track…”).  Lindsay’s otherwise unfamiliar to me, and so I was interested to read this volume of poems written during a trip he and his wife took in the West (starting from their home in Spokane, they made their way through national parks and forests, hiking a lot of the way).  And I reached a conclusion….Lindsay is not a terribly good poet.  But he writes very nice prose—prose full of enough nice turns of phrase and sparkly little images that I wish he’d taken up more of a career as a novelist.  Maybe I’m wrong, though–I thought I’d let you decide.  Below I include one of the better poems (in my opinion) from this little volume of his, and an excerpt from the introduction (in which he largely describes the trip on which the poems were written).  Tell me where he shows more skill, in your opinion.

The poem: “When I Was A Tree”

When I was a tree, an aspen tree
An Indian wigwam hid by me
And a great big redwood sheltered me,
And a great big mountain sheltered him.
But a white man came and cut him down
To make cheap shacks in a dirty town,
And shot the Indian in my shade,
And I wondered why young trees were made.
I stood alone, sunburnt and slim,
And the mountain stood.  Those men left him.

The Prose: From the introduction to Going-to-the-Stars

Almost as an afterthought, on our last afternoon in the mountain, at four o’clock, we started up Mount Kipp, which marks the Continental Divide.  By the merest chance, we found at the very top, in a crevice of the boulders, a sort of Pass of Thermopylae, the only way over, and the only way down, in miles of summit.  So down through the perilous crevice we crept, feeling like John Ridd and Lorna, sneaking down the Doone Pass.  On that other side we found the Secret Place of Glacier Park, The Place That Nobody Knows.  In it, across a little glacial lake far below the natural balcony on which we stood stranded in mid-air, were the strange deserted peaks we called ‘Egypt’s Last Stand’ and ‘The Secret Door’.  Here, to this hidden place, let the traveler climb with faith to find the ghosts of the flower-fed buffaloes, trooping up a distant valley toward that ancient iceberg lake; here also let him find celestial flowers and trees, for here winged seeds can take root and grow.  No breaker of spells ever dares come up through the Pass of Thermopylae: that circle of many-colored rocks encloses an enchanted fortress.  Almost to the very summit, are tossing inaccessible fields of the flowers we call ‘Going-to-the-Stars’.

7 comments on “Poetry Friday: 1926 (part 4)

  1. graham says:

    you’re right. the prose is better.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thank you! I may have stacked the deck, but I don’t think so. I at least spared you from reading an excerpt from a very long poem he wrote about “old old, old old, old Andrew Jackson” which he recited for the Spokane Democrats, or an ode he wrote to log cabins (and to Nancy Hanks, Abraham Lincoln’s mother, in specific). Dude should have written a novel.

  2. diablevert says:

    The prose is better, but for a poet he seems to have some cataracts on his inner eye — he can’t look at a California moutain without recasting it as the twin of some classical — Greek, Egyptian — counterpart of his imagination. That’s a bad sign — California ain’t Greece, and someone with the true gift for noticing that you need, the gift for noticing small details and describing them in fresh ways that brings out the strangeness of things, their uniqueness, what it is of themselves that makes them themselves. “Faces in a station of the metro / like petals on a wet, black bough,” you know? And you can’t do that if you instinctively paper over the thing-itself with your idealized imagination of that thing, the boyhood daydreams that got you through Latin class.

  3. diablevert says:

    Sorry, I typed that badly, coffee didn’t kick in — I meant to say — in order to be a good poet you need to be someone who has that gift for noticing. A good poet wouldn’t see California and think Greece.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      It’s a very good observation–something I think I may have felt a little on an intuitive level but hadn’t explored at all. I’m not sure it is quite as damning a fault for me as it is for you, but I agree with your general idea that good poets are usually at their best when they’re seeing things for what they are, and not as an opportunity to riff on some other idea they’ve been wanting to talk about.

  4. SilverSeason says:

    Oh, I don’t know. We have to recognize strengths and weaknesses. This poem about the tree is too jingly for its apparently serious comment. And besides, aspen trees don’t stand alone. Each is part of a cluster, a larger community of aspen with a single root system.

    But, my mother used to chant Vachel Lindsay to me before I could read for myself. Here is the last section of The Potatoes Dance:


    “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 the lady,
    The glorious Irish lady,
    The beauteous Irish lady,

    Read/chant it aloud. It works.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for the potato poem, which is definitely a great use of sound and rhythm—a nice child’s poem, in my opinion. It may be that I just happened to pick up a bad collection of his stuff—the aspen tree poem, mediocre as it is, was one of the better pieces. I can’t remember how late in life Lindsay kept writing poetry: we’ll see if I can stumble into another of his works on a Friday somewhere ahead. 🙂

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