At a library book sale recently, I came across a copy of the 1925 Macmillan edition of the Collected Poems of Vachel Lindsay, with illustrations by the author, for a measly $3. Score! It’d been a few years since I’d read Lindsay, and, as I was absorbed into the riot of weird symbolist drawings within the book’s pages, I was reminded of how ill-suited he is to anthology presentation, denuded of the context of his time and the context of himself. I started reading Lindsay when I learned he’d written what is usually considered the first book of film criticism, The Art of the Moving Picture (1915/1922). From there I’d gone on to his two road memoirs, Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty (1914) and A Handy Guide for Beggars, Especially Those of the Poetic Fraternity (1916), followed by his Swedenborgian utopian novel The Golden Book of Springfield (1920). Many of the themes of these four books, which form an essential tapestry against which to view his poems, are condensed into the two (!) introductions, both by Lindsay, attached to the front of his Collected Poems, “Adventures While Preaching Hieroglyphic Sermons” and “Adventures While Singing These Songs.”

There are so many gems in these two intros, it’s hard to know where to begin, though his remarks about his days as a tramp—during which he carried only drawings and his Rhymes to Be Traded for Bread, Being New Verses By Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, Springfield, Illinois, June 1912. Printed Expressly as a Substitute for Money—seem apropos to the present slate of concerns here at Harriet:

The reason my beggar days started talk was that each time I broke loose, and went on the road, in the spring, after a winter of Art lecturing, it was definitely an act of protest against the United States commercial standard, a protest against the type of life set forth for all time in two books of Sinclair Lewis: Babbit and Main Street. . . . It was because it was a three-times-loudly-proclaimed act of defiance, not the time spent on the road, that made the stir. As a matter of fact I came back temporarily beaten each time, at the end of less than four months. But each time I was fortified to try it again. I am not yet through, either. I have spent a total of only two springs and one summer as a beggar, less than a year. Because it was an act of spiritual war, I have written many bulletins and reminiscences. . . .

The poem called “General William Booth Enters Heaven” was built in part upon certain adventures while singing these songs. When I was dead broke, and begging, in Atlanta, Georgia, and much confused as to my next move in this world, I slept for three nights in the Salvation Army quarters there. I could tell some fearful stories of similar experiences. I will say briefly, that I know the Salvation Army from the inside. Certainly, at that time, the Army was struggling with what General Booth called the submerged tenth of the population. And I was with the submerged. (19-21)

It is hard not to be in awe of this. Lindsay literally went “on the road” without a dime in his pocket, just poems. This is the behavior of a mystic or a madman, probably both, though, as the refusal of capital inherent in his 1912 pamphlet’s title suggests, Lindsay was also a homespun anarchist thinker, as Ron Sakolsky explicates in the Charles H. Kerr edition of The Golden Book of Springfield (2000). It is small wonder more genteel institutions like the YMCA and the Anti-Saloon League actually kicked him out of their ranks. Harriet Monroe did what she could to keep him alive, making him famous in the first place in the pages of Poetry at its inception 100 years ago and inventing awards to give him over the years. And though he estimates he’d “recited to about one million people” (xviii) by 1925—for he was way more famous ultimately as a reciter than as a writer—the strain of trying to keep it together financially as a poet eventually broke him and he committed suicide impulsively one night (12/5/31) by drinking lye, a particularly slow and gruesome way to die. Like Williams said, the pure products of America do go crazy, and Lindsay was one of them.

Originally Published: April 30th, 2012

Garrett Caples is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader (1999), Complications (2007), Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English (2010), Retrievals (2014), and Power Ballads (2016). He is an editor at City Lights Books, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series. Caples was also a contributing writer to theSan Francisco Bay Guardian and has coedited the Collected Poems of Philip...