My previous post about poet Stevie Smith got me thinking about one of the other prized volumes in my poetry collection: Vachel Lindsay’s Collected Poems. Discovered by chance while browsing the poetry section of a used bookstore in Knoxville, Tennessee [note: used bookstores in academic towns are the best places to find fantastic yet forgotten books of poetry], it was the first (and only) time I’d ever encountered the volume, and I bought it immediately.
One of the first things I noticed about the book (other than its wonderful illustrations) was its dedication page:
“this book is dedicated to Sara Teasdale, poet”
For those who don’t know, Sara Teasdale was a poet with whom Vachel was romantically involved and very much in love. A man whose means were as modest as his self-image, Vachel was far too worried about his ability (or inability, rather) to provide for Sara, and over much hand-wringing managed to convince himself that no matter how much she might also love him, he just wasn’t good enough for her. So she, of course, ended up marrying a wealthy businessman with whom she was ultimately unhappy. (Ain’t life grand?)
For lack of a better term, Vachel was an “interesting” dude. Handsome, brilliant, and too artistic for med school (he dropped out to pursue his calling as an artist/poet), he was a romantic at heart as well as a bit of a politico. Nicknamed “The Prairie Troubadour” for the impassioned poetry readings he delivered as he travelled the midwest, he was known as a nationalistic progressive, which seems something of an anachronism now (believe it or not, there was a time when patriotic people could both love their country and want to change it without having to be labeled a Communist). Never to be mistaken for a cynic, Vachel was an extremely sincere man who stood for his convictions and among those convictions was fighting for equality, especially among racial and socio-economic divides, as evidenced in both his writing and his life (he was an early mentor of Langston Hughes).
Vachel also believed strongly in the musical roots of poetry, most of his verse carrying an undeniable musical rhythm within its meter. I’ve often wondered what he would’ve thought of the last forty years or so of musicians who fancy themselves poets, particularly the more progressive songwriters such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, et al.
Like Stevie Smith, Vachel was also a draftsman (and a talented one, at that), and his art is scattered throughout his Collected Poems. And like Stevie, he, too, suffered from depression. But Vachel didn’t handle his depression nearly as well as Stevie did. On December 5, 1931, he killed himself by drinking a bottle of Lysol. I can remember reading about Vachel’s suicide when I was a child, and that image haunted me then just as much as it haunts me now– I cannot imagine a more particularly terrible or horrific way to go. [note: two years after Vachel’s suicide, Sara Teasdale would kill herself by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills]
I’ll finish this post with one of Vachel’s poems. It’s not his best poem, but it’s one I have always enjoyed for shallow and superficial reasons. Though Vachel was from Springfield, Illinois, the woman he loved was from St. Louis, Missouri, and I’ve always identified with this poem as a writer from Springfield, Missouri.