The Prairie Troubadour

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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:

IMG_1093“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.

vachellindsay“my precious,” as Golem would say

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.

vachel lindsay springfield

Aunt Jane

My brother called me the other day while I was in the shower and thus unable to answer my phone, leaving me a message stating that he had some “shitty news” and asking me to call him back.  I envisioned a dozen different doomsday scenarios for what he had to report, but when I spoke with him, none of those fears were realized.  Rather, in typical fashion, the bad news was something completely unexpected– straight out of left field (but isn’t that always the case?).  His news was that an old family friend had died, and he wanted to tell me over the phone before the information would inevitably (and impersonally) reach me through the grapevine via text or e-mail.  I’m thankful that he did, because when a family member dies, that’s a loss you need to be able to share with someone on a much more intimate level.  And Jane (or “Aunt Jane” as we called her) was family, goddammit.

Jane Hoogestraat (pronounced “Hogue-eh-straht”) was a poet and an English professor at Missouri State University.  My father was on the search committee that originally hired her at MSU, and she would later become a close friend of both my parents (particularly my mother).  Looking back, I’m proud to say that my brother and I had the privilege of spending some (but not enough) time in her company.  Aunt Jane was one of the handful of genuine and truly decent human beings in this world with a heart almost as big as she was.  She was a giant of a woman at over six feet tall, but that tall frame belied her soft-spoken and sincere personality.  If you were to look up the word “staid” in the dictionary, it could easily read “see also: Jane Hoogestraat.”

IMG_0562“Aunt Jane”

Jane was an intelligent, quiet, and kind woman.  While she may have battled a handful of personal demons (namely depression), she refused to allow her dark thoughts to cloud her eternal optimism.  She believed in the goodness of others, often in spite of any meanness she may have been shown.  She was a hard luck woman and was no stranger to experiencing hardship or being mistreated by those she put her faith and trust in, but that just seems to be par for the course when it comes to people with good hearts– the nicest folks are oftentimes the ones who are taken advantage of or trodden on the most.  Life has a funny way of dealing the worst cards to those who have the best intentions, but Jane always chose to play the bad hands she was dealt rather than fold, and she did so with the same brand of optimism exhibited by Candide or Job.  And she deserved better. 

I have many fond memories of Aunt Jane.  My favorite memory comes from the Christmas she chose to spend with me and my mother in Fayetteville, and how happy she was when we accompanied her to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to see the Christmas service.  Jane had fully expected to attend the service alone, but we weren’t about to let that happen, and I know that it meant the world to her to have us there.  During that same visit, Jane also played a small role as matchmaker in reuniting me with the woman I would eventually marry, and that is something for which I will always be grateful.

And I’ll never forget the time she asked me and my brother to house sit for her.  “Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” she told us, and when we opened her fridge, it was stocked full of nothing but hummus and black beans– foodstuffs we would only ingest if we were literally starving to death (I believe we ate a lot of Hardee’s that week).  That same week we witnessed Helga (one of her morbidly obese cats) nonchalantly watch a mouse run along the baseboard of the living room without batting so much as an eye.  We were incredulous, and we let Helga know it.  “You call yourself a cat?!?” we yelled, but the incredibly fat Helga just stared up at us, then glanced back at the mouse, and promptly laid her head back down.

IMG_0514dinner at Jane’s (Diet Coke did not pay for this product placement)

I loved Jane’s house– it was an older home just down the street from the house I grew up in, so it always held an extra sense of familiarity to it.  It was your typical English professor’s dwelling:  small and modest with a couple of cats, close to campus, lots of books, and very little else in the way of material possessions with a few exceptions.  Jane was particularly fond of her original set of turquoise FiestaWare, which we shared a meal or two on, and she was even more proud of her collection of black depression glass.  My mother simply couldn’t understand Jane’s fascination with that ugly glass (“It’s hideous,” she would say. “I mean, it’s fucking BLACK!”).  But my brother and I understood, because when you held that black glass up to a bright light, you could see the deep purple sheen shine through at its thinnest and most fragile parts, and I think that’s why Jane loved it so much.  I believe Jane was one of those folks who appreciated the little bits of beauty hidden amongst the ugliness of the world, and I think that appreciation came by her honestly, as it’s a theme that shines through with the same subtle loveliness in her writing.

IMG_0518enjoying fried chicken with an old flame on Jane’s FiestaWare

I’m one of a handful of human beings left who believes there are few things more important in this world than poetry, and I would be remiss if I didn’t write about Jane’s work.  I’ve always enjoyed Jane’s poetry despite the fact that it runs contrary to the style of poems I’m typically drawn to.  I’m a sucker for gritty poems about the human experience, full of passion and raw emotion, with the kind of profound volta that either punches you in the stomach or leaves you clutching your heart.  Jane’s work is far more understated and pastoral– lots of topographical references and glimpses of nature with plenty of descriptive lines about flora and fauna, but almost always with the profound and human turn that transforms a poem into a poem.  Her words are well-chosen and her lines are often eloquent and beautiful.  You can get a glimpse of her work (as well as listen to her read one of her poems) by checking out this brief write-up PBS did on her by clicking here.

Jane was a strange and marvelous lady who carried herself with a special kind of stoicism.  I didn’t know just how special that stoicism was until her death, when I learned that she had been quietly continuing to battle the cancer that most of us thought was in remission.  She had many of us fooled as to the severity of her condition, and I myself had no idea how sick she was.  She endured a tremendous amount of pain and suffering in her last year, and yet she didn’t see any point in complaining about it– she preferred to keep that information to herself, and I’m not sure that anybody had any clue as to the extent of what she was going through.  She shouldn’t have had to shoulder that like she did, but that’s just the kind of person Aunt Jane was.  And she deserved better.

I’ll leave you with one of Jane’s poems, as I think it wraps up this remembrance beautifully.  “Near Red Lodge, Montana” is a poem not just representative of Jane’s poetic voice (with her fondness for the pastoral and her acute attention to detail), but also emblematic of her soul and how she always chose to acknowledge hope in the presence of despair.  Oddly enough, it’s the final poem from her last publication, Border States, which won the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry.  I regret (infinitely more so, now) that I wasn’t able to attend her last poetry reading, but my brother was there and he told me she received a standing ovation.  And she deserved it.

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Near Red Lodge, Montana

Are even the field stones charred, the rugged sienna clay
on the road, the white rocks along the creek bed,
are they darkened like snow in a late urban winter?
Can a part of the past be torched, just like that,
by a lightning strike that has you hanging up the phone
on a year, a summer, on the green fields leading in?

Here’s how it happened. Days earlier, near East Rosebud,
in isolated country behind Shepard Mountain
a lightning fork caught a tree, a patch of needles,
smoldered for days in its remoteness, then started
back drafting and blew, a fire that funneled the ravines,
jumped the smaller creeks, took out the grassy plains.

The sweet grasses lost in that fire, alfalfa, short grass,
buffalo, the trees, juniper, lodge pole, spruce, willow,
become only some residual sifting down from time to time,
ash of memory, dust of trivia, the unlabeled pictures
of the year … to whom was this year lost? Fire crews
will tell you they train to recognize what they can’t save.

And here’s how it comes back, when it does, new growth
from scorched earth. The fireweed spreads its roots,
then paintbrush or crocus. Spring snow cover melts away
over the first juniper seedlings, a start of mountain ash.
Lichen returns to a blackened trunk, spreads to the fragile base
of a lodgepole pine that has needed fire to seed.

Far from human fear or desire, the water rinses a little soot
from the edges of a still-charred rock, the kind a hiker
might pluck, polish like a talisman to carry home and hand
over, shyly, stupid and late, another one for your collection,
maybe for those rock gardens you’ve been designing,
dreaming of, from a little part of the world you used to know.

You Know You’ve Made It When…

My brother Cole is in The New Yorker.  The.  New.  Fucking.  Yorker.

Françoise Mouly, the magazine’s art editor (and wife of my hero, art spiegelman), called my brother up to ask permission to run some excerpts from his new book, Black Rat, which is hot off the presses from Koyama Press.  You can see the online feature here:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/cole-clossers-black-rat

I had the privilege of reading the galleys for Black Rat a while back, and I told Cole then that not only did I think it was the best thing he’s ever done– it was arguably the best “graphic novel” (who are we kidding here– it’s “comics”) I’d ever read.  To borrow a line from The New Yorker’s own snobbish television commercial, “it’s the best comic in the world… maybe the best comic that ever was.”  And I meant it, too.  It checks off all the boxes in everything I’m looking for in comics/comix/commix:  it’s beautiful, irreverent, clever, intelligent, avant garde, absurdist, interesting, low-brow, high-brow, existential, heartfelt, human, honest, and just goddamn good.

bowwhiteone of my favorite pages from Black Rat

In a graphic novel market dominated by simple and mediocre middle school narratives or trite and narcissistic autobiographical masturbatory fodder, Black Rat manages to transcend the garbage and detritus that is representative of the current state of comics publishing to bring something unique to the table that is at once both new and old school.  I honestly can’t remember the last time I enjoyed reading a comic so much– it’s been that long.  This is what comics should be.  This is art, goddammit.

I’m real proud of you, bro.  Real proud.

Ol’ Blue

In an earlier post I wrote about “going back to the beginning,” as Inigo Montoya once did, in the hopes of rediscovering who in the hell I am and also figuring out who I’m supposed to be.  Well, I did exactly that this week when I bought myself a late birthday present:  a forty-year-old typewriter.  Not just any typewriter, mind you– one that’s a spitting image of my dad’s old IBM Selectric, the same model I learned to type on as a kid and that my brother and I affectionately referred to as “Ol’ Blue.”  This is some real return to the womb shit right here, folks.

2015/07/img_9907.jpg“You’re my boy, Blue!”

The fucker weighs about forty pounds (it sure as shit ain’t no Macbook Air) but this Marlin Blue beast is a thing of absolute beauty.  Looks aren’t everything, though– it’s what’s on the inside that counts, by gawd, and I will slap my hand on the Bible and testify that this is perhaps the single greatest piece of machinery ever made by man– it’s the very pinnacle of mechanical perfection.  They just don’t make ’em like this anymore, and with good reason:  technology has rendered these dinosaurs beyond obsolete.  I mean, who in their right mind would actually want to use one of these things?  Nobody.  But what about those of us who aren’t in their right minds?  Well, I can only speak for myself, but I can tell you unequivocally that I wanted this big-ass IBM typewriter like a fat kid wants ice cream.

The trend among the hipster literati for the last few years has been the procurement of manual typewriters in the hopes of magically transforming themselves into respectable authors.  The motives behind this practice are mostly bullshit– I’d reckon they’re roughly 20% pragmatism, 30% poseur, and 50% faux-nostalgia.  Some have gone so far as to purchase behemoth typewriters the size of cash registers simply because that’s what their favorite author used a century ago.  It’s so strange to me to think about the lengths that some folks will go to in the hopes of emulating their heroes.   I mean, I like to drink Wild Turkey, but I don’t necessarily drink it because Hunter S. Thompson drank it– I drink it because it tastes good, it’s 101 proof, and it gets me really drunk.

image50% alcohol = 50% closer to my goal of getting lit

Given, many writers used portable typewriters back in the day, but “portable” in 1938 means something a whole helluva lot different than it does in 2015.  You can bet your ass that if Ernest Hemingway had access to even a halfway-decent laptop, he would’ve chucked his Underwood Portable into the garbage.  Freeing up fifteen pounds in his luggage would have meant he could have packed more shotgun shells for wherever the hell he was headed.

hemingwayunderwoodPapa Hemingway and his “portable” Underwood

Seriously, though, the hipsters are indeed on to something with the proliferation of old-school typing devices, as I discovered first hand after the purchase of my typewriter, and that is preaching the gospel of “distraction-free writing.”  When it comes to long-form writing, it pays to be unplugged.  I have the hardest time staying on track when I’m trying to write because I keep dicking around on the internet every five minutes.  I don’t think I have Attention Deficit Disorder, but I do seem to display the symptoms every time I try to write something for an extended period of time.  It’s akin to wearing an uncomfortable shirt–you just find yourself restless far too often, and you can’t get a damn thing done because of it.  Well guess what?  There’s no checking your e-mail or playing Words With Friends on your typewriter–it’s just you and your actual words.

But this isn’t the biggest benefit I have reaped from my “new” typewriter.  When it comes to writing, I am my own worst enemy.  I consider myself a better editor than I am a writer, and if I’m trying to write a long-form piece (especially a narrative) I find myself editing and re-composing the words I’ve just written over and over again to the point where I eventually come to the conclusion that what I’ve written “fucking sucks,” and in a fit of despair I will quit writing altogether.  Well, a typewriter obviously doesn’t afford you the same editorial freedoms found on a computer screen– you’re stuck with whatever words you commit to the sheet of paper sitting in front of you.  And while this might sound like a detriment, in my case it’s been a godsend as it has allowed me to just write.  It’s almost like a weight has been lifted in my writing process– I am suddenly unburdened because I’m unable to re-read or edit until the page is completed.  I’ve written more in the last few days than I have in the last long while, in part because of this improvement in my writing process, but also because I had forgotten what it was like to type on such a machine.  Manual typewriters are an absolute bitch to type on because you have to hammer the damn keys to get them to strike, and the keys can WILL get jammed if you go too fast.  Not so with Ol’ Blue– I type upwards of 120 words-per-minute (wpm), and the IBM Selectric can cover 150 wpm with ease.  I cannot begin to describe the joy I feel when I first fire it up and hear that distinctive electric hum come alive, or the tactile pleasure I get out of typing the living hell out of this old machine and the feedback it delivers as I watch it keep up with me.  It may be mechanical, but it really does feel magical– I reckon those hipsters might be right after all.

Dancing With the Daffodils

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daffodils and a dilapidated fire hydrant

Well, as is evidenced from the multitude of daffodils in bloom and the stirring in the loins of the twitterpated birds and squirrels in my back yard, Spring has officially sprung.

We had some vicious thunderstorms roll through the Ozarks tonight replete with lightning, hail, and even tornadoes.  As soon as I knew it was coming, I managed to run outside long enough to cut the freshly bloomed daffodils from my yard before their inevitable destruction at the unmerciful hands of Mother Nature.  My living room now resembles the parlor of a funeral home.

Staring at all of these damned daffodils reminds me of William Wordsworth’s most famous poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (aka “the daffodil poem”), and I now feel obligated to put on my proverbial professor’s cap and give everyone a quick poetry lesson.  Accompanying this post are two photographs I took with a point-and-shoot camera a few years back, so please pardon the image quality.  They’re pictures of the daffodils which were once planted around my library.

[putting on professor’s cap]

Wordsworth believed that poetry should be “recollected in tranquility,” meaning that a poet shouldn’t compose a poem until enough time has passed (ideally several years) for the poet to recall the inspiration for the poem with a clean emotional slate.  Personally, I think this artistic philosophy is absolute bullshit because it runs contrary to what I believe to be the nature of art.  As far as I’m concerned, art is not only at its best when it elicits emotion, but also when it’s created with emotion.  Passion is essential to the creation of art, and passion isn’t something that can be “recollected in tranquility.”  But then again, he was William Wordsworth, and I’m not, so I’m in no position to argue with his creative process.

Below you will find Wordsworth’s poem.  It’s a little old fashioned, but it has one of the greatest last stanzas of all time, so I hope you enjoy it.

daffodils2

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          I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

          I wander'd lonely as a cloud
          That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
          When all at once I saw a crowd,
          A host, of golden daffodils;
          Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
          Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

          Continuous as the stars that shine
          And twinkle on the milky way,
          They stretched in never-ending line
          Along the margin of a bay:                                  
          Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
          Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

          The waves beside them danced; but they
          Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
          A poet could not but be gay,
          In such a jocund company:
          I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
          What wealth the show to me had brought:

          For oft, when on my couch I lie
          In vacant or in pensive mood,                               
          They flash upon that inward eye
          Which is the bliss of solitude;
          And then my heart with pleasure fills,
          And dances with the daffodils.

                         -William Wordsworth

Football Season is Over

Ten years ago today, Hunter S. Thompson put one of his many guns into his mouth (in this case a .45 caliber automatic) and blew out the back of his bald head in the confines of his snowy Colorado compound.

His suicide note was surprisingly brief considering the writer’s prolific talent. It read as follows:

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No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun – for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax – This won’t hurt.

He titled the note “Football Season Is Over,” an allusion to the fact that the Super Bowl had concluded two weeks prior (coincidentally the Patriots won that one, too) and his favorite sport would not resume until September. I reckon Thompson was disenchanted with the prospect of facing another seven months without anything to look forward to.

The world lost a lunatic that day, but it also lost a talented writer and a soul courageous enough to stand up for what he believed in.  Thompson was one of the last true patriots and also one of the last true individualists–he was a man who ultimately didn’t give a shit what anyone else thought, and he was entirely true to himself.  Nothing could keep him from speaking his mind, and he never shied away from calling a spade a spade–never hesitated for a moment from telling it like it is, embracing his convictions and calling out the pigs and the fascists for who and what they were.  I shudder to think what kind of a force he could have been in the last decade–what kind of a voice he could have been, especially to the affectless youth yearning for something to rail against.  In our modern age of languid losers, H.S.T. could have been the voice we needed to get the listless to become listful.  There simply can’t be a revolution without voices like Thompson’s, railing against the injustices of the world and calling the fuckers out for their actions.  They just don’t make ’em like that any more, and this country (and this world, for that matter) is worse off for it.

hunteravatar

Maybe there is no Heaven. Or maybe this is all pure gibberish—a product of the demented imagination of a lazy drunken hillbilly with a heart full of hate who has found a way to live out where the real winds blow—to sleep late, have fun, get wild, drink whisky, and drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested . . . Res ipsa loquitur. Let the good times roll.

Six months after his death, a wild party was held in the guise of a funeral for Thompson.  The guest list was a who’s who of friends of Hunter, including old politicos like George McGovern and John Kerry and Hollywood A-listers like Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, and Bill Murray.  The funeral was more or less drawn up according to Thompson’s own specs–he had detailed exactly how he wanted to go out, which is to say his ashes were stuffed into mortar shells and fired out of the top of a giant Gonzo fist monument amongst fireworks and rock and roll.

hst_funeral

H.S.T.’s crazy ass funeral

I do want to make it clear that I am in no way glossing over or glorifying Thompson’s suicide.  While I did describe the man as courageous, I don’t believe his suicide was a courageous action.  Ultimately, one must accept that there’s very little courage in killing oneself, and I’d like to think Thompson understood that much.  But there’s also something to be said for living (or dying) on one’s own terms, and I think Thompson understood that as well.  There’s no denying that he sure as hell did both.

I’ll be enjoying a bottle of Wild Turkey in his honor tonight–I’ve got nowhere to be tomorrow, anyway.  God bless 101 proof whiskey, and God bless the memory of that madman, Hunter S. Thompson.

imageR.I.P., H.S.T.