See his autobiographical Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty (1914) and A Handy Guide for Beggars (1916); his letters (ed. by A. J. Armstrong, 1940); biographies by E. L. Masters (1935, repr. 1969) and M. Harris (1975); studies by J. T. Flanagan, comp. (1970) and A. Massa (1970).
(born Nov. 10, 1879, Springfield, Ill., U.S.—died Dec. 5, 1931, Springfield) U.S. poet. In his youth, he began traveling the country reciting his poems in return for food and shelter, in an attempt to revive poetry as an oral art form of the common people. He first received widespread recognition for “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” (1913), about the founder of the Salvation Army. His works are full of powerful rhythms, vivid imagery, and bold rhymes and express an ardent patriotism, a passion for progressive democracy, and a romantic view of nature. His collections include Rhymes to Be Traded for Bread (1912), The Congo (1914), and The Chinese Nightingale (1917). He was responsible for discovering the work of Langston Hughes. Depressed and unstable in later years, he committed suicide by drinking poison.
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Nicholas Vachel Lindsay (November 10, 1879 – December 5, 1931) was an American poet. He is considered the father of modern singing poetry as he referred to it, or lyrical poetry as it is more widely known. His numerous correspondences with the poet Yeats detail his intentions to revive the musical qualities in poetry as had been practiced by the ancient Greeks. Because of his use of American Midwest themes he also became known as the "Prairie Troubador."
Lindsay was born in Springfield, Illinois, where his father — Vachel Thomas Lindsay — worked as a medical doctor and had considerable financial resources. As a result, the Lindsays lived next door to the Illinois Executive Mansion, home of the Governor of Illinois. This location of his childhood home had its influence on Lindsay, and one of his poems, "The Eagle Forgotten", eulogizes Illinois governor John P. Altgeld, whom Lindsay admired for his courage in pardoning the anarchists involved in the Haymarket Riot — despite the strong protests of US President Grover Cleveland.
Growing up in Springfield influenced Lindsay in other ways as well, as evidenced in such poems as "On the Building of Springfield" and culminating in poems praising Springfield's most famous resident, Abraham Lincoln. In "The Ghosts of the Buffaloes", Lindsay exclaims "Would I might rouse the Lincoln in you all!" In his 1914 poem "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (In Springfield, Illinois)", Lindsay specifically places Lincoln 'in' Springfield, with the poem opening:
It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest...
Lindsay studied medicine at Hiram College in Ohio from 1897 to 1900, but he did not want to be a doctor. His parents pressured him toward medicine. One day Vachel wrote home to his parents saying that he wasn't meant to be a doctor and that his true living should be that of a painter. His parents wrote back saying that doctors can draw pictures in their free time. Leaving Hiram, he thought he would become an artist, and went to Chicago to study at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1900 to 1903. He said that the school tried to change him into a different kind of artist than what he really was and then in 1904 left to attend the New York School of Art (now The New School) to study pen and ink. Lindsay remained interested in art for the rest of his life, drawing illustrations for some of his poetry. His art studies also probably led him to appreciate the new art form of film, on which he wrote a book in 1915: 'The Art of the Moving Picture,' generally considered the first book of film criticism.
While in New York in 1905 Lindsay turned to poetry in earnest. He tried to sell his poems on the streets. Self-printing his poems, he began to barter a pamphlet entitled 'Rhymes To Be Traded For Bread', which he traded for food as a self-perceived modern version of a medieval troubadour.
From March to May, 1906, Lindsay traveled roughly 600 miles on foot from Jacksonville, Florida to Kentucky, again trading his poetry for food and lodging. From April to May, 1908, Lindsay undertook another poetry-selling trek, walking from New York City to Hiram, Ohio.
From May to September 1912 he travelled — again on foot — from Illinois to New Mexico, trading his poems for food and lodging. During this last trek, Lindsay composed his most famous poem, "The Congo". On his return, Harriet Monroe published in Poetry magazine first his poem "General William Booth Enters into Heaven" in 1913 and then "The Congo" in 1914. At this point, Lindsay became very well-known.
Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle,
Harry the uplands,
Steal all the cattle,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, Boom... (lines 21-26)
The measured mix of sounds and rhythm laid the foundations for sound poetry later in the century.
It is ignorant to connect the poem The Congo to the racism prevalent in the United States of America at the turn of the 20th century, a racism pervasive even among those who — at least by the standards of the time — saw themselves as opposed to racism. "The Congo" was inspired by a sermon preached in October 1913 that detailed the drowning of a missionary in the Congo river, an event that captured world wide criticism. The poem addresses the Congo's understandable tension of social transition wherein a relatively isolated and pastoral society is suddenly confronted by the industrialized world. That said, most contemporaries viewed Lindsay as an advocate for African-Americans (See John Chapman Ward: "Vachel Lindsay Is 'Lying Low'", College Literature 12 (1985): 233-45).
Lindsay considered himself the "discoverer" of Langston Hughes after Hughes — then a busboy in Washington, D.C. — gave Lindsay copies of his poems when Lindsay ate at the restaurant where Hughes worked. Additionally, Lindsay wrote the 1918 poem "The Jazz Birds", praising the war efforts of African-Americans during World War I, an issue to which the vast majority of white America seemed blind.
Edgar Lee Masters published a biography of Lindsay in 1935 (four years after its subject's death) entitled 'Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America'.
Lindsay himself indicated in the 1915 preface to "The Congo" that no less a figure than William Butler Yeats respected his work. Yeats felt they shared a concern for capturing the sound of the primitive and of singing in poetry. In 1915, Lindsay gave a poetry reading to President Woodrow Wilson and the entire Cabinet.
Lindsay was well known throughout the nation, and especially in Illinois, because of his travels which were sometimes recorded in the front page of every newspaper.
In 1924 he moved to Spokane, Washington, where he lived in room 1129 of the Davenport Hotel until 1929. On May 19, 1925, he married the 23-year-old Elizabeth Connor. The 45-year-old poet now found himself under great economic pressure as the husband of a considerably younger wife. These financial worries escalated even more when in May 1926 the Lindsays had a daughter, Susan Doniphan Lindsay, and in September 1927 a son, Nicholas Cave Lindsay.
Desperate for money to meet the growing demands of his growing family, Lindsay undertook an exhausting string of readings throughout the East and Midwest that lasted from October 1928 through March 1929. During this time, Poetry magazine awarded him a lifetime achievement award of $500 (a substantial sum at the time).
After this tour, in April 1929, Lindsay and his family moved to the house of his birth in Springfield, Illinois: an expensive undertaking. In that same year, and coinciding with the Stock Market Crash of 1929, Lindsay published two more books of poems: The Litany of Washington Street and Every Soul A Circus.
He gained money by doing odd jobs throughout, but in general earned very little during his travels.
Today, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency helps to maintain the Vachel Lindsay Home at 603 South Fifth Street in Springfield, the site of Lindsay's birth and death. The Agency has donated the home to the state which then closed it to restore the home costing $1.5 million. The site is now again open to the public giving full, guided tours for those who choose to ring the bell. The hours are Tues-Sat: 12-4:00pm. Lindsay's grave lies in Oak Ridge Cemetery.