Vachel Lindsay

This post continues a project I began last August, in which I will read The Voice that is Great Within Us, a collection of 20th century American poetry curated by Hayden Carruth, and write my reflections on each poet contained therein. This post concerns Vachel Lindsay, the third poet in the collection.


Lindsay is a bit didactic for my tastes, as is immediately apparent in the first poem included, “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight.” We see the specter of Lincoln haunting our courthouse, our yards, our markets, haunting us because we are haunting him with our violence, our unjust and unpeaceful world. “And who will bring white peace / That he may sleep upon his hill again,” the poem ends. The issue I have is that the choice of Lincoln is unmotivated within the poem itself. The longing for peace is too general. Lincoln merely serves as a figurehead. I do not believe that Lincoln himself is disturbed. The poem bears the epigraph, “In Springfield, Illinois,” and I believe it was written there, because that happenstance of the author’s physical location is the only reason for choosing Lincoln that I can see.

A similar issue arises with “The Spider and the Ghost of the Fly” – once again a key element seems unmotivated. The basic premise of the poem is simple: a fly loves a spider, the spider eats the fly, the ghost of the fly comes back to haunt the spider. It’s a pleasant enough bit of iambic trimeter, but is it any more than that? The key, such as it is, lies in the final four lines:

To educate young spiders
She took me all apart.
My ghost came back to haunt her.
I saw her eat my heart.

I find the intrusion of the young spiders a bit jarring. Up until now, the encounter has been solely between the spider and the fly, as one would expect of a predator-prey relationship. The sudden addition of other agents is curious, and makes me suspect (what I already suspected somewhat) that the poem is an allegory – something, after all, must justify this rather un-spiderlike education. But I don’t know what it might be an allegory for, so that fails to help me understand the choice.

Moving to the last two lines, they present an intriguing scenario: the fly comes back as a ghost to haunt the spider, but it is the ghost of the fly that ends up haunted by the sight of its own heart being eaten, while the spider, we presume, is unfazed. It is a potentially powerful image, but in a way this only serves to heighten the weakness of the poem for me, because this twist ending does not work backwards. The rest of the poem does not take on new significance in light of it (indeed, to my eyes it only makes the young spiders seem even more out of place). It all just seems an excuse to reach this climax.

About the other two poems included, “At Mass” and “The Flower-Fed Buffaloes,” I have little specific to say. Both have an apparently simple purpose, straightforwardly achieved, with little that opens itself up to me on a second or third reading. The overall impression I get is that the language is a vehicle for the point, sweetened with poetic technique to make the point more inviting, but still supposed, in the end, to leave us only with the point. It does little for me.

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