Thursday, April 17, 2008

In Praise of Vachel Lindsay

I grew up in a house full of books, and the living room had a wall of bookcases filled with poetry. My father loves poetry and he is the world's best reciter of poetry. When he was young he studied debating and he listened to many poets and trained himself to use his voice to convey the music and rhythm of poetry that I wish all of you could hear. One of his favorite poets is Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) and to hear my father recite The Congo or The Kallyope Yell is to be entranced.

I firmly believe that the best way to teach children to love and appreciate poetry is to surround them with poetry in their homes and schools. But also it is very important to read poetry with rhythm, inflection and love. If you just present poetry to children on the page, you rob them of the whole aural dimension of poetry. Remember poetry started as an oral art where poets declaimed their poetry and it was passed down in memory for many generations before being written down. Think of the Norse and Icelandic Sagas or the Iliad and the Odyssey or the Biblical Psalms. These are all examples of oral poetry that were eventually written down. Songs themselves are poetry full of the music of words and rhythm.

Vachel Lindsay often appears in children's poetry anthologies. There is one collection of his children's poetry: Springfield Town is Butterfly Town, and Other Poems for Children (Kent State University Press, 1969). I recommend you find a copy through your local library or through Internet booksellers. Here are some of the poems he wrote for children and I want to share one:

The Mysterious Cat

I saw a proud, mysterious cat,
I saw a proud, mysterious cat
Too proud to catch a mouse or rat-
Mew, mew, mew.

But catnip she would eat, and purr,
But catnip she would eat, and purr.
And goldfish she did much prefer-
Mew, mew, mew.

I saw a cat-was but a dream,
I saw a cat-was but a dream.
Who scorned the slave that brought her
Mew, mew, mew.

Unless the slave were dressed in style,
Unless the slave were dressed in style.

And knelt before her all the while-
Mew, mew, mew.

Did you ever hear of a thing like that?
Did you ever hear of a thing like that?
Did you ever hear of a thing like that?
Oh, what a proud mysterious cat.
Oh, what a proud mysterious cat.
Oh, what a proud mysterious cat.
Mew. . .mew. . . mew.

I can't resist posting a portion of one of my favorites:

The Kallyope Yell

[Loudly and rapidly with a leader, College yell fashion]


Proud men
Go about,
Slander me,
Call me the "Calliope."
Sizz . . . . .
Fizz . . . . .

I am the Gutter Dream,
Tune-maker, born of steam,
Tooting joy, tooting hope.
I am the Kallyope,
Car called the Kallyope.
Willy willy willy wah hoo !
See the flags: snow-white tent,
See the bear and elephant,
See the monkey jump the rope,
Listen to the Kallyope, Kallyope, Kallyope!
Soul of the rhinoceros
And the hippopotamus
(Listen to the lion roar!)
Jaguar, cockatoot,
Loons, owls,
Hoot, Hoot.
Listen to the lion roar,
Listen to the lion roar,
Listen to the lion R-O-A-R!
Hear the leopard cry for gore,
Willy willy willy wah hoo !
Hail the bloody Indian band,
Hail, all hail the popcorn stand,
Hail to Barnum's picture there,
People's idol everywhere,
Whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop !
Music of the mob am I,
Circus day's tremendous cry: --
I am the Kallyope, Kallyope, Kallyope!
Hoot toot, hoot toot, hoot toot, hoot toot,
Willy willy willy wah hoo !
Sizz, fizz . . . . .

I love the Willy willy willy wah hoo/sizz fizz lines which convey the hiss and whistle of the circus calliope that announced the arrival of the circus into town. Today's children will never hear a true circus calliope but the rhythm and excitement of this wonderful poem give a very visual and oral image of the old-time traveling circus.

PennSound offers downloads of readings by Vachel Lindsay himself of six of his poems. Lindsay wandered about the United States, reading and performing his poems, which were specifically crafted to be read aloud. Check LibriVox for downloadable audio files of four of his poems read by other readers and contrast the reading styles.

Enjoy then go find a group of children and share some of these wonderful poems with them!

Note: I do not quote The Congo here though I love the rhythm and sound of it because it is very controversial then and now. UIUC has a page that provides further information about Lindsay and this poem. It would make a good poem for a high school class learning about issues of racism and the early twentieth century. With preparation on the background, the students might really love hearing the poem.

Second note: If you live in or near Chicago, come to the Mercury Cafe, 1505 W. Chicago Avenue, Chicago, on Friday, April 18th, 2008, from 7-9 pm, to hear my father and two other local poets read their own poetry!

Also, go enjoy other Poetry Friday posts at The Well-Read Child.


Unknown said...

Hi Jenny,
Welcome to Poetry Friday, and thanks for leaving your link on The Well-Read Child. In answer to your question about the Poetry Friday button, you can right click on the image and save it to your hard drive. Then, go in and edit your post, uploading the image to your post!

Jill (The Well-Read Child)

jama said...

Welcome to Poetry Friday! Wish I could hear your father read. Enjoyed the Lindsay poems!

Ruth said...

I agree - so much of enjoying poetry is hearing it read aloud. With my own children I've read them poetry since they were babies.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Vachel Lindsay is such an auditory poet! I didn't know he wrote children's poems--thanks for sharing them.

Suzanne said...

I quite agree with you about surrounding kids with poetry. I just posted about how I am using iPods to do this.

Marjorie said...

I've enjoyed reading about Vachel Lindsay, who was new to me - and I totally agree with what you say about how important it is for children to hear poetry, not just be expected to read it.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to Poetry Friday, thank you.