Thursday, September 4, 2008

How Popular Is Popular? The Case of Vachel Lindsay

In 1913, Springfield Illinois poet Vachel Lindsay published "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven" in Poetry magazine, and the poem quickly become a popular hit on the day's poetry-reading circuit. Audiences clamored for Lindsay's half-sung dramatic performance so much that Lindsay wrote to friend and Davenport, Iowa, lawyer Arthur Davison Ficke, "I have recited the General til my jaws ache—4444 times."

Here's the beginning of the poem (to be sung, Lindsay instructed, to the tune of "The Blood of the Lamb" with instrumental accompaniment):

Booth led boldly with his big bass drum—
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
The Saints smiled gravely and they said: “He’s come.”
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
Walking lepers followed, rank on rank,
Lurching bravoes from the ditches dank,
Drabs from the alleyways and drug fiends pale—
Minds still passion-ridden, soul-powers frail:—
Vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath,
Unwashed legions with the ways of Death—
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

The publication of Lindsay's "The Congo" in Poetry a year later, however, earned Lindsay more fame than he'd ever bargained for. Response to "The Congo" was sensational among literary and popular audiences alike. Biographer Eleanor Ruggles reports that when Lindsay read "The Congo" at a Poetry event celebrating William Butler Yeats' visit to Chicago, "The audience burst into applause ... and there were bravos from Lindsay's fellow midwesterners, persuading him into reciting General Booth."

Around the same time, in the booming coal-mining metropolis of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1915, 1,500 people—nearly 5% of the population of what was then the 94th largest city in America—turned out to hear Lindsay read.

How popular is that, you might ask?

Well, for Lindsay to find a popular turnout nowadays, he would have to go to Chula Vista in San Diego County, California, now the nation's 94th largest city with a population of 210,000. To match, percentagewise, the size of the crowd that saw Lindsay perform in Wilkes-Barre in 1915, an audiences of about 10,000 people—10,000!—would have to turn out. Earlier this year, when Mary Oliver sold out a 2,500 seat venue in Seattle (consistently ranked as the most literate large city in the U.S. and much larger than Chula Vista), the event made national headlines. "Poet-mania," read one report headline, "Mary Oliver's sold-out appearance sparks a ticket frenzy on Craigslist."

Just imagine what the press would do if 10,000 people turned out in any city for a poetry reading today—or what the frenzy would have been like if Craigslist was around back in 1915.

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