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.

Monday, September 1, 2008

"Poetry & Popular Culture" interviews son of poet Frank Marshall Davis

"My father's fondest dream"
Setting the record straight on Frank Marshall Davis

Reporting for the Iowa City Press-Citizen newspaper back in April 2008, I wrote about one of Barack Obama's early influences, the poet and journalist Frank Marshall Davis who appears as "Frank" in Obama's autobiography Dreams from My Father. In the late 1940s, the FBI harassed Davis (and everyone else, it seems) for being a suspected commie. This past February, right-wing writers, including Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media, or AIM, began resurrecting this paranoia in order to expose what they call Obama's "carefully concealed communist and foreign connections." These reports have called Davis (1905-1987) "a Communist pawn of Moscow" and "Obama's Communist Mentor."

I recently had a chance to catch up with Mark Davis, son of Frank Marshall Davis, who retired from a career in the U.S. Air Force in 1993. Mark has recently started a blog to counter what he calls the disinformation campaign being conducted by AIM. (See http://my. /page/community/blog/Kaleokualoha).

Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

MC: When did you first learn about Obama's relationship with your father?

MD: I believe it was only this past May, when my lovely significant other advised me that he was mentioned in Obama's book. She also mentioned that my father's background was becoming an issue. I went online and discovered thousands of hits connected to AIM's disinformation campaign.

MC: What did you think when you read "Dreams from My Father"?

MD: Obama's portrayal of my father corresponds quite closely with my own memories. I believe it actually reinforces the point that Obama did not consider him to be his mentor but merely a colorful character who provided some useful (and not-so-useful) advice. Obama recognized that despite (or due to) his wealth of experience, my father was "incurable" of his notion that the glass ceiling for African-Americans may be permanent. This is the central question of race relations. When writing "Dreams," Obama seems to have recognized that the glass ceiling was an anachronism.

It's unfortunate that my father didn't live long enough to see race lose so much value as a factor of success. While it may be true that African-Americans will always be perceived as black, or even as "niggers" to some, race is increasingly irrelevant to success in America. For an increasing share of America, racial prejudice is disappearing. Like MLK Jr., my father's fondest dream—that we could all be judged exclusively by the content of our character—may be at hand.

MC: What made you decide to personally fight back against Kincaid and AIM?

MD: When Kincaid claimed that Obama "developed a close relationship, almost like a son, with Davis," I said "Whoa!" Kincaid also absurdly claimed that my father's "values, passed on to Obama, were those of a communist agent who pledged allegiance to Stalin." I knew I needed to immerse myself in this fight to defend my family honor. From my background as an Intelligence Officer, I could see him mimicking a full-blown Soviet KGB "active measures" disinformation campaign.

For Kincaid, my father seems to be just "collateral damage" in a war against Obama. Although I may not have been as supportive of my family as I could have been while on active duty, I'll be damned if I allow the Kincaid Brigade to demonize my father in this dishonest campaign against Barack Obama—or anyone else.

MC: Your blog is run through Why did you locate it there, and is it an endorsement of Obama as well as a defense of your father?

MD: An Obama blog seemed most appropriate because not only was Obama a friend of my father but also the enemy of my father's self-declared enemy. AIM deliberately is misrepresenting their relationship as a scandal when there was no wrongdoing, and deliberately misrepresenting Obama's reference to him as just "Frank" (without further identification in Dreams) as a "cover-up" of their imagined scandal.

I abhor such injustice, especially when committed in the name of "fairness, balance, and accuracy in news reporting." Although such defamation can no longer directly hurt my father (may he R.I.P.), it is intended to injure Obama.

I feel it's my responsibility, as an officer and a gentleman, to protect both of their reputations against this disinformation campaign. I want to protect Obama not only to repay the trust and regard he displayed for my father but also to help ensure that these lies don't hurt the campaign of the best candidate for President of the U.S. provided a ready-made media vehicle to neutralize those lies.

MC: Were you aware, growing up, that the F.B.I. was assigned to investigate your father in the late 1940s?

MD: I was vaguely aware that he was investigated because of his past activism, but I don't recall him ever providing much detail. The vast majority of his activism was in the civil rights struggle. As a teenager, I recall his delight with King's "I Have A Dream" speech and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We had little discussion of international events other than the Vietnam War, where he encouraged me, for school projects, to research the underlying reasons beyond its media portrayal.

The fact that he did not try to indoctrinate me in any Marxist ideology, although I lived with him until the age of 18, makes me absolutely positive that he did not do so with Obama.

MC: What do you think of your father's poetry now?

MD: I have never been much of a poetry buff (perhaps due to a recessive gene?), but reading his work since the controversy reinforces my determination to disprove Kincaid's misrepresentation of his character.

A slightly different version of this interview appeared in the Press-Citizen on 31 August 2008.