Vachel Lindsay’s achievements have always been measured by the size, enthusiasm, and attention of his audiences. The great recitals of the “higher vaudeville” poems of the 1910’s aroused such enthusiasm that good critics responded with varying assessments:John Masefield, after meeting him in Indianapolis in 1916 and hearing him read in England in 1920, said flatly that Lindsay was “the best American poet,” whereas Ezra Pound, polite at first, finally dismissed Lindsay with the observation that one could write such stuff “as fast as one scribbles.” Poets as various as William Butler Yeats, Robert Graves, Stephen Vincent Benét, and Theodore Roethke all saw Lindsay’s work as Masefield did, whereas Amy Lowell, Conrad Aiken, and many others not so politely scorned him.
The difference of opinion, finally, has less to do with Lindsay’s style than with the two basic ways of perceiving poetry: hearing and reading. Lindsay’s accomplishment was that he could write good poetry that could be read aloud well. The language, themes, and implications of his verse were profoundly American; they canvassed American culture clearly, affectionately, and critically. He built his poetry on his “tramps” through the land as well as in the city, “tramps” which taught him to see, as Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and Carl Sandburg did, the particulars of American life that defied sentimentality and generalization. When he invoked the gods, they were American heroes, the names that the folk he met knew and revered, both successes and failures: Abraham Lincoln, John Peter Altgeld, William Jennings Bryan, and John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed). Just as important, however, his poetry sang; it moved those who sounded it and those who heard it. His British audiences in 1920 heard the unfamiliar cadences of American speech in song and were astounded. His American audiences heard the rhythms and voices of their own culture, normally absent from the esoteric world of the “New Poetry.” This balance of theme and song, of creed in distinctive rhythm, is Lindsay’s most durable accomplishment. With it he achieves what Whitman seemed to predict for the twentieth century American poet. Masterpieces like “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” “Santa Fe Trail,” “The Chinese Nightingale,” “Flower-Fed Buffaloes,” and others will remain among the classics of twentieth century American poetry, for they perfectly express the sounds and concerns of a complex moment in American history.