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The Santa Fe Trail -- Vachel Lindsay

Today's poem is from Lindsay's collection "The Congo and Other Poems", in
the section headed "Poems Intended to be Read Aloud, or Chanted". Somewhat
unusually, Lindsay has included explicit reading directions. I've marked
these with a #. There are also several words emphasied in boldface, which I
have denoted by *word*. See the links for a properly typeset version of the
poem.
(Poem #1264) The Santa Fe Trail
(A Humoresque)

I asked the old Negro, "What is that bird that sings so well?"
He answered: "That is the Rachel-Jane." "Hasn't it another name,
lark, or thrush, or the like?" "No. Jus' Rachel-Jane."

I. In which a Racing Auto comes from the East

 # To be sung delicately, to an improvised tune.
 This is the order of the music of the morning: --
 First, from the far East comes but a crooning.
 The crooning turns to a sunrise singing.
 Hark to the *calm*-horn, *balm*-horn, *psalm*-horn.
 Hark to the *faint*-horn, *quaint*-horn, *saint*-horn. . . .

 # To be sung or read with great speed.
 Hark to the *pace*-horn, *chase*-horn, *race*-horn.
 And the holy veil of the dawn has gone.
 Swiftly the brazen car comes on.
 It burns in the East as the sunrise burns.
 I see great flashes where the far trail turns.
 Its eyes are lamps like the eyes of dragons.
 It drinks gasoline from big red flagons.
 Butting through the delicate mists of the morning,
 It comes like lightning, goes past roaring.
 It will hail all the wind-mills, taunting, ringing,
 Dodge the cyclones,
 Count the milestones,
 On through the ranges the prairie-dog tills --
 Scooting past the cattle on the thousand hills. . . .
 # To be read or sung in a rolling bass, with some deliberation.
 Ho for the *tear*-horn, *scare*-horn, *dare*-horn,
 Ho for the *gay*-horn, *bark*-horn, *bay*-horn.
 Ho for Kansas, land that restores us
 When houses choke us, and great books bore us!
 Sunrise Kansas, harvester's Kansas,
 A million men have found you before us.

II. In which Many Autos pass Westward

 # In an even, deliberate, narrative manner.
 I want live things in their pride to remain.
 I will not kill one grasshopper vain
 Though he eats a hole in my shirt like a door.
 I let him out, give him one chance more.
 Perhaps, while he gnaws my hat in his whim,
 Grasshopper lyrics occur to him.

 I am a tramp by the long trail's border,
 Given to squalor, rags and disorder.
 I nap and amble and yawn and look,
 Write fool-thoughts in my grubby book,
 Recite to the children, explore at my ease,
 Work when I work, beg when I please,
 Give crank-drawings, that make folks stare
 To the half-grown boys in the sunset glare,
 And get me a place to sleep in the hay
 At the end of a live-and-let-live day.

 I find in the stubble of the new-cut weeds
 A whisper and a feasting, all one needs:
 The whisper of the strawberries, white and red
 Here where the new-cut weeds lie dead.

 But I would not walk all alone till I die
 Without some life-drunk horns going by.
 Up round this apple-earth they come
 Blasting the whispers of the morning dumb: --
 Cars in a plain realistic row.
 And fair dreams fade
 When the raw horns blow.

 On each snapping pennant
 A big black name: --
 The careering city
 Whence each car came.
 # Like a train-caller in a Union Depot.
 They tour from Memphis, Atlanta, Savannah,
 Tallahassee and Texarkana.
 They tour from St. Louis, Columbus, Manistee,
 They tour from Peoria, Davenport, Kankakee.
 Cars from Concord, Niagara, Boston,
 Cars from Topeka, Emporia, and Austin.
 Cars from Chicago, Hannibal, Cairo.
 Cars from Alton, Oswego, Toledo.
 Cars from Buffalo, Kokomo, Delphi,
 Cars from Lodi, Carmi, Loami.
 Ho for Kansas, land that restores us
 When houses choke us, and great books bore us!
 While I watch the highroad
 And look at the sky,
 While I watch the clouds in amazing grandeur
 Roll their legions without rain
 Over the blistering Kansas plain --
 While I sit by the milestone
 And watch the sky,
 The United States
 Goes by.

 # To be given very harshly, with a snapping explosiveness.
 Listen to the iron-horns, ripping, racking.
 Listen to the quack-horns, slack and clacking.
 Way down the road, trilling like a toad,
 Here comes the *dice*-horn, here comes the *vice*-horn,
 Here comes the *snarl*-horn, *brawl*-horn, *lewd*-horn,
 Followed by the *prude*-horn, bleak and squeaking: --
 (Some of them from Kansas, some of them from Kansas.)
 Here comes the *hod*-horn, *plod*-horn, *sod*-horn,
 Nevermore-to-*roam*-horn, *loam*-horn, *home*-horn.
 (Some of them from Kansas, some of them from Kansas.)
 # To be read or sung, well-nigh in a whisper.
 Far away the Rachel-Jane
 Not defeated by the horns
 Sings amid a hedge of thorns: --
 "Love and life,
 Eternal youth --
 Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet,
 Dew and glory,
 Love and truth,
 Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet."
 # Louder and louder, faster and faster.
 WHILE SMOKE-BLACK FREIGHTS ON THE DOUBLE-TRACKED RAILROAD,
 DRIVEN AS THOUGH BY THE FOUL-FIEND'S OX-GOAD,
 SCREAMING TO THE WEST COAST, SCREAMING TO THE EAST,
 CARRY OFF A HARVEST, BRING BACK A FEAST,
 HARVESTING MACHINERY AND HARNESS FOR THE BEAST.
 THE HAND-CARS WHIZ, AND RATTLE ON THE RAILS,
 THE SUNLIGHT FLASHES ON THE TIN DINNER-PAILS.
 # In a rolling bass, with increasing deliberation.
 And then, in an instant,
 Ye modern men,
 Behold the procession once again,
 # With a snapping explosiveness.
 Listen to the iron-horns, ripping, racking,
 Listen to the *wise*-horn, desperate-to-*advise*-horn,
 Listen to the *fast*-horn, *kill*-horn, *blast*-horn. . . .
 # To be sung or read well-nigh in a whisper.
 Far away the Rachel-Jane
 Not defeated by the horns
 Sings amid a hedge of thorns: --
 Love and life,
 Eternal youth,
 Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet,
 Dew and glory,
 Love and truth.
 Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet.
 # To be brawled in the beginning with a
 # snapping explosiveness, ending in a languorous chant.
 The mufflers open on a score of cars
 With wonderful thunder,
 CRACK, CRACK, CRACK,
 CRACK-CRACK, CRACK-CRACK,
 CRACK-CRACK-CRACK, . . .
 Listen to the gold-horn . . .
 Old-horn . . .
 Cold-horn . . .
 And all of the tunes, till the night comes down
 On hay-stack, and ant-hill, and wind-bitten town.
 # To be sung to exactly the same whispered tune
 # as the first five lines.
 Then far in the west, as in the beginning,
 Dim in the distance, sweet in retreating,
 Hark to the faint-horn, quaint-horn, saint-horn,
 Hark to the calm-horn, balm-horn, psalm-horn. . . .

 # This section beginning sonorously, ending in a languorous whisper.
 They are hunting the goals that they understand: --
 San Francisco and the brown sea-sand.
 My goal is the mystery the beggars win.
 I am caught in the web the night-winds spin.
 The edge of the wheat-ridge speaks to me.
 I talk with the leaves of the mulberry tree.
 And now I hear, as I sit all alone
 In the dusk, by another big Santa Fe stone,
 The souls of the tall corn gathering round
 And the gay little souls of the grass in the ground.
 Listen to the tale the cotton-wood tells.
 Listen to the wind-mills, singing o'er the wells.
 Listen to the whistling flutes without price
 Of myriad prophets out of paradise.
 Harken to the wonder
 That the night-air carries. . . .
 Listen . . . to . . . the . . . whisper . . .
 Of . . . the . . . prairie . . . fairies
 Singing o'er the fairy plain: --
 # To the same whispered tune as the Rachel-Jane song -- but very slowly.
 "Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet.
 Love and glory,
 Stars and rain,
 Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet. . . ."
-- Vachel Lindsay
The most striking thing about today's poem - indeed, practically its
defining characteristic - is its intense focus on the *sound* of the words.
And this is very deliberate - quoting Lindsay:

  "I respectfully submit these poems as experiments in which I endeavor to
  carry this vaudeville form back towards the old Greek precedent of the
  half-chanted lyric. In this case the one-third of music must be added by
  the instinct of the reader."

The temptation is to dismiss this as pure gimmickry, to look no further than
the almost jarringly unexpected reading directions and to seize on the word
'experiment' as if that carries the whole value of the poem. However, even
the most casual reading should reveal the factor that makes the experiment
a definite success - Lindsay has a very fine ear indeed. In terms of sheer
sonorousness, I'd rank him right up there with Flecker, Masefield and
Kipling, though he does lack somewhat of their talent for description.
(Indeed, speaking of Masefield, today's poem is very reminscent of
'Cargoes', particularly the last verse thereof.)

Lindsay has blended form and content well, the overwhelming cascade of sound
and syllables bears down upon and swirls past the reader like the river of
cars and horns passing westwards. And in counterpoint, the recurring note of
the Rachel Janes "not defeated by the horns", and the superbly-crafted
parenthetical insertion, "(Some of them from Kansas, some of them from
Kansas)". And finally the "sweet in retreating" note of the flood passing
by, leaving the "wonder that the night air carries" - almost like Cargoes in
reverse.

All in all, a decidedly unusual, but very memorable and uniquely Lindsay
poem. Perhaps not as memorable as the better known "The Congo", but then,
neither does it suffer from the latter's appalling racism (it strikes me
that many of the complaints against Kipling - his racism, his vulgarity, his
sacrificing of poetic principle for start with a popular appeal - are more
closely applicable to Lindsay, and if he shares Kipling's strengths, he also
shares his failings). And, above all, great fun to read aloud.

martin

Links:

http://www.worldwideschool.org/library/books/lit/poetry/TheCongoandOtherPoems/toc.html
  has the full text of "The Congo and Other Poems", complete with proper
  typography, a biography, and an introduction by Harriet Monroe that I
  strongly urge you to read.

44 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

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Can you tell us the meaning of the poem in bref? Thanks

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