The home of Vachel Lindsay sits atop a rise next door to the governor’s mansion on Fifth Street in Springfield and does not look like the residence of an itinerant, penniless poet. It looks like what it was, the home of a successful town doctor, father of a penniless poet. The booklet distributed to the tourists of his bedroom and childhood blocks describes him as a spiritual minstrel who chanted his poems and traded booklets of verse for lodging while tramping across the countyside. I remember his name among poets once thrust upon me in school like prune juice. “Take this, it’s good for you.” Poets I tasted with twisted-mouth suspicion and spit out right after the test. If I thought anything at all about Gen. Booth entering heaven, it may have been “quaint.” I wonder if foreseeing such classroom scenarios may have played some part in his drinking a bottle of Lysol and choosing to end it all at 51. When he finally got the recognition we all want, audiences wanted him to perform his early work over and over and he apparently lacked that Jerry Garcia gene that eases repetition. Visiting Lindsay’s home, climbing his stairs, examining prints of his artwork and exiting from his front door left me feeling melancholy for some reason. Another poet suffers death by words. Hardly original, been done before.
But part of it was disappointment that I never really knew or understood his passion for making the world a better place with his poetry. Maybe the rhymes do read a little like gingerbread embellishments on a century home, maybe even a little politically incorrect. But seeing his space, looking through his windows I glimpsed his conviction that no poem or the performance of a poem is an end in itself, but rather should be a fulcrum for societal change. That ain’t quaint at all, it’s positively revolutionary.