Making Modernism

Vachel Lindsay’s “Rhymes To Be Traded For Bread” (1912)

On the back of a self-published pamphlet of poems, “Rhymes to be Traded for Bread” (1912), Nicholas Vachel Lindsay offers up his willingness to preach his gospels on “short notice.” The subjects of his “gospels,” presumably an oratorical supplement to the poems, will be: virtues of the “hearth,” “voluntary poverty,” and “beauty.”  On the front, the pamphlet frames the poems as a substitute for money to be exchanged for food and shelter while “tramping”—which, for Lindsay, meant hitching, riding, and mostly walking from Springfield, Illinois across Kansas, Missouri, and ultimately through Colorado to New Mexico.  It was this pamphlet and experiment in living that stoked Harriet Monroe’s interest in Lindsay’s work and which became a sort of companion piece to the later Adventures in the Gospel of Beauty (MacMillan, 1916).

As with the film director who takes to the road in Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941) in order to experience America’s social problems first hand, it is not exactly clear who Lindsay is undertaking his pilgrimage for. Does he tramp for the sake of art?  Or for the downtrodden peoples of the American Middlewest and beyond? Are the poems a validation of social or aesthetic commitments, or both?  And when we read these poems, how does language represent the distance between poetry and the lived consequences of homelessness, itinerancy, and poverty—consequences that would have been palpable to Lindsay?

The poems are composed largely in a lilting variation on end-rhymed ballad meter.  They take on the questions and tropes of a road pilgrimage. Subjects range from the sublime to the ridiculous: the relation between love and law, industrial machinery, wizards, and the “grave of a righteous kitten.”  

The last poem, “On the Road to Nowhere,” captions the project with a strophe that seems as much an endorsement as it is an ironic reprisal of Lindsay’s stated goals:

Oh nowhere, golden nowhere!
Sages and fools go on
To your chaotic ocean,
To your tremendous dawn.
Far in your fair dream-haven,
Is nothing or is all * * *
They press on, singing, sowing
Wild deeds without recall!

Sorting the irony from earnestness is hard, particularly when we measure these poems according to the series of self-set rules Lindsay lays out at the top at the top of the front page.  The pamphlet not only declares itself outside of capitalist exchange value but as a sort of Christian promissory note to keep away from cities and railroads and hold no baggage, except for a “small portfolio” containing an essay on beauty and pictures relating to the history and art of America.  His approach, then, seems as much pastoral as moral, in that he distances himself from other vagrants who, the contemporary fables went, take to the road out of a lust for individual freedom but then end up subsumed by urban temptation and vice.  Given these competing impulses, do we read Lindsay’s pamphlet as a satire of American attitudes toward the migrant poor or as a self-serving testament to the good work of poetry—as compared to spiritually dissolute, discomposed migrants?

Lindsay’s subsequent turn towards the “high vaudevillean” style--or what Rachel Blau DuPlessis calls the “one-man minstrel show”—of The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race (1914) makes it even more difficult to grapple with how he represents the lived conditions of lower-classed peoples, particularly as he plays with moral, racial, and political identities. Additionally, leaving behind one’s home, familiars, and possessions does not necessarily entail authentic encounters with others. Lindsay seems to short-circuit the fact that the experience of temporary or sustained social exclusion often entails critical confrontations with normative ideas of beauty, social belonging, and political enfranchisement, particularly as one traverses stratifications of class difference and racialized accessibility. Like Walt Whitman, Jack London, Jack Kerouac, and other white male poets who tasked themselves with tramping in order to create a poetics of life on “the road,” Lindsay seems caught between the mythologies and the actualities of wandering the earth in search of the “gospel” of America.

-Christopher Patrick Miller, Saint Louis University

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