Modern minstrels

The heirs to Vachel Lindsay’s performance poetry

Modern minstrels
Howard B. Austin of Springfield was famous for making up lyrics on the spot.

Poets, we are reliably told, once were creatures of the street and the court, not the study, and poetry was sung, or at least recited. That past lives again every year when Springfield area schoolkids take the stage during the Poetry Out Loud recitation competition, whose winners have a chance to go on, if not to glory, at least to Washington, D.C., for a national recite-off.

Now, I’m generally ag’in anything that excites teenagers to make noise, but I turn a tolerant ear toward them when the noise they are making comes from Elizabeth Bishop or John Donne. The latter composed one of the works recited by Morgan Joyce Williams of Springfield High School, who won the Illinois title this year. (Well done, Morgan.)

The ghost of Mr. Lincoln was smiling that night. It was said that he could recite from memory several pages of Byron’s “The Corsair.” He also loved Burns (whose poems he delivered with a Scottish accent), Poe (the president quoth from “The Raven” evermore) and works of Cowper, Gray and Pope, not to mention passages from the King James Bible and Shakespeare. The authors of the Mr. Lincoln’s White House website remind us that “what he liked best of all was to corner an acquaintance or one of his secretaries and read some of his favorite lines aloud.”

Yes, I agree, but presidents have done worse to aides.

The ability to recite verse persuasively used to be considered a hallmark of the cultured person. Memorizing poetry not only disciplines the mind and refines the ear; once memorized, it allows one to amuse one’s company, at least up to a point. The elderly town doctor in the amiable 1991 film, Doc Hollywood, loved to declaim Whitman when in his cups; at a party, an alarmed host calls out to one of her guests, “You’ll have to take Doc Hogue home. He’s startin’ on ‘Song of Myself!’ ”

Thus the tradition formed by the likes of Homer and the medieval bards became in our age a parlor amusement. It was that older tradition that Vachel Lindsay tried to revive in his own works. Lindsay wrote poems that were made to be recited, borrowing as they did from the revival tent, the Chautauqua stage and the campaign stump. One of the poems recommended to students by the Poetry Out Loud elders is Lindsay’s “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight.”
About Lindsay, a critic in 1921 wrote, “[His poems] must be read aloud, as their author reads them, to an accompaniment of drum, cymbal and shouting.” Committed to reviving the troubador spirit, Lindsay took his poems on the road, and traded them for bread. Today he would no doubt be dubbed a performance poet, and win a grant.

The original traveling bards composed and performed lyrics about romantic faraway places and heroes, and the best of them were installed in local courts for the amusement of the king’s company. To that extent Springfield’s Howard B. Austin was a modern minstrel. Austin was an accountant and avocational poet who could make rhymes add up as quickly as numbers.

Austin was one of a singing quartet named the Pawnee Four which entertained local conventions or banquets with songs featuring lyrics written by Austin on the spot and which often commented on the program or the speakers. At a meeting of the Sangamon County Democratic women in 1936, the quartet sang an Austin lyric entitled “Be It Resolved,” which called on the bachelor Gov. Henry Horner to “pick out a handsome old maid and get himself a wife!” (“When women delve in politics/And add their winsome charm,/That crafty ‘man’ may swift relent/And save the State from harm.”) Austin became Horner’s unofficial poet laureate, which is a sort of official minstrel retained to literally sing the praises of the achievements of king or country.

It would be cruel to Lindsay but not entirely inaccurate to describe Howard Austin as one of Lindsay’s artistic heirs. Others may be seen on the stages of Springfield whenever a poetry slam is being held, as they have been last year at Benedictine University and more recently at UIS. While Lindsay was in some ways as old-fashioned as high-button shoes, his verse was influenced by early jazz, to the point of calling his works “syncopated poems.” Roger Ebert once wrote that most of the material one hears at today’s poetry slams “exists halfway between rap music and Vachel Lindsay.” We might write about him what he wrote about Lincoln – “He is among us: as in times before!”

Contact James Krohe Jr. at