In the first installment of a (possible?) series entitled "The IckPo Reader," I wanted to pen an open letter to the Poetry Foundation. PF publishes Poetry magazine, the oldest periodical devoted to verse in the English-speaking world, and has, since 1941, striven to "expand and enhance" the presence of poetry in America.
What does this have to do with IckPo? What is IckPo? IckPo is a (slightly tongue-in-cheek) term for poems that make you feel icky. They may not be intentionally racist, bigoted, or misogynist - but whether the poet meant to or not, they leave a bad taste in your mouth. In The IckPo Reader, we'll be taking a look at some of these poems, explicating them, and analyzing them.
Today's installment comes to you courtesy of the past, where a chap called Vachel Lindsay was busying himself penning celebratory verse about "negroes" in a misguided attempt to improve whatever passed for race relations in the late 1800s.
While not strictly an explication, this IckPo post aims to interrogate the value of upholding the work of Lindsay, and other dead guys like him, as the gold standard of canonical verse. Why is the Poetry Foundation giving this long-dead poet a signal boost for a (racist?) poem written damn near 100 years ago? And why should we care? Read on...
An Open Letter to the Poetry Foundation
I’m writing to you today to express my concern regarding the presence of Vachel Lindsay’s poem “The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race,” on the Poetry Foundation website.
Before you immediately dismiss this email, please know that I am not calling for the poem to be removed or censored. I believe poems, even those that are objectionable by today’s standards, offer us much in regard to understanding both our history and the human condition. Lindsay’s poem is no exception.
I understand, too, that the Poetry Foundation seeks to showcase a range of work from Poetry magazine’s considerable archives, an endeavor I both respect and admire. As a student, I gained much from perusing the vast collection of material available through PF.org. In my professional career, I still refer to it regularly.
However, I find it disappointingly near-sighted that nowhere on the PF website is an attempt made to provide context or analysis for this particular poem—a poem where the opening line refers to the “basic savagery” of black people. The poem goes on to invoke a number of antiquated stereotypes and caricatures, from “tattooed cannibals” to “lean witch-doctors,” and of course the slightly mystifying and aggressive refrain that includes “BOOM, kill the Arabs,/BOOM, kill the white men.”
There’s even a tab on the PF website for ‘Related Content,’ which one can refer to for the poet’s biography and any contextual information about the piece. Sadly, I learned more about Vachel Lindsay from Wikipedia than I did from the bio PF provided. Despite the fact that “The Congo…” is a poem explicitly concerned with race, there is very little in Lindsay's biography to suggest to the reader his views on the matter, or his intent with this poem. PF has also neglected to illuminate what contemporary critics make of his work—a missed opportunity, as contrasting Lindsay’s self-identification as an ‘anti-racist’ with critical scholarship that analyzes his primitivism would make both for interesting reading, and a useful educational resource.
It saddens me that such a complex poem has been abandoned on the digital equivalent of a windswept crag, divorced from context or discussion. How wonderful it would be if PF could use this poem to initiate a conversation about authorial intent VS subjective response. It is not enough to say that the poet meant well, or that his glorification of the ‘Noble Savage’ is less offensive than publishing a poem that uses the word ‘n*****.’ Even in his own time, Lindsay knew that this poem had been “denounced by the Colored people” for reasons he “[couldn’t] fathom.”
If Lindsay himself couldn’t fathom how or why his “Study of the Negro Race” was anything other than complimentary to black people, how do you suppose contemporary readers will interpret it? Will they understand that Lindsay’s description of a “negro fairyland,” complete with a “minstrel river” and “baboon butler,” infantilizes black people, and reinforces the damaging dichotomy that black culture can either be fanciful and fantastical, or threatening and crude?
This poem is not without merit, and I do believe it deserves a place in your online archives. However, its chief strength is its ability to foster a discussion of what poetry is, what it should be, and how our attitudes towards these questions shift over time.
You must know that many people use PF.org as an educational resource and teaching tool. With a steadily increasing number of black bodies lying dead in the street, in a social and political climate bent on reinforcing the systematic racism that tells us those lives do not matter, is it enough to divorce this poem from its context? Is it okay to resurrect another relic of well-meaning racism, to present it without comment?
I would like to see the Poetry Foundation use its platform to interrogate the canon, to provide a multitude of ways to read and experience older work. Vachel Lindsay was a product of his times, and however well-intentioned, he would still be considered a racist by today’s standards.
Let the Poetry Foundation measure itself not by the norms and behaviors of the 19th century, but by what it wishes to impart to the next generation. Let PF accept the challenge to use poetry to initiate discussion—to spark within us that spirit of passion and inquiry, that fascination with the human spirit that led so many of us to dedicate our lives to its practice and study.
Do not censor Vachel Lindsay. Do not remove his work. Use it to teach us how to be better poets, and better human beings.
Got a poem that made you say "Ick!"? Send a pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we'll consider your explication/analysis for The IckPo Reader.
Kia Groom recently graduated with an MFA in poetry from the University of New Orleans. Her poems, essays, and short fiction have appeared in Cordite, Going Down Swinging, Overland, and Midnight Echo, and she is founding editor of Quaint Magazine. Twitter: @whodreamedit, Web: www.kiagroom.com
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