Friday, August 13, 2010

Vachel Lindsay and Edgar Lee Masters - sound recordings from 1931

A podcast of an October 2009 podcast at the University of Pennsylvania at takes on "The Congo."

"Gen. Willam Booth Enters Heaven" 3:13

"The Congo" (3 parts ... Part 3, w/ "Hark Ten Thousand Voices" quotation is 2:50 long)

Poemtalk Podcast #26 on Vachel Lindsay with Al Filreis, Aldon Nielsen, Charles Bernstein, and Michelle Taransky, October 30, 2009
complete podcast

Link to Vachel Lindsay on PennSound Daily blog December 2, 2009: "PoemTalk 26: Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo" 11/30/09
noncanonical Congo (PoemTalk #26)


Many of us read Vachel Lindsay in school--at least until he was removed from the anthologies. Few of us have heard the recordings of Lindsay performing--not just reading, but truly performing--his poems, "The Congo" most (in)famously. So we PoemTalkers decided to try our hand at the first section of Lindsay's most well-known poem. Al suggests that readers and listeners must attempt to "get past" the obvious racism (even of the opening lines), but Aldon Nielsen takes exception to that formulation, and off we go, exploring the problem and possibilities of this poet's foray--Afrophilic but nonetheless stereotype-burdened--into African sound and, more generally, the performativity of a culture.

* * *

Aldon doesn't want to "get past" the tension between Lindsay's desire to make a progressive statement and the racist content in the poem; as a whole, this work creates a tension that is "absolutely at the core of American culture." Aldon is hesitant to use the phrase "teachable moment" (which during 2009 has been a phrase that is dulled from facile overuse in the "ongoing conversation" about race) but that--teachability--is about the sum of it: to teach this poem is to gain access to a central American discussion.

Aldon cues up for us an excerpt from Dead Poets Society in which the boarding school boys under the spell of their charismatic English teacher perform "The Congo." We play audio from that moment in the film and discuss it, so be sure to listen all the way to the end.

* * *

summarized and excerpted at

Sound recordings available for both poets:

  • Spoon River Anthology

  • "The Congo" - Vachel Lindsay


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