Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

A weird happened to me last night. I woke up with a poem moving around in my head. “Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room …” I immediately recognized it as “The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race,” by Vachel Lindsay.

Holy racism! We actually studied this when I was in the seventh grade! Lindsay was a proponent of what he called “singing poetry,” where verse was chanted dramatically. “The Congo” even has stage directions. The teacher, Mrs. Kimbro, read it aloud, very dramatically, and we did, too. What I’m wondering is, did kids across the country study this poem? Or was this a thing one could only do in Texas and the Deep South in 1960? Can anyone tell me?

The public schools I attended in Nederland, Texas, were de facto segregated in that there were no black families in town. It was an unstated conspiracy that no one would sell or rent to them. I didn’t see a black student until I went to Michigan State University.

The ironic thing is that Lindsay was actually an advocate for the rights of “colored” people in his day, almost exactly a hundred years ago. From Wiki:

This intention was particularly evident in the 1918 poem “The Jazz Birds”, praising the war efforts of African-Americans during World War I, an issue to which the vast majority of the white US seemed blind.

He was a champion of the poetry of Langston Hughes. W.E.B. Du Bois praised some of his other work, though he didn’t like “The Jazz Birds.”

In 1931 Lindsay committed suicide by … wait for it … drinking Lysol!

I really wanted to hear it again, and found it (or most of it, with some unexplained gaps), straight from the horse’s mouth.

Is that special, or what? And you know what I remember? We liked it! It was a hell of a lot more fun than the other poetry we were studying. Which is probably why I remember it still, fifty-five years later.

That got me thinking of two other poems that made a deep impression on me way back then. Other than some uninteresting stuff from Ray Bradbury, these are the only SF poems I have ever seen, both by Stephen Vincent Benet: “Nightmare Number Three” and “Metropolitan Nightmare.”

These are GREAT damn stories! Should have shown up in an SF magazine. And the second one? GLOBAL FUCKING WARMING!!!! Really makes me wonder if there is a Nightmare Number Two, but if there is, I can’t find it.

May 17, 2015
Vancouver, WA