If this poem by the American poet Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) seems a little naïve, it should be remembered that Lindsay was a performance poet, wandering the country making his living by dramatic recitations, often accompanying himself on the harmonica or other instrument. Never having been part of an oral culture, I must admit that normally I cringe a bit at this sort of thing: for me poetry has always been a matter of mind speaking to mind via the printed page and I feel no great need to have that communication mediated by an actual voice, let alone harmonicas. But I rather like this poem even if I am not hearing it as Lindsay intended, and its message is surely as relevant today as when he wrote it. That ‘flower-fed’, for example, is literally true: there was a time before the settlement of the American West when the great grasslands from April through to September would be ablaze with the likes of prairie rose, Indian Paintbrush, prairie smoke, prairie cinquefoil and goldenrod. So different from today’s nitrate-hungry monocultures. As for the buffalo, more correctly called American bison, it is thought at one time more than fifty million roamed the Great Plains. Now there seem to be three hundred and twenty five wild bison left in North American, though conservation efforts have been increasing the stock.
The Flower-fed Buffaloes
The flower-fed buffaloes of the spring
In the days of long ago,
Ranged where the locomotives sing
And the prairie flowers lie low:-
The tossing, blooming, perfumed grass
Is swept away by the wheat,
Wheels and wheels and wheels spin by
In the spring that still is sweet.
But the flower-fed buffaloes of the spring
Left us, long ago
They gore no more, they bellow no more,
They trundle around the hills no more:-
With the Blackfeet, lying low,
With the Pawnees, lying low,