Week 481: The Flower-fed Buffaloes, by Vachel Lindsay

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,
Lying low.

Vachel Lindsay

Week 93: From ‘Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan’ by Vachel Lindsay

Vachel Lindsay’s ‘Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan’, a long poem chronicling Democrat William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 election campaign and ultimate defeat by the Republican candidate William McKinley, is a strange beast, part political rant, part lyrical evocation of youthful idealism, part elegy for lost love and lost dreams. The politics may be a bit dated now – most outside the US will remember Lindsay’s hero William Jennings Bryan, if at all, as an opponent of Darwinism in the Scopes trial – but the lyrical and elegiac parts seem as fresh as ever, and I give here two extracts that seem to me to represent those best.

From ‘Bryan, Bryan, Bryan Bryan’

The long parade rolled on. I stood by my best girl.
She was a cool young citizen, with wise and laughing eyes.
With my necktie by my ear, I was stepping on my dear,
But she kept like a pattern without a shaken curl.
She wore in her hair a brave prairie rose.
Her gold chums cut her, for that was not the pose.
No Gibson Girl would wear it in that fresh way.
But we were fairy Democrats, and this was our day.


Where is McKinley, Mark Hanna’s McKinley,
His slave, his echo, his suit of clothes?
Gone to join the shadows, with the pomps of that time,
And the flames of that summer’s prairie rose.

Where is Cleveland whom the Democratic platform
Read from the party in a glorious hour?
Gone to join the shadows with pitchfork Tillman,
And sledge-hammer Altgeld who wrecked his power.

Where is Hanna, bulldog Hanna,
Low-browed Hanna, who said: ‘Stand pat’?
Gone to his place with old Pierpont Morgan.
Gone somewhere…with lean rat Platt.

Where is Roosevelt, the young dude cowboy,
Who hated Bryan, then aped his way?
Gone to join the shadows with mighty Cromwell
And tall King Saul, till the Judgement Day.

Where is Altgeld, brave as the truth,
Whose name the few still say with tears?
Gone to join the ironies with Old John Brown,
Whose fame rings loud for a thousand years.

Where is that boy, that Heaven-born Bryan,
That Homer Bryan, who sang from the West?
Gone to join the shadows with Altgeld the Eagle,
Where the kings and the slaves and the troubadours rest.

Vachel Lindsay