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Vachel Lindsay's poem Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan


Poems of a partisan nature
Richard Wilbur Poet
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When I was doing the laureate job, I think I was made to feel that I was not called upon to write any partisan political poems, but I did very often get letters from my constituency suggesting that I celebrate the opening of Congress, that I speak well of the Statue of Liberty, that kind of thing, and I have done things like that. When Bill Schuman, the composer called me one night and asked me if I would like to write a cantata in honour of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, I said, 'Good heavens Bill, how can I do anything like that? Hasn't it all been said in 4th of July speeches for years and years?' Well, I did a lot of, 'Oh Bill talk', and finally he said, 'Well, think it over, I'll call you tomorrow', and when he called me tomorrow I thought what fun it would be to work with him and how interesting it would be to see if I could say something somewhat fresh about the Statue of Liberty for which indeed I feel a proper love and respect.

So, there's the celebratory side of it, and I think some laureates have felt that they ought to a certain extent to go along with that. Howard Nemerov I think wrote a couple of poems which were suitable for Washington occasions, and that was good. When Robert Pen Warren was appointed as our first laureate, he said he was damned if he was going to write any get well quick poems for Ronald Reagan's sick horse. That, in other words, he was not going to do any of the work that English laureates have often felt that they had to do, and have sometimes done so handsomely. He was not going to do that, and he didn't. But Howard Nemerov did a bit of it and I think that others could have and that it would have been good perhaps if they had done so. As for partisan political poems, there's an anthology somewhere around this building that was published toward the close of the Vietnam war and it was full of poems saying of course no to the war, and that anthology is absolutely unreadable from cover to cover. It's full of poems written by people who were being as Tony Hecht once said, war profiteers. They were furthering their careers by appearing in front of large indignant audiences and telling them what they already knew. I think I'm being a little too sweeping, undoubtedly there were some good poems that came of it, but mostly I think not, and I think that that partisan excitements have misled poets in all periods. I sympathise with Yeats' refusalt to write a war poem or whatever it was that he was asked to do. Probably I'm too sweeping in what I say. Undoubtedly if I really sat here and thought, I could come up with a number of fine poems of a partisan nature. The best one I think that was ever written was Vachel Lindsay's poem, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan. It's wonderful, it makes me weep, and the special thing about it is that it gives you the politics of Bryan's period from the point of view of a 16 or 17-year-old boy who is running around with crowds of excited people in the streets of Springfield, Illinois, excited about a romantic heroic version of politics, which Lindsay both espoused and gently mocked. He knew that the flavour of Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan was noble but that it was also kid's stuff.

Acclaimed US poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) published many books and was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He was less well known for creating a musical version of Voltaire's “Candide” with Bernstein and Hellman which is still produced throughout the world today.

Listeners: David Sofield

David Sofield is the Samuel Williston Professor of English at Amherst College, where he has taught the reading and writing of poetry since 1965. He is the co-editor and a contributor to Under Criticism (1998) and the author of a book of poems, Light Disguise (2003).

Tags: Statue of Liberty, US Congress, 4th of July, Vietnam War, Illinois, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bill Schuman, Robert Pen Warren, Ronald Reagan, Howard Nemerov, Tony Hecht, W B Yeats, Vachel Lindsay

Duration: 5 minutes, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008