Factory Windows: On Alexander Blok and Vachel Lindsay (and a Few Besides)

The combination of leaden skies over Los Angeles and Aaron Poochigian’s darkly dazzling translations of Baudelaire, accompanied by Dana Gioia’s magisterial essay on the man he calls “the first modern poet,” brought to mind Alexander Blok (1880-1921), the star of the Russian Symbolist movement. In 1917: Stories and Poems of the Russian Revolution, I included Robert Chandler’s and my translation of Blok’s visionary, polyvocal masterpiece, The Twelve (1918), in which the poet channels the spirit of the time and discerns, in the apocalyptic violence upfolding around him, the second coming of Jesus Christ. It was one of the last poems Blok wrote. Growing ill and falling into a deep depression, he would complain to his friend Yuri Annenkov (1889-1974), who illustrated The Twelve, that he was suffocating, that “the Worldwide Revolution had turned into Worldwide Toad on my chest” (“chest toad” is a Russian term for angina pectoris). He died, as the émigré poet Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939) put it in his aptly named memoir, Necropolis (1939), “in general” — “because he was sick all over, because he could no longer go on living. He died of death.” (My review of Sarah Vitali’s flawless, stylish translation of Necropolis, from which that quote is taken, appeared in a recent issue of Translation and Literature.)

Blok’s attitude towards the Bolshevik Revolution was complicated and ambiguous; poets are seldom consistent political thinkers (if such a thing is possible). Less ambiguous was the sense of foreboding, the intuition of a coming catastrophe that imbues much of his verse of the 1900s. The poem below, written on November 24, 1903, is an example.

The Factory

The building next door has yellow windows.
When it gets late — when it gets late
the heavy brooding bolts start whining
as people gather at the gate.

The gate is shut as tight as can be.
Atop the wall — atop the wall
someone unmoving, too dark to see,
looks down at the people, counting them all.

From up where I live I can always hear him
shouting commands in his brassy tone,
telling the people huddled beneath him
to bend their tortured backs, stoop low.

They’ll stagger into the building, scatter,
heaving huge sacks and weighty tools,
while the men in the yellow windows cackle,
brag that they play these paupers for fools.

This poem is certainly anti-capitalist, but I wouldn’t call it Marxist. I see no suggestion that the plight of the working poor would be ameliorated, much less eliminated, by ownership of the means of production. The physical position of the poet says a great deal about his aesthetic and spiritual positions: he is to the side of the factory, high above not only the workers but also their exploiters. Yet the factory is close — next door. One feels the yellow-windowed building and all it represents encroaching on the poet; the foreman’s shouting, the whining bolts, the cackling bosses, and the desperate masses are all harbingers of modernity, of mechanization and dehumanization. Here I can simply quote Gioia on Baudelaire:

“What can be more absurd than Progress?” he asked. “Belief in progress is the doctrine of idlers and Belgians.” Baudelaire had genuine compassion for the poor, but he has no confidence that revolution would save them (or any other group) from the sorrows of existence. He often saw the poor and unfortunate as mirror images of his own troubled self.

And these thoughts, unexpectedly, bring me to two wholly original, willfully eccentric, and thoroughly ignored American poets, Peter Viereck (1916-2006) and Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931). The more tragic of the two was Lindsay, whose work I first encountered in anthologies discarded by my high school’s library (that discard shelf was one of the finest classes I ever took). A charismatic performer of his intensely rhythmic, musical work, Lindsay achieved extraordinary fame in the 1910s, but by the middle of the 1920s his reputation was in steep decline. He ended his life in a grotesque, heartbreaking way. Decades later, Viereck, too, seemed destined for a bright poetic career. His first collection, Terror and Decorum, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1949, but his unusual personality and contrarian politics seemed to have sidelined him in the 1950s. He spent more than half his life teaching Russian history at Mount Holyoke College.

Peter Viereck and Vachel Lindsay

But it isn’t this Russian connection that summoned Viereck, at least not directly. It’s his essay on Lindsay, whom he characterizes as a poet whose utopian belief in a paradisal American future — localized in his beloved Springfield, Illinois — clashed with his vision of the infernal present. “His Inferno,” writes Viereck in 1960, “was the same as ours: the standardizing side of the America he secretly hated when he affirmed her, secretly loved when he rejected her”:

“Inferno” is not too strong a word for the soul-destroying commercialism whose symbols, in his poetry, were broken factory windows. This occasional bitterness about commercialism reflected the same kind of unadjusted poetic imagination as Baudelaire’s bitterness about l‘esprit belge. In Lindsay that […] reaction produced two of the strongest, leanest lines ever written on the subject.

The lines Viereck points to are the first and last of the following 1914 poem, which chimes strikingly — even in its rhythm — with Blok’s, and also seems to anticipates Brecht:

Factory windows are always broken.
Somebody’s always throwing bricks,
Somebody’s always heaving cinders,
Playing ugly Yahoo tricks.

Factory windows are always broken.
Other windows are left alone.
No one throws through the chapel window
The bitter, snarling, derisive stone.

Factory windows are always broken.
Something or other is going wrong.
Something is rotten — I think, in Denmark.
End of the factory-window song.

Lindsay’s unmolested chapel window makes clear what Blok indicates indirectly. Both poets had a sense of what had gone wrong: the desacralization of modern life. And both thirsted for the sacred. This explains the energy Lindsay poured into his widely mocked work of utopian prophesy, The Golden Book of Springfield (1920), as well as the unlikely apparition of Jesus Christ at the head of a squad of Red Guards in Blok’s The Twelve.

Since I’ve broached the subject of the sacred, I might as well offer a third lyric, to round out the trinity. I feel I should pick something from the factory floor, to provide a different perspective — the proletarian poet Mikhail Gerasimov’s (1889-1937) “Iron Flowers”? No, I think I’ll give the final word to the brick-throwing Shane MacGowan and the Pogues, performing Ewan MacColl’s 1949 “Dirty Old Town”:

I met my love by the gas works wall
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
I kissed my girl by the factory wall

Dirty old town
Dirty old town

I’m gonna make me a good sharp axe
Shining steel tempered in the fire
I’ll chop you down like an old dead tree

Dirty old town
Dirty old town


Фабрика

В соседнем доме окна жёлты.
По вечерам — по вечерам
Скрипят задумчивые болты,
Подходят люди к воротам.

И глухо заперты ворота,
А на стене — а на стене
Недвижный кто-то, чёрный кто-то
Людей считает в тишине.

Я слышу всё с моей вершины:
Он медным голосом зовёт
Согнуть измученные спины
Внизу собравшийся народ.

Они войдут и разбредутся,
Навалят на спины кули.
И в жёлтых окнах засмеются,
Что этих нищих провели.

24 ноября 1903

10 thoughts on “Factory Windows: On Alexander Blok and Vachel Lindsay (and a Few Besides)

  1. Such an interesting post, Boris, and an inspired grouping of poets. Some of these are new to me and I’ll explore further; Baudelaire, however, is an old favourite and thank you for the links. I understand and sympathise with the need for revolutions, but all they seem to do in the long run is replace one ruling class with another. I guess we need to think outside the box, but the solution seems to have evaded humanity so far…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, dear Kaggsy! I don’t recall ever reading any translations of Baudelaire — let alone of the whole of Flowers — that can hold a candle to Poochigian’s. I hope you’ll enjoy them too! As for the desire for revolution, I feel it’s as inevitable an emanation of human nature as is the desire to dominate; at times these desires go hand in hand, at times revolutionaries aim for something more egalitarian but succumb to, or are overtaken by, tyrants from within or without. On rare occasions, a better, though never perfect, system arises — with checks and balances and all that.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Boris. It’s so good to read you. I can hear the bolts and see the yellow windows too. Capitalism stampedes to the trough…I love the repetitive aspect which mirrors the industrial machine… Lois

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh thank you, dear Lois! And it’s so good to read you! Yes, Blok’s poem captures the effects of those machines perfectly; he was preternaturally sensitive and chose just the right details to suggest the whole picture.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. In this elegant riff as in his previous our poet and translator highlights the expression of a painful emptiness. But are the poets’ laments profound or pathetic? Do Blok and Lindsey bemoan the absence of the sacred or merely the futility of their own pursuit of the will of the wisps of nationalism? Boris, thanks for this inspirational post. For an answer, I turn to your wonderful 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution.

    Liked by 1 person

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