Then I saw the Congo

In an effort to prove that I am not like Jono, I come before you to speak now of poetry. Specifically, jazz poetry. More specifically, the poetry of Vachel Lindsay, and to place our discussion right on the button, his most-famous (probably) ode, The Congo.

Under one’s breath, parenthetically

Actually, it’s called “The Congo (A Study of the Negro Race)”, but we’re here to talk of rhyme and metre, not politics.

Inquisitively, as of a church mouse

How’s your poetry knowledge? Better than mine, no doubt. The world is divided into two categories, those who think poetry is all effete verbiage and those with a favourite poem. My favourites are all epics, by which I mean that they’re long and they rhyme: The Lady of Shalott, with her magic web and now-cracked mirror; Alan Moore’s This Vicious Cabaret, which isn’t even a poem but a song; Hiawatha, and Don Juan, and A Shropshire Lad with its elevation of beer above Milton. Rightly so, since Paradise Lost doesn’t rhyme. Poems should rhyme. Yes they should; you know it in your soul. And why should they rhyme? Boomingly and with malice aforethought Because they are to be read aloud! Everyone knows this, too! No-one does it, though. Unless you’re the sort of wet bleeding-heart sap who goes to poetry readings, that is. (I must go to a poetry reading one day.) As that great orator Josiah Bartlett told us, words when spoken out loud for the purpose of oratory are music; they have rhythm and pitch and timbre and volume and these are the properties of music. Which brings us back to jazz poetry, which is both words and music and should be spoken out loud for the purpose of oratory. Read The Congo.

The first verse: Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room, Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable, Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table, Pounded on the table, Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom, Hard as they were able, Boom, boom, BOOM, With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom, Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM. THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision, I could not turn from their revel in derision. THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK, CUTTING THROUGH THE JUNGLE WITH A GOLDEN TRACK.


Read it out loud. You have to read it out loud to get at the centre of the thing. With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom. Hannibal Lecter tells Clarice Starling about the “pease porridge hot” quality of Sammy the schizophrenic’s poetry: “the meter varies but the intensity is the same.” Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old. Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom. It’s compelling, syncopated. Once you’ve started reading, it’s difficult to stop. Wistful and reflective Speaking out loud for the purposes of oratory is not as easy as it could be, I feel. This is much on my mind with my agreement to speak at conferences. I’m not too bad at it; after doing the reading at my aunt’s funeral I was asked if I was thinking of becoming a priest, seemingly because I made eye contact with the congregation rather than muffling my words into the lectern. That’s because I treated it like a business presentation; perhaps a bit unfeeling, but if I’d have chosen the reading then I would have put my hands in my pockets and talked about how much I missed her, not recited a passage from the Bible. I’d love to be able to do what Lindsay does in Congo. Jed Bartlett’s speechwriter, Toby Ziegler, talks (in words given him by his speechwriter, Aaron Sorkin) about “the science of listener attention”. If you can get your audience to follow the words along, if they have to sit on their hands to avoid clapping the beat, you’ve won. On I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue, when they sing, sometimes the audience will start clapping along with the song. Builds up a rhythm, just like Toby says. Just like Lindsay says, “a rapidly piling climax of speed and racket.” I’m dimly perceiving that this is the approach of great speechmakers. Churchill repeated the word “fight” about thirty times in quick succession in the speech everyone remembers. You can be sure he wasn’t just reading off the bullet points on his Powerpoint slide one after the other. These things turn from general to specific pretty quick, you may have noticed. Those of you with oratorical abilities, any suggestions are welcomed. Note that I’m not trying to overcome stage fright here, nor am I inexperienced in public speaking; I would, however, like to be better at it…

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