October 15, 2009 in Washington Voices

Hotel plaque honors poet

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

The modest plaque (bottom) in the Davenport Hotel lobby commemorates poet Vachel Lindsay, who lived at the hotel in the 1920s.
(Full-size photo)

On a pillar inside the Sprague Avenue entrance of the Davenport Hotel is a plaque honoring a man who resided at the hotel for a portion of the five years he lived in Spokane (1924-’29). The plaque is on a pillar opposite two other plaques declaring the hotel a National Historic Site.

How fitting that these commemorations are in close proximity, for the man mentioned on the first plaque was a national treasure himself – Vachel Lindsay, an American poet whose genius was in transforming poetry into performance art, incorporating a theatricality into its recitation that was musical. The first American poet invited to lecture at Oxford, England, he was nationally known and gave poetry recitations to such luminaries as President Woodrow Wilson.

Traveling through the country giving performances of his poetry in exchange for food and lodging, the Springfield, Ill., native was noted for his celebration of the village in his work, earning him acclaim as the prairie troubadour. Among his most famous poems, “The Congo” (1914) was both significant and controversial for its focus on Africans and incorporation of jazz rhythms.

Despite his fame, his was a troubled life, which he ended in 1931 at age 52 when he drank a bottle of cleaning solution.

But there was a period of time when his creative gifts appeared to be waning, likely after what some biographers have described as a nervous breakdown, and he came to Spokane. He had been in communication with Spokane attorney and arts patron Benjamin Kizer, who urged him to come. (Interestingly, Kizer’s daughter Carolyn Kizer is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet).

Lindsay had visited Spokane in 1922, and a cousin, Jim Robinson, and a childhood friend, Dr. Glen Harbison, lived here.

In her book “Vachel Lindsay: Poet in Exile,” author Mildren Weston writes that the city touched Lindsay’s imagination, and that after heading east after his first visit, “he reported in correspondence that a street map of Spokane hung on his wall wherever he happened to be.”

Louis Davenport offered Lindsay a suite in his hotel, paid for in part by Kizer, and Lindsay came in 1924 and moved into Room 1129. On the day he arrived, according to Weston, he traveled with Kizer and some of his business associates to Coeur d’Alene and Hayden Lake, and the poet found the environment of the area filled with promise.

While in residence Lindsay held forth in the Davenport lobby, where he performed his works of poetry and mixed and mingled with the elite of the city, some of whom thought that the presence of a poet of such distinction would raise the image and fortunes of the city.

Accounts of his years in Spokane – including Weston and Shaun Higgins’ “Vachel Lindsay: Troubadour in ‘The Wild Flower City’ ” – indicate that the 45-year-old bachelor soon met and was taken with 23-year-old schoolteacher Elizabeth Connor. They married in his room at the Davenport on May 19, 1925. A daughter was born to them in 1926 and a son in 1927.

It appeared the Lindsays especially enjoyed their early days in Spokane, taking their meals in the Davenport’s dining room, going on long country hikes and dancing on the hotel roof. They later moved to an apartment on Cannon Hill and again to a home in Browne’s Addition.

There are many pieces to the story, but as economic and other pressures surrounded Lindsay, he moved his family back to his hometown of Springfield in 1929, and two years later, on Dec. 5, 1931, affected by financial woes and in failing health, he committed suicide.

Tom McArthur, the Davenport’s communications director, said the plaque honoring Lindsay was originally installed outside Room 1129 but was removed during the hotel’s restoration in 2000 and installed on the right-hand pillar in the lobby afterward. That was, after all, where Lindsay held court and performed his poetry.

The second annual celebration of Lindsay’s poetry – “Vachel Lindsay: The Davenport Hotel’s Jazz-Age Mystic” – takes place in the Marie Antoinette Ballroom at the hotel at 7 p.m. on Nov. 8. The event features a performance of Lindsay’s poetry as well as local poets reading their own works. It will be free and open to the public.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at upwindsailor@ comcast.net.


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