Step High, Stoop Low: Yeats and Larkin in Chicago
Paul Durica | Paul Durica is a writer and Programs Coordinator for the Arts Club of Chicago. www.pocketguidetohell.com
The year 1914 brought to Chicago two prominent men who would over the course of their lives call Dublin home. One, a Protestant, with aristocratic tendencies but nationalist sympathies, was considered the foremost poets of his day. The other, a Catholic from the working class, “combined within himself the imagination of the artist with the fire and determination of a leader of a downtrodden class.” The poet arrived in the spring of that year an honored guest. The other, a union leader, came in the fall an exile from his native land. Both discovered within Chicago distinct creative communities that supported their work, and both left the city a changed place.
On March 1, 1914, William Butler Yeats, the poet, was feted at a banquet at The Cliff Dwellers, a private club whose membership was composed of artists and professional men. Poetry magazine hosted the banquet, and its editor, Harriet Monroe, had opened her home to Yeats for the better part of the week while he shopped at Marshall Field’s and walked along the coast of Lake Michigan. Monroe’s London correspondent and a close friend of Yeats, Ezra Pound, had facilitated the visit, which was viewed as something of a coup for the then two-year-old publication within literary circles. A decade prior Monroe had been part of one of the earliest creative communities in Chicago, the “Little Room,” a collection of writers, musicians, visual artists, and art lovers who met weekly to socialize and share work-in-progress in the studio of a painter in the Fine Arts Building. The “Little Room” welcomed anyone with an interest in the arts and was informal in its character. Out of this community developed The Cliff Dwellers Club, with its charter, dues, and male-only membership. The Yeats banquet offered Monroe entry into The Cliff Dwellers where many of her male colleagues were members, and she used it as an opportunity to impress donors to Poetry.
One hundred and fifty of Chicago’s wealthiest and most culturally connected citizens attended the banquet. Monroe had decided to pair Yeats with a young poet she considered the most promising one writing in America at that time, Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, who was so poor that he needed her to pay his train fare from Springfield, IL to Chicago. To prepare Yeats, Monroe had placed by his bedside table the issue of Poetry containing Lindsay’s “General Booth Enters into Heaven,” and the elder poet praised this work in his opening remarks at the banquet, saying that it had a “strange beauty” before going on about himself and Ezra Pound. And then it was Lindsay’s turn. Instead of giving a speech as expected, he shared publicly for the first time a new poem, “The Congo,” during which he matched the “rapid syncopated rhythm with swaying body and jerking arms” as he chanted each verse. People present at the banquet that night witnessed the birth of performance poetry. Lindsay’s performance was certainly “strange,” stole the attention from Yeats, and made the young poet an overnight celebrity.
Lindsay and his performance would have been less out-of-place at another club, north and across the Chicago River from The Cliff Dwellers. To get in, one had to press through a narrow gap between two buildings, walk down a trash-strewn alley toward an old carriage house where a green light beckoned and an orange door had painted on it the admonition, “Step High, Stoop Low, Leave Your Dignity Outside.” The Dil Pickle Club served as a center of Chicago’s bohemian and radical communities, and it had gotten its name, or so the story goes, from the exiled Irish labor leader Jim Larkin.
Larkin had come to Chicago after the prolonged Dublin Lockout of 1913. He had had some success in forming the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, but during the Lockout found himself opposed by not only employers, the majority of the press (one of the few to write on behalf of Larkin’s push for better wages and working condition was Yeats), and fellow union leaders. In Chicago he could pursue his dream of creating one union for all workers and found like-minded individuals in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Larkin began to associate with one of the IWW’s leaders William “Big Bill” Haywood and the two would engage in long, passionate discussions in the back room of the Radical Bookstore, run by the Udell family, where Carl Sandburg sometimes dropped by to lounge by the stove and play his banjo. The Bookstore was a block away from Washington Square Park, Chicago’s free speech area, known to locals as Bughouse Square on account of the tenuous sanity of some of the soapbox speakers. In Bughouse Square, Larkin found a receptive audience for his speeches that included Jack Jones, a former miner and IWW member, who had the idea of opening an indoor venue for soapbox speakers.
The story goes that Larkin and Jones met up at an old German Turner Hall to discuss the creation of this venue. Larkin was apparently very impressed by the free dill pickles being served at the Hall’s bar and proclaimed that the venue should be as fine as the food he was consuming and, thus, the Dil Pickle Club got its name. In its almost two decades of operation it would host speakers of all stripes, from Nobel Prize-winning physicists like Albert Michelson to sultry stage stars like Mae West; stage plays by up-and-coming writers like Eugene O’Neill and Ben Hecht; and throw all-ages, all-races dances, planned by Sandburg, the artist Edgar Miller, and others. For all of the focus on the arts, the Dil Pickle Club never lost its radical character—it kept the memory of the Haymarket Affair martyrs alive with annual ceremonies—and IWW members, socialists, anarchists, and even mainstream unionists always found receptive, if sometimes critical, audience there.
In 1920, Larkin was jailed as part of the First Red Scare. In 1923 he received a pardon and was deported to Ireland, where he resumed his work as an organizer and agitator, becoming one of the most significant labor leaders of the twenties and thirties. He died in 1947. The same year Larkin was deported, 1923, Yeats received the Nobel Prize in Literature. By the time of his death in 1939, he had become sympathetic, through the influence of his friend Ezra Pound, to the fascist forces ascending across Europe. In Chicago both men had found supportive communities for their respective artistic and political positions and their visits are still remembered in the city to this day.
Parisi, Joseph and Young, Steve. Dear Editor: A History of Poetry in Letters (New York: Norton, 2012).
Rosemont, Franklin, ed. The Rise and Fall of the Dil Pickle: Jazz-Age Chicago’s Wildest & Most Creative Hobohemian Nightspot (Chicago: Charles Kerr Co., 2004).