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Tribute to Nicholas C. Lindsay, Sr.

Jeff Gundy

The Conrad Grebel Review 26, no. 1 (Winter 2008)

Nicholas C. Lindsay, Sr., was for thirty years associated with Goshen College, as poet-in-residence and full-time teacher for most of a decade, and then for many more years as a regular visitor, workshop leader, and poetic inspiration even in absentia. Like many others, I first learned what a poet might be, do, and say from Nick Lindsay, and his image and voice will never leave me – a lean, restless figure, abruptly entering a room wearing a hooded sweatshirt and bearing a perilously balanced stack of books, tossing them down to launch into an impassioned disquisition on the holiness of the sonnet form or the mating habits of songbirds.

Among a bunch of Mennonite academics and students who, at least in those days, prided themselves on being “countercultural,” Nick provided a sometimes confounding example of what it might mean to be really independent of the trends and fads of the time. He had very little truck with the poetic movements of his day. He loved formal verse, and writers like William Blake, William Butler Yeats, and Feodor Dostoyevsky. His own poems were like no one else’s, though they showed the influence of these writers and others, including his famous father Vachel Lindsay. They were unabashedly Christian and mythic, often formalist, celebrating the pleasures of sex and work, with a deep if unconventional sense of his allegiances and debts to both poetic and historical traditions. Sometimes they were playful, often they were surprising; always they were, underneath, the product of a deeply serious engagement with the problem of living faithfully and artfully in this difficult, beautiful world.

Lindsay lived and taught among Mennonites, it seems to me now, in a kind of perplexed fascination and bemusement. Students like me, who thought we were so radical, baffled him sometimes – once he told me that what I personally was about was “avoiding normalcy at minimal cost,” a charge that I ruefully accepted as mostly true. Yet he undertook with great energy and commitment the challenge of being a public poet, and a voice for the Goshen community. He wrote many fine poems for public occasions and ceremonies – a special challenge for a mystical Presbyterian at a place so insistently Anabaptist. The particulars are open to dispute, but I believe Nick was the source of the subversive notion that began to circulate in Goshen during those years: that by their own lights, the only good Mennonite was a dead Mennonite.

For me, my compatriots at Goshen, and many who followed, Nick Lindsay was crucial: Don Yost, David Waltner-Toews, Elizabeth Wenger, Rich Meyer, Shari Wagner, Julia Spicher Kasdorf, and too many others to name would still count him as a formative influence. Some became writers themselves, and many found other ways of working toward a better world. He helped to found and sustain PinchPenny Press, which continues to give many young writers crucial experience at shaping their work into publishable form.

Lindsay’s full-time years at Goshen ended rather abruptly in the mid-1970s. (He explained his departure this way in The Record: “Goshen College was unusual when I first came. Now it’s trying hard to be ordinary, a little Harvard. I can only hold my breath so long.”) Yet for many years he returned to teach intensive poetry workshops and to draw new groups of students into passionate engagement with poetry and with life.

With his wife of over sixty years, DuBose, Nick has made his home for many years on Edisto Island, South Carolina. He remains a passionate Christian, a devoted husband and family man now father and grandfather to a whole tribe, a master carpenter and boat-builder, a lover of this world, a craftsman of word, song, and line, a dedicated local historian, a brilliantly innovative performer and teacher. He is a permanent figure in my imagination, and in the imaginations of many of those he has taught and inspired. DuBose’s ill health prevented the Lindsays from being with us tonight, but I will close by reading a few of his poems, as a reminder of his work to those who know him and an introduction to it for those who do not.

“Song of Opposites”
“The Crying Tree”
 “The Three-Toed Tree Toad”

Jeff Gundy’s biographical note appears on page 71.

For a sampling of Nick Lindsay’s poems, readers may wish to consult Magnificent Storm: Collected Poems of Nick Lindsay 1960-2000 (Goshen, IN: PinchPenny Press, 2000). – Editor