The Dust Bowl
Childhood of a Poet
By Jeanie Harris
I don't review many poetry books; I don't have the background professional qualifications to consider all types of poetry so, like a "technical language" book, I pass on most of them. When I do review them, it is because of the message, the words, that are being shared by the poet, nothing else. It was fun, therefore, to read about Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel's early life in Chasing Fireflies. Even though she read many poems and studied somewhat during her early years, she decided she would write as she wished, because it was "the words" that were important... My kind of woman...
Actually, Chasing Fireflies was more a memoir than a collection of poetry, although there are a few included, so I found myself becoming quite involved in McDaniel's early life. She was older than I and did not have access to "the conveniences" that we had by the time I was born, but there was still much for me to share as mutual memories from our childhoods.
Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel grew up in Oklahoma. Her family were sharecroppers. What that meant was that they lived on a farm, had animals, grew crops...but all of the property belonged to somebody else. The family got a percentage of the main crop.
As with today's landlords, there were problems with the house which were never addressed, but the family made it work, A short narrative, for instance, tells how the stove pipe started a fire, and while the family worked to put it out, Wilma's mother had stayed right there, holding things together--and still saving their dinner!
When the Depression came, and then the big crash of the stock market came, there was nation-wide fear, but for the farmers there in Oklahoma, those things meant little to their lives. It was the weather that controlled their future, and during those same years where America was facing financial ruin, there in Oklahoma, the winds started to blow. With little water and no sight of rain, major dust storms blew the top soil away until crops were no longer growing and much of the state became known as the dust bowl...
But in the heart and head of a young girl, Wilma still found wonder in what she saw. Using every scrap of paper she could find, she would work to find the exact words to describe what was happening around her.
Wind played a major role
in my early life
as its very name
it was sighing gentle
and soothed my fears
under a patchwork quilt
it became so violent
it blew my young life away
Actually, it was the wind that has deprived us of the earlier poems of this poet--she had started to write when she was 8. Wilma would hide everything she wrote in a hole between the paper and the wall behind her bed. When her family suddenly had the chance to move to California, in one day, she had not felt she could share her words with anybody and left them there, probably never to be found...(One touching thing for me was that, as she grew older and became known for her poetry, many would send her beautiful new writing paper...which she never used, but would save for something special, while she continued to write her poetry on envelopes, advertisements, paper bags, any scrap she could find.)
People talk about the "good ole days" but they really weren't. Sometimes though, we need a dose of reality to realize just how much has changed. "The best part of Wilma's gift was that she always saw something special in the most everyday things. She saw nobility in ordinary people, like her friends...(p. 129)
Arguably the most iconic American poet of the 20th Century, Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel stands without peer. Of German, Irish and Cherokee heritage, this extraordinary woman’s keen perspective through prose and poetry turned her life experiences into a wealth Wilma mined with a writer’s clarity, a poet’s insight, and a conviction and intensity etched through raw experience. (Back40 Publishing)
I loved the personal story of Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel found in Chasing Fireflies (One of the things she missed most when she moved from Oklahoma to California was that there were no fireflies sharing their flicker of lights in the evening hours...) You may click the title of this article to visit Back40 Publishing where you can find 13 collections of Wilma's poetry, as well as further background information on the works of the “Dust Bowl” poet Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, 1918-2007.
Truly a must-read for poets and American history fans! And enjoy...
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