A few months ago, as guest author, I posted several articles here, including “The Double Life For Poets,” which discussed the double lives (i.e., concurrently writing verse and working in an unrelated occupation) of so many major and not-so-major American poets. The following piece could accurately be depicted as a variation on the same “double life” theme, albeit with singular twists.
In its description of the award, the Yale Series of Younger Poets emphasizes the proud point that it is the oldest annual literary prize in the United States and lists some of its previous winners, citing specifically Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, William Meredith, W. S. Merwin, John Ashbery, John Hollander, James Tate and Carolyn Forche – all well-recognized names in American poetry that are often anthologized. It is fair to say that over the history of this award that began in 1919, many of its recipients constitute a veritable gallery of some of our country’s finest poets.
In 1929, William Edgar Spencer was awarded a Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for the manuscript, Half-Light and Overtones. Rather, to be exact, Spencer’s nom de plume, Henri Faust, actually won the prize; Henri Faust is still the one listed, even now, by Yale Series of Younger Poets as winner for 1929. In any case, the one who wrote the poems, William Edgar Spencer, proved a most unusual recipient – over and above the flummoxing issue of whether he or his nom de plume deserved the award. In the early 1920s, Spencer, a mere stripling at 22 years of age when first elected, served as state representative to the Arkansas legislature from Drew County, his home county, located in the rural, southeastern part of the State on the cusp of the Arkansas Delta, only a few miles west of the Mississippi River. After about four years, Spencer would then become County Judge there; in Arkansas, the position of County Judge carries more than judicial power – it enjoys generous political and authoritative clout for the day-to-day running of a county. Later in life, Spencer admitted that he chose to write under a pseudonym, for he feared that being a poet, if widely known, would diminish his stature as a public official.
Before proceeding any further with this article, I have an admission: Like William Edgar Spencer and Henri Faust, I too hail from Drew County, Arkansas – more particularly, from Monticello, County seat, the place where I spent the better part of my youth, including the entirety of my childhood education until I departed for college. For the sake of full disclosure, I should also acknowledge that I never met William Edgar Spencer, except through his verse. Now, that that’s off my chest, we can move on.
to be continued . . .