Maybe just one of these exceptional forces or maybe an aggregation of a few or possibly all or maybe none caused the poet, William Edgar Spencer, then to seek a life outside of Arkansas. We do know that armed with a law degree from the University of Arkansas and with additional, advance legal studies in hand from Northwestern University, Spencer went to Washington, D. C. in 1938 as personal secretary to U. S. Congressman W. F. Norrell, long-term representative from southeast Arkansas and who, more than twenty years later, would appoint the author at age fourteen to be a Congressional page. Subsequently, Spencer held the position of administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D. C., and then in California, where he ultimately retired.
Between 1930 and 1975, even though Spencer continued to write verse – still, in the name of Henri Faust – and publish poems in newspapers and poetry magazines, he did not produce another volume of poems. It should nonetheless be mentioned that Half-Light and Overtones was reissued by the AMS Press of New York in 1971. Then, in December, 1975, a new book of his verse appeared, entitled Sharecropper Sonnets – at last, under his real name; Spencer was finally freed from the encumbrance of his vassal, the long-tendriled Henri Faust. Notwithstanding the fact that decades had passed since Spencer lived in Arkansas, he chose, once again, southeast Arkansas, not northern California, where he had been living and working, as the campestral setting for his new book of verse. In the Introduction to the Sharecropper Sonnets, he states, “Many of the poems that follow were written in my late teens and early twenties when, following my mother’s death, I lived alone with my father on his hill farm of several hundred mortgage ridden acres near Lacey, Arkansas (Drew County).”
A meaningful part of the volume does not consist of sonnets at all, and several poems are written in free verse, a distinct departure from the earlier style that dominated Half-Light and Overtones. I’m not one who normally disagrees with the last few words of a poet. I trust Spencer that the sonnets are indeed from an earlier period; however, there are other poems in a section of the book he calls “Arkansas Sketchbook” that reflect a much different style of writing; in such poems, the construction is more stark, less uniform and more contemporary, if you will. For example, while the milieu remains southeast Arkansas, the perspective of the poet in this excerpt from the poem, “Swamp,” is hardly one reflected, either in structure or content, from Spencer’s youthful verse:
“There’s something whispers a secret every night
Across the cypress knees of Buzzard Bayou
But none have lingered
To make it out.
Stricken with a fatal malady
The swamp is decomposing
And myriad tadpoles like maggots
Turn in its soft, gangrened flesh.”
Before the poetry actually surfaces in Sharecropper Sonnets, a front section of the volume recounts the poet’s background and previous work, emphasizing that during the full arc of his adult life, Spencer had written and often published poetry. If this be true (and why shouldn’t it be?) and if Half-Light and Overtones and Sharecropper Sonnets illustrate the poet’s early work, up to the age of around thirty – with the probable exception of some poems included in “Arkansas Sketchbook” of Sharecropper Sonnets – then what became of the rest of his verse, written during the long period, 1930-1975? Importance of the subsequent, missing verse gains more relevance when one considers that Spencer, at one point, called the Yale prize book, “premature.” William Edgar Spencer died a few months after publication of the Sharecropper Sonnets, but there is a statement in that volume that it constituted only the first of four volumes to be issued. One could thus presume that those three additional volumes to be published would have contained the poems he wrote during the 1930-1975 period. He died before the goal could be reached – thus, with a likely outcome that the body of Spencer’s work had been left in an inchoate state. I’m sorry I won’t have the opportunity to read the missing verse.
From the “Arkansas Sketchbook” section of the Sharecropper Sonnets emerges the poem, “Epitaph For A Solitary Oak,” out of which the following excerpt is taken:
“For my epitaph (if there be an epitaph
For my unshriven dead)
I would have the unrepentant truth,
That I led
A life of indifference
More impenetrable through the years;”
William Edgar Spencer. Indifferent? Hardly. Impenetrable? With the absence of the poems we have reason to believe were composed by him over more than four decades, possibly forming a crucial part of his overall oeuvre, the prescience of the line, “more impenetrable through the years,” should not be missed – those words may now have become the most forcefully ironic line of Spencer’s known body of verse.