Cincinnati’s Unsung Prolific Poet Horace Williamson

Horace G. Williamson was perhaps the most prolific poet in Cincinnati history, but you won’t find him in English classes these days, nor in any anthologies.

Portrait of Horace Williamson From Cincinnati Post, January 4, 1917 | Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Apparently poets, if they are male, should be soft and soulful and wear their hair long. At least that is the way the Cincinnati Post on two occasions, a decade apart, described poets, if only to emphasize that Horace Williamson was not like that, at all, even though he was most definitely a poet.

Horace G. Williamson was perhaps the most prolific poet in Cincinnati history. You won’t find him in English classes these days, nor in any anthologies. Horace Williamson, you see, wrote for money, not for art. According to the Post [October 15, 1910]:

Horace Williamson, social secretary of the Y.M.C.A., and rough and ready high-speed poet, writes to order and not by inspiration and gets his stuff printed quicker than any of the boys who consult the Muse before they begin work. He also gets paid better.

Williamson found his models in the Belgian poet Maurice Maeterlink who was a boxer; in Edgar Allen Poe, an athlete during his days at West Point; in the strenuous daily exercise regimen of William Cullen Bryant; and in Lord Byron’s swim across the Hellespont to prove that poets were not sissies.

Williamson, it seems, built a profitable sideline writing poems for greeting card companies, sometimes ghost-writing love letters on spec. He had a lot of sidelines, it seems. While holding down the YMCA post, Williamson ran a talent agency and also performed as Cincinnatus in quite a few civic celebrations over the years. The Post was fascinated by the poetry, however, and showed up every few years to demonstrate that poets could be regular guys. Williamson told the Post:

I sell poetry like a huckster sells eggs. The postcard printers mail me an order like this: ‘Send us ten Halloween poems’ or ‘Give us $50 worth of some Christmas stuff.’ Then I sit myself down in an ordinary wooden chair at an ordinary typewriter and grind ‘em out just like that.

Williamson demonstrated his proficiency by dashing off the following quatrain, for which he was paid $5—or about $140 in today’s dollars:

With golden thread I weave your name

Into a dream where all is bliss

And lighting the way with love’s bright flame

I set it a-wing on the dreams of a kiss

Totally without qualms about diminishing his art, Williamson instead proclaimed that he was really helping poetry reach a broader audience in the modern age:

The poetry about trees and the other beauties of nature is all right, but not with the large mass of the people. They demand something more virile and snappy. I am not so sure that it is a bad change, for the poetry that is now being written is read by many more people and thus serves its purpose better as an entertainer and teacher.

Although his poetry sold well and he published several volumes of verse, Williamson seemed constantly on the quest for a better day job. He left the YMCA and joined the Baldwin Piano Company as director of advertising. In this role, he made one high-profile sale that gained him national publicity—he sold a Baldwin piano to President Warren G. Harding and his wife Florence King Harding, who had it installed at the White House. It appears that Williamson had met Mrs. Harding when he was a schoolboy. After reciting a humorous poem about an Irishman at a school function, the future First Lady invited him to her house to perform the verse for her friends.

Cartoon of Horace Williamson From Cincinnati Post, October 15, 1910 | Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Before and after Baldwin, Williamson served as District Examiner for Automobile Drivers. In that role, every prospective driver in the Cincinnati region had to satisfy Horace Williamson as to their abilities with an automobile. He told the Post [January 4, 1917] what he believed contributed to traffic safety:

No persons should be allowed to drive without first being examined by a doctor and questioned as to his knowledge of driving by an expert. Fines don’t hurt a careless automobile driver. Denial of the right to drive will hurt him. The worst of all dangers is the driver with a few highballs in him. The last but not least is the child who is permitted by his parents to drive the family car. No man should be permitted to smoke while driving a machine.

Ironically, Horace Williamson died in an automobile accident in 1943. He was 62 years old when he lost control of his car and it skidded into a loading dock on East Fourth Street. He was dead before the ambulance arrived and, in a final indignity, it appears a passerby stole cash and a watch from his lifeless body.

The obituaries described his poetry as a hobby or avocation, but noted that he had performed an entertainment featuring humorous verse on the morning before his fatal accident. The Williamson Entertainment Bureau provided his major source of income throughout his life, but he confessed to passing on the Mills Brothers when they auditioned for him. The managerial fees for that act would have put him on easy street.

Horace Williamson left behind a widow, a daughter, two sons, seven grandchildren, and a pile of soppy postcards purchased by young swains hoping to get lucky with the girls of their dreams.

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