Each April, the Academy of American Poets sponsors National Poetry Month. In recognition of Cincinnati’s extensive contributions to that genre, here is a collection of local poets who achieved distinction. If living poets were included, this list could easily triple in length.
A Careless Poet Soon Forgotten
Among the earliest poets writing in Cincinnati was Charles A. Jones (1815-1851). He built a career publishing verse narratives about the Indians and outlaws of the western country. Between the years 1836 and 1839 he wrote frequently for the Cincinnati Mirror, and in 1840 contributed several poems to the Cincinnati Message, but paltry payments for these efforts led him to take up the law as his main career. A critic, William Turner Coggeshall, writing in 1860, admired Jones’ imagination and energy, but deplored his slapdash compositional habits and his aversion to revision: “The hasty production of an hour was sent to the press with all its sins upon its head.”
His Poem No Longer Memorized, Even The Plaque Is Gone
Generations of American schoolchildren were compelled to read and memorize a Civil War poem by Thomas Buchanan Read (1822-1872) titled “Sheridan’s Ride.” The poem celebrated General Philip Sheridan’s rallying his soldiers to victory at the 1864 Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia. It was so popular that newspapers often parodied it to skewer other topics. For many years, a plaque was mounted on the wall opposite the Public Library on Eighth Street commemorating the address at which Read wrote the famous poem. Read was popular and prolific; his poetry was collected in 1867 in a set of three volumes. In addition to poetry, Read was an accomplished painter. Several of his works, notably “The Harp of Erin” are displayed at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Lawyer By Trade, Hero By Aspiration
Although William Haines Lytle (1826-1863) studied law, he preferred the life of a soldier and composed poetry to celebrate his own heroic exploits. Lytle came from an honored line of military heroes. He fought in the Mexican War as a captain and achieved the rank of brigadier general during the Civil War. His verses were popular on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. When a sniper’s bullet found him at Chickamauga in 1863, the rebel soldiers recognized Lytle and posted a guard around his body until it could be sent back to Cincinnati. As they stood watch, the Confederates quietly recited Lytle’s poems. Lytle Park in Cincinnati was his family’s estate.
An Inveterate Revisionist
Coates Kinney (1826-1904) was not a Cincinnati native, but he relocated to the Queen City at an early age. Kinney served in the Union Army during the Civil War and in the Ohio General Assembly afterwards while also practicing law and working as a journalist. He was just 23 when he wrote his most famous poem, “Rain on the Roof,” which was reprinted, collected, set to music, pirated, misattributed and celebrated throughout his life. Much of the confusion derived from Kinney’s incessant tinkering with the poem. Over his lifetime, he declared at least three different versions to be definitive.
The Piatts Helped Save Harrison’s Tomb
Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt (1836-1919) and John James Piatt (1835-1917) were Cincinnati’s answer to England’s Brownings (Robert and Elizabeth Barrett). A married couple, each earned a reputation as a poet. James Piatt was a scion of the wealthy Piatt family, though he never had much money himself. Sarah, known as Sallie, was related to orator and politician William Jennings Bryan. The couple, who lived just outside North Bend when they weren’t posted to one of John’s political appointments in Washington or Ireland, worked to preserve the tomb of William Henry Harrison. In life, John’s reputation eclipsed his wife’s. In recent years, new critical appraisals agree that Sarah was, by far, the better and more innovative poet.
Newspapers Led Everard Appleton To Poetry
Everard Jack Appleton (1872-1931) started out as a newspaperman, with stints at Cincinnati’s Tribune, Commercial Gazette, and Times-Star, earning a slot as a columnist known for humorous items in verse and prose. He also contributed stories and poems to national publications. He left behind a half-dozen volumes of poetry of which the best-known is probably “The Quiet Courage.” Appleton lived on Forest Avenue in Avondale.
A National Reputation Based On Odes To Domesticity
Bertye Young Williams (1877-1951) published as B.Y. Williams over a productive career that resulted in a half-dozen books of poetry and appearances in the New York Times, Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Saturday Evening Post and other nationally distributed magazines. She founded a poetry magazine and publishing house, Talaria, with fellow poet Annette Patton Cornell. She was president of the Ohio Chapter of the League of American Pen Women and of the Cincinnati Women’s Press Club. A book she co-authored with Annette Patton Cornell, “Garland for a City,” was illustrated by Caroline Williams (no relation).
Cincinnati’s Unsung (But Prolific!) Poet, Horace Williamson
Horace G. Williamson (1880-1943) was perhaps the most prolific poet in Cincinnati history. You won’t find him in English class these days, nor in any anthologies. Williamson wrote for money, not for art. In the early 1900s, Williamson built a profitable sideline writing poems for greeting card companies, sometimes ghost-writing love letters on spec. He had a lot of side hustles. While employed as social secretary of the YMCA, Williamson ran a talent agency and also performed in character as the Roman dictator Cincinnatus in quite a few civic celebrations.
Confined To Bed, Raymond Dandridge’s Spirit Soared
Although he once achieved fame, Raymond Garfield Dandridge (1883-1930) is sadly forgotten today. His poetry fits comfortably between his predecessor Paul Laurence Dunbar (to whom Dandridge was often compared) and his successor, Langston Hughes, beacon of the Harlem Renaissance. Dandridge was almost totally paralyzed by polio when he was a young man. He spent his entire writing career confined to bed, supporting himself and his mother by taking orders for coal shipments. Eventually, Dandridge’s poetry was collected by his friends into three slim volumes, offered for sale to augment his income as a coal merchant.
George Elliston’s Poetic Legacy Lives On
Eccentricity manifested itself in the person of George Elliston (1883-1946). She was a longtime Cincinnati newspaperwoman who lived like a derelict but cultivated a bohemian entourage. At her death, Elliston left behind a few slim volumes and an estate worth a quarter-million dollars, grubbed together over the years by living in cold-water apartments, wearing castoff clothing and mooching meals. She bequeathed all of this to the University of Cincinnati to establish a modern poetry collection. Some of the great poets of the English language, such as Denise Levertov and Robert Frost, have served as Elliston poets-in-residence.
Eloise Robinson Was A Rare Woman War Poet
Few Cincinnatians knew that Mrs. Corda Muchmore, wife of a College Hill realtor, was, in fact, Eloise Robinson (1888-1958), one of the finest war poets of America. In 1918, she journeyed to France with the YMCA to hand out refreshments and recite poetry to support the American troops. Her poems inspired by her days at the front, such as “He Had Such Glory In His Closing Eyes” and “War” were published nationally and much admired. She taught verse writing to generations of Cincinnatians through UC’s Evening College.
Postmaster And Poet
Samuel Schierloh (1889-1968) followed a colorful road to poetry. Born in Reading, Ohio, he served five years in the Navy during the days when it was known as Teddy Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet.” After a few years as an apprentice tailor in downtown Cincinnati, he joined the Post Office and eventually became postmaster in Mount Washington. In addition to penning poetry, he was a league bowler, golfer and an amateur painter. His poems mostly debuted in Cincinnati newspapers, but were collected in several volumes including “Down the Bright Seas” in 1958.
Cornell Declined Appointment As Ohio’s Poet Laureate
In 1974, Annette Patton Cornell (1897-1986) was named the best Cincinnati writer of the past 50 years by the National Society of American Pen Women. Over a long career, she published five collections of her own poetry and promoted the work of others through a literary magazine, Talaria, she founded with fellow Cincinnati poet B.Y. Williams. Cornell had her own radio show devoted to poetry and other literary topics. An Ohio governor tried to recruit her as the state’s poet laureate, but she declined the invitation as a resident of Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. Her son, Si Cornell, had a long career at the Cincinnati Post.
Lawrence Welk Boosted The Career of Cincinnati’s Greeting Card Poet
All of Helen Steiner Rice’s (1900-1981) best-selling books were published by Cincinnati’s Gibson Greeting Card Company. Rice was born in Lorain, Ohio and married a Dayton banker who committed suicide during the Great Depression. After working in publicity and inspirational speaking, she joined Gibson as an editor and worked there for more than 40 years. Her book sales skyrocketed in the 1960s when several of her poems were read on the Lawrence Welk television show.
X-ray Damage Launched A Poet’s Career
While still a teenager, Anna M. Tansey (1906-1989) almost died when a doctor exposed her to a nearly fatal dose of X-rays. She lost one lung and part of another. Long an invalid, confined to bed, she devoured piles of books brought by her family from the library. When new antibiotics allowed her to leave her house, she embarked on a career as a poet and an advocate for ecumenical relations among religions. Her poems were often on spiritual themes, as the title of her best-selling poetry collection, “Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit” illustrates. As arthritis claimed her ability to type, she composed on a dictating machine and had her poems typed out by an assistant.
A Poet Of Great Influence
Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) was born in Cincinnati to a fairly well-to-do family. His father sold office furniture and the family had a live-in maid. The family was frequently mentioned in Cincinnati newspaper society columns. After military service during World War II, Koch earned his doctorate and began a long career at Columbia University. Although he published dozens of books and was frequently anthologized, Koch is often remembered more today as a teacher than as a poet. His book on teaching children to write poetry, “Wishes, Lies and Dreams” (1970) was enormously influential.
One Small Poem For A Man . . .
The oeuvre of Neil Armstrong (1930-2012), poet, is slight, consisting as it does of only two published stanzas, and that bit of doggerel clouded by controversy. In 1978, the Mini Page, a nationally syndicated children’s section carried in many newspapers, including the Cincinnati Post, asked Armstrong to provide a quote or first-person account of his moon landing. Rather than jotting a few lines of prose, Armstrong, then a professor at the University of Cincinnati, penned eight lines of poetry, clearly aimed at a juvenile audience. Unfortunately, through an editing error, the Mini Page deleted two words from Armstrong’s final line. Armstrong was not happy.