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Rev. Joey N. Welsh. For December, KY Poet: Effie Waller Smith

Another Angle: the occasional musings of a Kentucky pastor. This column originally appeared in the Hart County News-Herald 31 December 2006.
The next earlier Another Angle: Poets and Poetry for December, Part IV: Jean de Brebeuf and "The Huron Carol"

By The Rev. Joey N. Welsh

Poets and Poetry for December, Part V: Kentucky Poet : Effie Waller Smith

I had never heard of Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960) until the spring of 2002. I was fortunate then to attend a reading of several short plays written by my good friend Nancy Gall-Clayton. These plays focus on notable women from Kentucky history and form part of a collection entitled Women of the 15th State. Directed by Kathi E. B. Ellis, the plays were presented as an ensemble at the Highland Woman's Club in Louisville.

The Poet from Pikeville, a one-act play, examined Effie Waller Smith, sketching out her life and quoting some of her published work. As the play unfolds, two students have been assigned the topics for their high school senior English papers. They have both drawn famous male poets as their topics in the class "author lottery." One has drawn Joyce Kilmer, while the other has gotten Robert Frost.

The girls are not happy, though, because they both have become fascinated with the short stories and poems of "Miss Effie." Their goal is to convince their teacher to put Effie Waller Smith on the list of writers eligible for scrutiny in a senior paper. They want to trade in the famous names of Kilmer and Frost so that one can do a paper on Miss Effie's poetry and the other can write about her short stories.

The teacher is stubborn; he doesn't believe Effie Waller Smith is worthy of making the cut because he has never heard of her. In his eyes, she isn't sufficiently famous to merit the attention of the two bright and inquisitive senior girls. The crux of the short play is the girls' attempt to educate and convince their headstrong teacher about the worthiness of Effie Waller Smith as a research paper topic and as a writer meriting attention.

The real effect of the play, however, is that we audience members begin to see Miss Effie as someone who deserves our own interest.

Reverence for Education

Smith's parents, Frank and Sibbie Waller, had been born into slavery. The Wallers had great reverence for education. Effie and her siblings attended segregated schools near their Eastern Kentucky home. One brother died as a young man, but all of the other Waller offspring went on to attend Kentucky Normal School for Colored Persons (now Kentucky State University) in Frankfort, where they were educated as teachers. Effie both taught school and wrote; her work caught the attention of folks around Pike County.

With the encouragement and support of some white residents of Pikeville, most notably Mary Elliott Flanery, Effie Waller began to have her work published. In a period of a few years she had three books of her verse in print: Songs of the Months (1904); Rhymes from the Cumberland (1909); and Rosemary and Pansies (1909). The first two books appeared under the name Effie Waller; the last book was published under her married name. Her brief marriage to deputy sheriff Charles Smith ended when he was shot and killed on the job.

Her short stories and some verse were printed in Putnam's Monthly and in the Independent during 1908 and 1909. A sonnet was printed in the Independent in 1911, and her final published poem, also a sonnet, appeared in Harper's Magazine in 1917. Her career as a published author lasted barely over a dozen years. (Nancy Gall-Clayton's play contains fascinating speculation about why Effie Waller Smith ceased publication.)

Effie's father died in 1916, and by 1920 she and her mother had moved to Wisconsin. She returned to Kentucky only once, to adopt Ruth, the orphaned daughter of a friend and former student. Like Effie, Ruth became a teacher.

Interest In Poetry All Her Life

Effie Waller Smith retained an interest in poetry all of her life, leaving behind unpublished pieces in her belongings when she died just a few days short of her 81st birthday. In an era when African-American women faced many struggles in life, she found an audience for her writings.

Some of her works exhibit structures and rhyme schemes that seem forced to my 21st century ears, but other works are lovely evocations of life in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. Some of her poems are elegies for loved ones and for a way of life fast passing away, and other poems are insightful works of memory and hope. Her final published sonnet, "Autumn Winds," ends with these words:
I grow aweary of earth's paltry lure!
Oh, like the trees, I too, would cast aside
The fading leaves of pleasure and of pride,
And stand forth free to struggle and endure.
Like the schoolgirls in Nancy Gall-Clayton's play, I think Effie Waller Smith is worth noting and reading.Poetic Musing On Passing Of The YearAnd now, spend a moment with Miss Effie's reflective verse for the passing of the year, taken from Songs of the Months. This poem presents a good opportunity for us to think about our regrets and our wayward deeds from the last year as we look toward choosing a better path in the new year. Have a good 2007, and may you find your new year filled with the poetry of life!
Musings On The Old Year

Another year has rolled away,
Forever past,
Forever gone;
Oh! How fast
Time moves on,
Speeding, speeding ever away.

Oh, how, oh, how have I spent all
The bygone year?
Alas! have I
Caused one tear
From the eye
Of some loving friend to fall?

Would to-day I could recall
All of the past
Wrongs I have done
In the last
Year that's gone,
And from memory's page blot out them all.
For more information about Nancy Gall-Clayton and her plays, visit her website: Nancy Gall-Clayton

For all of Effie Waller Smith's published work, read: The Collected Works of Effie Waller Smith (1991, Oxford University Press). This volume is part of The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers.

This story was posted on 2011-01-02 09:20:20
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