Welborn Hope: Legacy of an Oklahoma Tramp Poet

Wanderlust, which is the inability to stay put, slaps us all in the face at one time or another. The resulting twinge either prompts us to abandon everything and hit the road, or stay put and find some other way to sublimate the impulse. Or, if you’re normal and have the time, you might just take a vacation. But sublimating is how I came to find the works of Thomas Welborn Hope. Instead of roaming the world, as it would be terribly irresponsible of me to just up and leave, I decided it was time to drive around the OKC metro area and visit independent secondhand bookstores.

“The Great River and Small and Other Poems” ended up being a recommendation from the owner of Bookends, which is located at 920 W. Main St in Norman.  The amusing thing about independent book stores is that most owners carry an eclectic variety of books from the run of the mill tawdry romances to unexpected finds like the autobiography of “A Loving Gentleman: The Love Story of William Faulkner and Meta Carpenter” written, of course, by Meta Carpenter.

 

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No matter your profession, anyone who wants their picture taken has to stop long enough for the camera to capture the “process.” Cue the Men at Work song “Who Can It Be Now?”

 

Given that I like quirky things,  purchasing a book of poetry written by a tramp poet seemed like a natural choice. Such a profession, if you can call it that, readily conjures an air of romanticism when it comes to living the life of a carefree spirit. What is a tramp poet, you may ask. The answer is: a well-spoken, well-read, noble-hearted hobo of sorts. This is the lifestyle of choice for poets who would rather forsake the creature comforts of hometown life and travel the world instead. They trade their poems for shelter, rides, and food. Sometimes they settle down in a place just long enough to work whatever job they can find so they may purchase whatever their poems cannot provide. (Apparently you can wander the world with starry-eyed ideals, but you can’t escape the reality of exchanging money for goods and services.)

This is how Thomas Welborn Hope lived the majority of his life. Born in Ada, Oklahoma in 1903, Hope was the only child of Tom and Minnie Gazzelle Welborn Hope. His father was a pioneer banker. At the time Ada existed within the boundaries of the Chicksaw nation, which was Indian Territory. Welborn Hope would later graduate from East Central State College in Ada. Unrelated to his degree in teaching, however, he earned a pharmacy license and operated a drug store. Even so, fifteen years before taking to the road full-time, he would disappear on short rambles. Aware of his responsibilities to his parents, he would always return.  When his parents passed away he effectively closed up shop and pursued a life-long tramp across the nation. Sometimes his travels took him to Paris and London, although he did spend a considerable amount of time in New York working for a publisher as well as a paper called the Daily Mirror. Other side dalliances not exactly related to poetry included: harvester, fisherman, and proofreader.

“The Great River and Small and Other Poems” is not a singular effort.  Guy Logsdon, another Ada native and who worked at the University of Tulsa’s library, collected enough of Hope’s poems to help produce the slim book. The collection was published in 1970 by the University of Oklahoma press, which as it turns out, was the first book of original poetry the University published*.  It is also worth noting that 1970 seems like it was a good year for Hope as the mayor of Tulsa declared a “Welborn Hope, Oklahoma Tramp Poet Day.” The publicity generated by this event gave Hope the opportunity to pay tribute to other tramp poets like Walt Whitman, Vachel Lindsay, and French poet Aurthur Rimbaud. But this was not the first press Hope garnered for his vocation.

In an interview with Tulsa AP writer Bryan Wooley, which appeared in The Fort Scott Tribune on July 24, 1968, Hope said:

“Being a poet means being poor and it means being a recluse – like a Trappist monk- alone with his poverty and his thoughts.”

 

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That Hope chose to compare himself to the monks, as these men were usually confined to their monasteries, is kind of ironic. The Trappist order takes three vows very seriously: stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience. Idle chit chat is strongly discouraged, but there is no vow of silence. For what it is worth, the Trappist monks successfully sued another brewer in 1962 for labeling non-sanctioned beer as “Trappist.” Apparently only beer brewed in a Trappist monastery under strictly controlled conditions and adhering to other provisions as set forth by the order can be labeled as such. So, put that in your cup and drink to it.

 

How does beer tie into Hope’s legacy?  In “The Great River and Small,” the title of the first poem, Hope is seated at the bar:

“The sleeper by the stump-fire, chilled through and through,
At length arose, staggering under the burden
On his shoulders, as wild verses sucked anew
Which no man living had as yet concurred in.
Crazed with wild verses which like brain-greenery grew
Out of a swamp to the tavern someone stirred in.
Hunched over beer, to himself the small man sang,
To a bar girl’s puzzlement, the dizzy
Life of dumb hordes upriver, and he rang
Bells in heaven, which nobody heard.

- Crazy,
He hit his fists on the bar with a bang:
The bar maid muttered, “Brother, take it easy.”
How tell her of the huge country his shoulders bore?
He cried, “Rimbaud, Rimbaud had I your devotion
I would surge with its song to the sea shore.”
The fat slow river soundlessly in motion,
The small man sniffled, pushed his mug for more,
Dragging the whole Midwest down to the ocean.”

 

At any rate, Hope tramped around until his advancing age prevented it. No longer able to contend with cold winters and the possibility of sleeping under bridges, he would eventually give up the open road. Although this happened in stages, as he continued to travel during the warmer months. He finally settled down in Oklahoma City, although he did not retire from writing poetry. He continued to write and publish until his death on October 9, 1988.

Overall, I liked reading “The Great River and Small and Other Poems” about as much as I liked researching Hope’s life. If there’s anything I’d like you, the reader, to take away,  it’s that his life was full of contradictions. His parents were bankers and yet he wanted nothing to do with financial security. He patterned his poverty after Trappist monks, yet did not share their cloistered life-style. Although he was a bit of a recluse and had a poem titled as such, he loved the pursuit of poetry more and wandered after it. In some ways he was at more home with strangers than with friends. He may not have been as well-known as Whitman, Lindsay, or Rimbaud, but in Ada, and likely elsewhere in Oklahoma, he is still considered a curiosity, a point of reference, and something of a legend.

Now I could end this review and short jaunt into the life and times of Thomas Welborn Hope with one of his poems about Oklahoma. But where would be the fun in that? The man clearly loved to travel. And there is no shortage of Oklahoma inspired poems, for as much as he liked to get away, Hope certainly felt pangs of homesickness now and again. All that aside, I think “The Blind Singer of the Subways” is profound. First it reminds me of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “The Sparrow.” Dunbar’s poem is about stopping to listen to a song before the moment is gone. Second, Hope’s poem contains a wonderful juxtaposition between people who can see, yet choose not to, even though they can stop to appreciate the melody of a blind man, and, of course, the entire situation is related to us by a man who not only hears, but sees it all.

“The Blind Singer of the Subways”

The express, jammed, gets under way -
The elbow jabbing ends at last.
There is a momentary stay -
To station next from station past -
Of human fury, face to face,
Pushing, hauling, squeezing, clinging,
Subsiding slowly in its place.
Then, plaintively, is heard his singing.

The blind Singer of the Subways, he
Electrifies the furious car:
The herd of vexed humanity
Hear him, as from another star.
The temporary angers fade,
The grandeur of his presence gains:
His music soothes those tempers frayed,
And heals Manhattan’s aches and pains.

So royally metropolitan
He seems – not pitiful, though alone -
And find a friend in that brave man
Whose voice to all New York is known.
Imperial, his presence glows,
His fine pale face is lifted up;
A grateful stream of silver flows -
As he sings past – into his cup.

For such a personality never
Before lit up our Underground;
None there but would ride on forever
In the spell of its marvelous sound.
But there’s the next stop – axles groan,
As breaks apply, with iron pain;
and with the singing angel gone,
The blind crowd’s fury bursts again.

 

Last, because Nathan Lofties of Magnificent Bird challenged me to find a creative way of writing Sriracha into this review, I offer up a ludicrous alternative as to why Thomas Welborn Hope couldn’t stay in one place for very long and how these boxer briefs may have contributed to his life long tramp. Exhibit A.

 

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Forget ants in your pants; this is pure FIRE! It is also considered bad form to season random strangers’ meals with this condiment.

 

Found among Hope’s possessions was a similar, although well-worn, pair of boxer briefs. Annoyed that he never found the renown that Whitman, Lindsay, and Rimbaud had, Hope wore these as a private joke. In his diary, conveniently found in an underwear drawer, he describes how “Hot Cock” bolstered him through many indignities suffered in the pursuit of his profession. One example comes in the form of Theda Bara; she is woman from his poem “The Rose In The Book.”

In this poem he describes “tramping through a Western state, weary in spirit,” all the while bemoaning how no one “honors merit” and how “high” his “eagle flies” and that he needs love just like anyone else. A passerby hears his lament and throws a quarter at him on their way to church. The good Samaritan advises Hope to work while his is able, but what does the protagonist of the poem do? Spots his dream girl in a ticket window. She is described as the town’s “blonde beauty.” Bara taunts him by showing a bit of leg and thrusting her breasts out. In turn he sees that a flower shop is open, and buys her a rose. Later Bara keeps it in her diary and later the flattened flower is transferred to a copy of his book.  The last stanza makes the case for why Hope must have kept these boxer briefs, lest he take a pistol to his temple with a forefinger precariously perched upon trigger:

“And of this, oftentimes she said, “Lord knows,
I knew he was a famous man – from his look.”
But she didn’t know, as town librarian,
When she served the book in distaste and mistrust,
To the grimy gray-haired tramp, that he was the man
Who wrote it, forty years undisturbed in its dust.”

So in the spirit of Hope’s reciprocity, as he traded poems for goods and services (although clearly when it came to Theda Bara, Hope should have kept his scant .25 cents), Lofties has agreed to write a song about the Oklahoma tramp poet. He said, “Yeah, I’ll give this is a shot. The result might be minimalist, though.”

Which is perfect considering that half of Magnificent Bird, Nathan Lofties and Sarah Reid, will play an acoustic show later this month.  Hence exhibit B: Magnificent Bird’s Acoustic Oklahoma show at VZD’s on Aug. 28th.

[youtube]http://youtu.be/mVLUxCfX-mA[/youtube]

 

 

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