wilma elizabeth mcdaniel | a belated obit

14 12 2007


Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel | Photo: Roman Loranc

Poetry Dispatch No.204 | December 14, 2007

WILMA ELIZABETH McDANIEL A Belated Obit by Norbert Blei

I’ve occasionally taught a workshop on the subject of something I called “the ordinary poem.” The poem you didn’t need a dictionary, reference book, or an MFA in creative writing to understand. The poem was as plain as a handshake or a hug. There was no practitioner of poetry more ordinary than Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel. She put the poem down on paper and there it was for all to read. Like it or not. Her poetry was the perfect target for those who had no love or sense of poetry to offer the usual critique: “You call that a poem? That’s…nonsense. Nothing.” Her obit reads in part:

Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, 88, who chronicled the lives of her fellow Dust Bowl migrants working in California, died April 20, 2007 at a rest home in Tulare, California. No cause of death was reported.

Ms. McDaniel lived most of her life in the San Joaquin Valley, where she spun poems about gravy, grape-picking, and the Great Depression, chronicling the experiences and feelings of the uprooted people who joined immigrants in California’s fields during the 1930’s.

Born in 1918 in Stroud, Oklahoma, she began scribbling poems on grocery bags, mail and envelopes when her family moved from Oklahoma to California in the mid-1930’s when she was a teenager. She and her family picked crops and worked in fruit-packing houses.

For decades, she wrote a poem a day, but it wasn’t until she was in her 50;’s that she was published. An editor at the Tulare Advance-Register published her work after she walked into the newspaper offices with a shoe box full of poems. She eventually produced more than 25 books of poetry and was published in other collections and magazines.


Publication by Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel

Now and then
some fool will see
what I see
in a poem.


Alcie’s Poems by Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel

She had hundreds of poems
in manila envelopes with her
utility receipts
the day after the funeral
her family burned them all
in a backyard oil drum

I accidentally saved one
found in a book she borrowed
it marked page twenty-nine
and remains enough to make
her unforgettable
on days she might have been
erased completely

from A GIRL FROM BUTTONWILLOW, a Wormwood Chapbook, (WR:118-119) 1990


Wilma McDaniel, poet laureate of Tulare County, passed away of natural causes in Tulare, California, on April 13, 2007. Born in 1918 in Oklahoma, McDaniel fled the Dust Bowl during the great migration of Okies to California in the 1930s. McDaniel began writing as a young child. Her poems were widely recognized for the way they captured the life of the Okies as they built new lives in California. Pete Seeger wrote of her poems that they were “. . . little slices of real truth, to be long savored.”

But her poetry also resonated with others who had been displaced or struggled with poverty.

Her life was featured in numerous documentaries including the award-winning film, Down an Old Road: The Poetic Life of Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel. The BBC also featured her in a documentary and National Geographic featured her in a story about the California Okies. She has written over 25 books of poetry and her poems have appeared in numerous textbooks and magazines. Gerald Haslam, a professor, writer, and promoter of Central Valley literary talent, wrote in an introduction to one of her collections, “Wilma’s poetry offers remarkable folk wisdom, revelations of the intimate braiding of her two states, and glimpses of life lived on the cusp of poverty where hope and hopelessness dance.” He says of her passing, “This is a great loss for literature in general and California in particular.”

McDaniel lived in Livingston, Hanford, and Tulare. Museums in Livingston and Tulare have her childhood memorabilia displayed and her books for sale. The Kings County Library in Hanford has sponsored presentations of Wilma’s work, most recently in a retrospective on John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.


another page with more detailed information concerning Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel can be found here…



One response

10 01 2009
norbert blei | seifert and others « poetry dispatch & other notes from the underground

[…] Dispatches in particular: Susan Peterson (A Quiet Poet in the Village), Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel (A Belated Obit) and Ruth Wallis (Risque’ Songs). In each instance, you will be both informed and delighted by […]

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