In the early 1900s, newspapers across Kansas and many other states frequently carried a decorated area containing a paragraph or two of poetry disguised as prose penned by Walt Mason.
Although Walt Mason’s poetry is now largely unknown except to dedicated Kansas history and regional poetry buffs, in his own era “Uncle Walt” was immensely popular. He was read by an estimated 10 million people daily at the height of his career, making him the most widely read poet in America at the time. His down-to-earth philosophy on everyday matters earned him the moniker of “High Priest of Horse Sense.”
The Story of Uncle Walt
For the first 45 years of his life, however, Mason gave little indication that he would ever amount to much of anything. A Canadian orphan who had drifted into the States in perpetual search of work, he had a reputation as a wandering drunkard who could write newspaper pieces steadily enough but who would pick a fight with the editor whenever he was intoxicated. He repeatedly sought assistance in picking up the pieces of his life, but to no avail.
But in 1907, Mason concluded that his only hope was to move to a town where liquor was prohibited. He wrote a desperate plea to William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette for a job at $12 per week—and White agreed to take a chance. Accordingly, Mason moved to Emporia with little but an old typewriter and a beloved pony named Billy. He proved himself a willing worker, and White proved himself a friend, starting Mason out with lodging and a suit of clothes and taking care never to place temptation in his path.
Two weeks later, the managing editor found that there was no news sufficiently interesting to print in the Gazette’s front-page “star head” section, typically reserved for local stories. Mason was asked to supply the deficiency, and he jotted off the following, titled “Fair Weather Sunday”:
Let us all proceed tomorrow humbly to the house of prayer. The prediction from Chicago says the weather will be fair. After rain that saved the wheat crop comes the genial smiling sun; let us seek the sanctuary when the long week’s work is done. When the weather clerk is certain that the Sabbath will be fair, there is no excuse for staying from the house of praise and prayer.
“Fair Weather Sunday” was a resounding success across Emporia, and Mason soon found himself writing prose poems on a daily basis, despite the fact that White had previously decreed that there would be no poetry in the Gazette. Before long, newspapers across the Midwest were reprinting Mason’s poems regularly—without attribution. White quickly put Mason in touch with the head of a newspaper syndicate, and soon people all across the nation (and in other countries) were eagerly reading Uncle Walt. Mason was soon reunited with his estranged wife and well on his way toward paying off the debts he had accumulated over the first half of his life.
With millions of readers and noted persons such as William Jennings Bryan, J. Edgar Hoover, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle praising his work, Walt Mason became something of a celebrity. Nevertheless, according to those who knew him, he remained the same old Uncle Walt—jovial, hardworking, keenly observant, and full of good sense.
What is a Prose Poem?
A prose poem is formatted in paragraphs without line breaks just as prose is. However, it still displays several key features of poetry:
- Figurative language.
Walt Mason came to use this particular style in the 1880s while working for the Atchison Globe. The Atchison Globe was making a reputation for itself in those days by running local news stories almost exclusively, and Mason took the innovation a step further by reporting in rhyme. However, editor Ed Howe had a strong aversion to all poetry and insisted that Mason’s work be formatted in paragraphs like regular prose.
Mason had a particular brand of prose poem that was considered unique to himself. It was said in his own time that he imitated no one, although he was an avid reader. That fact the common man was his theme sometimes caused him to be confused with Walt Whitman, an occurrence to which Mason took great umbrage. Mason termed Whitman’s verses “language struck by lightning,” while the Emporia Gazette retorted on December 18, 1908:
The Gazette’s untamed bard has many faults, but his poetry is at least sawed into proper lengths, and a few words rhyme here and there, and a man can understand what the author is driving at without having to take his verses apart with a screwdriver.
Mason’s prose poems had a particular jingle-like rhythm that made them appealing. Furthermore, although there was nearly always a moral or virtue being counseled in each poem, the presentation was almost invariably upbeat and almost invariably humorous, as the following prose poem by Walt Mason will demonstrate.
Pretty Good Schemes
It’s a pretty good scheme to be cheery, and sing as you follow the road, for a good many pilgrims are weary, and hopelessly carry the load; their hearts from the journey are breaking, and a rod seems to them like a mile; and it may be the noise you are making will hearten them up for a while. It’s a pretty good scheme in your joking, to cut out the jest that’s unkind, for the barbed kind of fun you are poking, some fellow may carry in mind; and a good many hearts have been broken, a good many hearts fond and true, by words that were carelessly spoken by alecky fellows like you. It’s a pretty good scheme to be doing some choring around while you can; for the gods with their gifts are pursuing the earnest industrious man; and those gods, in their own El Dorado, are laying up wrath for the one who loafs all the day in the shadow, while others toil, out in the sun.