“Dust Bowl” poet Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, 1918-2007

By Linda Ruminer

Tulare Historical Museum

Archivist/Historian

Information for this writing is taken from a website about Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, www.back40publishing.com.  For more information about Wilma, please refer to this website.

Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, was of German, Scotch-Irish and Cherokee heritage, born in Stroud, Oklahoma, on December 22, 1918, during the historic worldwide influenza epidemic of that time.  She was the first daughter and fourth of eight children born to Benjamin Fletcher McDaniel and Anna Elizabeth Finster McDaniel.  She was raised in the region known as the Creek Indian Nation.

Wilma began her life of writing at eight years of age—composing on precious scraps of old mail and used paper that she would stash away once completed.  Ms. McDaniel wrote much about her culture.  Her sharecropper family was forced from Oklahoma by massive dust storms and the Great Depression, making their way to California in search of survival.   Wilma, with her family, spent many seasons picking crops up and down California’s Central  valley.  As a teenager she brought with her, “the fire and burden of poetry,” which remained her constant and often critical companion through the following decades.  Wilma once said of poetry, “I cannot imagine life without it.”

Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel has been honored as standing Poet Laureate of Tulare, California. Author and critic Cornelia Jessey praised her poetry as “dry and burning phraseology”, while novelist James D. Houston described her writings as “absolutely unique and magical.”  Gerald Haslam,Ph.D. said, “Ms. McDaniel is arguably the finest poet to have emerged from the Oklahoma Dustbowl exodus. In fact, the collective body of her work has made her the most important voice to emerge from the Dust Bowl migration.”

As folk singer Pete Seeger said, “I wish there were more poets like Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel.” As an American icon of what I describe as folk poetry – Wilma stands without peer; much as American folk singer Woody Guthrie stands without peer. Fascinating, both hailed from Oklahoma. In life, she was an amazing woman and extraordinarily courageous to keep the story of her people alive so vividly through her expressive pen.

In contemporary American literature, Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel will be acknowledged, remembered and revered for her brilliant, insightful poetry--recognized and instantly accessible by an unpretentious, pared-down simplicity that belies the strength, depth and ingenious beauty of the story conveyed in each poem.

Ms. McDaniel’s descriptive prose may be vignettes of towns and folk from her collective Okie experience before and after her arrival in California, but her poetry stands in a class by itself as it captures memories, images and feelings with a style as deceptively sparse as it is insightfully moving.  Wilma’s poetry is--unique. Her ability to parse down experiences that transform readers in the telling alludes to her power through minimal use of language for maximum literary impact. She is not wordy or verbose, yet many of the images she vividly conjures through her poetry are striking, if not breathtaking.   Wilma’s natural cadence with free-verse seems to have flowed effortlessly from mind-through-pen-to-paper, lending insight to her unique, self-described “affliction”. . . as a life-long poet sharing her perceptions and experiences with friends and the world-at-large.

Wilma said of herself, “Isn’t it difficult for us poets to assess ourselves in relation to our writing? I meet some poets who are nothing like their work. It causes me to judge that I am rather similar to my work. We are so interwoven. My late spiritual director once told me that a poet’s artistic and spiritual life cannot be separated. That helped me so much.  At this point in my long life I am surprised to be writing quite new and different poetry and getting much of it published by the small, small presses, all praise and gratitude to them.

Wilma passed away Friday, April 13, 2007 at 88 years in Tulare, California and was laid to rest in Tulare District Cemetery off Blackstone Avenue on Friday, April 20, 2007.  In her passing, Wilma is warmly remembered and loved by many friends, extended family and devoted readers

Wilma’s books for sale in Tulare Historical Museum’s Gift Shop are:  Weatherwatch, We Live or Die in Pixley, Tatted Lace and Other Handmade Poems second edition, The Ketchup Bottle second edition; Walking on an Old Road., and Getting Love Down Right.  Also in our gift shop by Author Jeanie Harris is a book entitled Chasing Fireflies, The Dust Bowl Childhood of a Poet, written about the life of Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel. 

There is a fairly complete bibliography of the works by Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel at the above mentioned website.

Below are two of Wilma’s poems. 


We Live or Die in Pixley

We didn’t get to her house

until the second day

after the yellowjackets

stung her in the vineyard

But her eyes were still

swollen half-shut

and there was a red knot

on her forehead

Wapstung or not

she was the same old Ruby

full of heart

laughed when she saw us

Folks, I could look worse

without these new medicines

I would have puffed up

and busted wide open

We have to eat, don’t we

there is no substitute

for food

people get hungry

north south east or west

We know how the system works

pick grapes

fight yellowjackets

We live or die in Pixley

by Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel

from We Live or Die in Pixley

Duties and Risks of a Godmother

Accustomed to rowboats
on sluggish ponds
I now sail toward Pixley
in a red Toyota

I cruise with a wetback
my own godson Ampiro
who can’t steer a boat
and neither can I
no problema for us

Now we wave at Tipton
Saint John rings his bell
and blesses us three times

I hold a fruit basket on my lap
bon voyage gift from the sheriff
in deep appreciation

we break all records
as we speed along
my head scarf whips
thirty times a second.
Ampiro’s beard parts in half
every other breath he takes

Ahead we see our destination
the duty-free Port of Delano

by Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel

from Tatted Lace and other Handmade Poems