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May Williams Ward map
May Williams Ward, 1940

May Williams Ward


In That Day by Maye Williams Ward

No Two Years Alike by May Williams Ward

Title page from   Wheatlands, with   Ward's signature 

Wheatlands Poems and Block-Prints by May Williams Ward

Block Prints by May Williams Ward from Wheatlands

Blockprint by May Williams Ward

Poem block print by May Williams Ward

Another block print by May Williams Ward

Prairie Rhythms Book Cover

May Williams Ward, 1918

May Williams Ward as flapper, 1921

*Biography  
          

Mary Esma Williams, always called May, was born January 26, 1882, in Holden, Missouri, where her father worked as a bridge builder for the expanding Missouri Pacific Railroad. At the age of seven, the Williams family moved to Osawatomie, Kansas, her mother’s hometown. May graduated from Osawatomie High School in 1898 and earned a degree in mathematics from the University of Kansas in 1905. She married Merle Ward in 1908 in Osawatomie’s Old Stone Church that had been built by John Brown’s brother-in-law and nephew.  And John Brown’s grandniece played the organ at their wedding.

The Wards moved wherever Merle’s grain elevator business took them, first to Lamar and  Pueblo, Colorado, then to Spearville, Montezuma and Belpre, Kansas. When the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl put an end to his grain business, the couple moved to Wellington in 1933 where they took over ownership and management of his family’s hotel. The Wards remained in Wellington for the rest of their lives.

While still a resident of Montezuma, Ward received notice that the first poem she had ever submitted for publication was accepted by Life magazine. “Youth Wants Summer” appeared in Life’s February 17, 1921, issue. Soon, her poems were appearing in Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Judge, Country Gentleman, American Magazine, the New York Sun and the Kansas City Star.

Within just four years, her talent was recognized nationally. In 1925, she received an invitation to spend a month at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and was there alongside Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Edwin Arlington Robinson, Stephen Vincent Benet and Sara Teasdale. By 1926, Ward had produced over 300 poems published in 35 magazines and was represented in four distinguished anthologies.

In 1926, Ward became editor of The Harp, a national poetry magazine published in Larned, Kansas. Other notable Kansans involved in this project included Leslie and Sara Wallace, William Allen White, Arthur Capper, Jouett Shouse, Birger Sandzen and Nell Lewis Woods.

Ward’s first book of poetry, Seesaw, was published in 1929. Also that year, Ward produced by hand another book, In Double Rhythm, which included around 30 poems, each accompanied by a block print designed and hand-carved by Ward to illustrate the rhythm and meaning of her verses. Five more books followed:  From Christmas-Time to April (winner of the Kaleidograph book publication contest, 1938), Approach to Social Studies Through Choral Speaking (1945), Wheatlands (1954), No Two Years Alike (1960) and In That Day (1969).

Ward received The Poetry Society of America’s first place award on two different occasions, first in 1937 for a series of poems, “Dust Bowl,” and again in 1946 for “In That Day.”

William Allen White referred to Ward as “the champion poet of Kansas.” She left behind a legacy of over 2,000 poems and seven published books during a literary career that lasted fifty years. Ward died in 1975 at the age of 93.

*Biography written by Lana Wirt Myers, author of Prairie Rhythms: The Life and Poetry of May Williams Ward, with thanks from the Center for Kansas Studies.


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Published Work  
 

Seesaw (1929)
Double Rhythm (1929)
From Christmas-Time to April (1938)
Approach to Social Studies Through Choral Speaking (1945)
Wheatlands (1954)
No Two Years Alike (Triangle Publishing Company, 1960)
In That Day (The University Press of Kansas, 1969) 
Prairie Rhythms: The Life and Poetry of May Williams Ward, a biography by Lana Wirt Myers, (Mammoth Publications, 2010)


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Poems  
 

Writer (from In That Day, 1969)

While bitter seeds scatter from the ruptured pod Earth
As wind words are a-mutter: death and death and death

While other too-ripe planets fall apart in rot
And spilled juice of comets spurts out hot

When lightnings roll tide-like west to east and back
And time’s wheel slipping sidewise jars the cosmic clock—

Someone will cling with one hand to a fragment bound for hell
While the other hand scrawls shorthand, reporting on it all.

A writer in his element, this “beat” his final glory:
His the one first-hand account of the great, the ultimate story.



In That Day (from In That Day, 1969)

And every island fled away
and the mountains were not found
nor were the rivers found;

the cities and the wheat-white plains
were swallowed underground
and the void sucked in the ground;

the oceans turned to flying mist
and vanished without sound
after that first great sound

and the race of men went with the rest
as Jahweh willed it should.
It was fitting that it should.

There was a nothingness of dark
where once the planets stood,
where once they sloped and stood,

and God looked on His handiwork
and saw that it was good—
the clean clear space was good.


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Links  
 

Blue Skyways, a service of the Kansas State Library, has links to 28 poems by May Williams Ward.

Wichita State University holds a May Williams Ward collection of diaries, correspondence, literary and art works, memorabilia, photographs, scrapbooks, and financial documents.

The Kenneth Spencer Library in Lawrence holds a May Williams Ward Collection that includes poetry manuscripts and correspondence.

The Kenneth Spencer Library also holds poetry workbooks and scrapbooks made by May Williams Ward.


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