On June 17, 1931, Ella Higginson (1862?-1940) is awarded the honorary title of Poet Laureate of Washington in a ceremony hosted by the Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs. She's the first poet laureate in the state's history. Higginson was a Bellingham writer who was a nationally known literary voice in her day. She wrote 10 books and numerous short stories and poems. She is best remembered for her 1890 poem "Four-Leaf Clover."
Four-Leaf Clover and More
Ella Higginson had the drive to write almost from the time she could first pick up a pen. She had her first poem published when she was 14, and by the time she was in her late teens her poems and short stories were being published in Portland-area newspapers. She married Russell Higginson in 1885, and in 1888 they moved to Sehome (later Bellingham). Her life would soon change in more ways than one.
In 1889 she had poems published in the national magazines Collier's Once a Week (later Collier's) and Harper's. The next year she wrote "Four-Leaf Clover." The poem was initially well received but became more popular a few years later, after Higginson won a writing contest sponsored by McClure's Magazine with her short story "The Takin' In of Old Mis' Lane." When the award was announced in 1894, it put her in the national spotlight, and she picked up the pace of her writing with more stories and poems. That same year her first book, A Bunch of Western Clover, a collection of her poems, was published, and she sold short stories to some of the big-name magazines and newspapers of the day, including McClure's, Lippincott's, and Leslie's Weekly. In 1896 her second book, The Flower that Grew in the Sand, came out.
Some of her other significant works included a 1902 novel, Mariella of Out West, and a travel book, Alaska: the Great Country, first published in 1908. Between 1900 and 1904 she also periodically penned a literary column, "Clover Leaves," for The Sunday Seattle Times. Her last book, The Vanishing Race, another book of poems, came out in 1911, and one of her last significant magazine stories, "The Message of Anne Laura Sweet," was published in Collier's in 1914.
Higginson's publications dwindled after the mid-1910s. She reportedly had health issues for which details are scarce, but her melodramatic, sentimental writing style, popular in the early years of the twentieth century, became dated as the century grew ever more modern. By the 1930s some of her works were beginning to disappear from print.
In the early 1930s the General Federation of Women's Clubs, a national organization of state and local women's clubs, asked each of its state chapters to name an honorary poet laureate for its state. This was an easy call for the Washington state chapter, which had adopted "Four-Leaf Clover" as its official song shortly after its 1896 formation. On June 17, 1931, the chapter presented Ella Higginson with a laurel wreath in a simple ceremony at its annual convention, held that year in Vancouver (Clark County).
At the ceremony Higginson thanked the federation and modestly remarked, "Some people are born with crowns -- like the Kaiser, King Alfonso, and the Russian Tsar. Some acquire them, like Napoleon, while others have them thrust upon them -- like me" (The Lyric Singer, 133). She tooted her horn a little more loudly when she wrote to the editor of the Bellingham Herald after her return home: "It seems to me that just about everyone in town called me up about it ... anyhow I can always 'get even' with the ones who tease me or laugh at my 'wreath'; I can make the men kiss my hand and to the women I say: 'The natives of Booroboolaga laugh when they hear the sweetest music'" (The Lyric Singer, 133-134).
She lived the rest of her life in near seclusion, and died in her beloved High Street home in Bellingham on December 27, 1940. Though not a well-remembered writer today, she nonetheless made a sizeable -- and valuable -- contribution in her time.
The State of Washington created an official position for poet laureate in 2007. The poet works to build appreciation of poetry across the state by giving public readings and presentations statewide. The position is a two-year appointment, and comes with an annual stipend of $10,000. Samuel Green (b. 1948) was the first person to fill it, but when his term ended in 2009 budget shortages caused the state to suspend the position. It was resurrected in 2011 but the state no longer funds it; funding is now provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities Washington.