Don Blanding, An Artist Turned ‘Vagabond’ Poet

Vagabond's House 2I’m willing to bet most people have never heard of Don Blanding—the early 20th century poet who illustrated his own work with elaborate pen-and-ink drawings—but I grew up in a household filled with Blanding’s books, prints, and snippets of his verse running through my head. My dad was a fan from my earliest memory and spoke of the poet’s richly woven tableaux as if the places he wrote of might actually exist in the real world and not just in the imagination. All Blanding’s poetry depicts highly romantic and idealized locales—South Sea islands awash in color, the scent of jasmine in the air; jungle temples choked in vines and brimming with treasure; Oriental ports of call populated with mysterious characters in exotic dress, much in the tradition of Rudyard Kipling and W. Somerset Maugham.

Blanding portrait 2Unlike many modern artists and writers who spend considerable time cultivating a public persona to enhance their image, Blanding never had to invent or embellish his “street cred” as a bohemian world traveler. Serving in two world wars, traveling to Europe, Central America, and throughout the United States, he tasted the life he captured in verse.

Donald Benson Blanding was born in 1894 in the Oklahoma territory. After graduating from high school in 1912 he spent two years at the Art Institute of Chicago studying art with the plans of becoming a commercial artist, what today might be called a graphic designer. He earned his way partly by teaching drawing and working as a theater usher. In 1916 after seeing a play called Bird of Paradise he was so enchanted by its depiction of Hawaii that he left for the islands a month later, arriving in Hawaii “with five dollars in his pocket.”

Hula MoonsIt was in Honolulu that he landed his first job as a commercial artist, working as a cartoonist and spot illustrator for a local newspaper, and painting portraits on the side. He returned to the mainland the next year and served a short stint in the army. Blanding traveled to Europe in 1919 to study art in Paris and London but his love of Hawaii lured him back to the islands in 1921 where he got a job working at an advertising agency. At one point he was given a temporary assignment as a copywriter, which led to a weekly column in the Honolulu Star Bulletin. To differentiate himself he wrote his copy in rhyme and over the next two years his writings became so popular that the editors suggested he compile his work into a book and in 1923 he published Leaves From a Grass House. After two additional books he submitted a collection of poems, complete with his own pen-and-ink illustrations, to New York publisher Dodd, Mead & Co. who in 1928 released his book titled Vagabond’s House. The book met with immediate success and became Blanding’s most famous work. By 1948 it went into its 48th edition, selling more than 150,000 copies. His long poem “Vagabond’s House,” for which the book is named, is about an imaginary retreat filled with exotic mementos collected from years of traveling the world’s back streets and seaports.Blanding Samples

In subsequent years Blanding wrote over a dozen more books of poetry, all illustrated in his signature style and all dealing with the themes ofBlanding signing adventure, travel, and wanderlust. He toured and lectured extensively throughout his career and appeared on radio and television programs. Despite living for lengths of time on the mainland, he always returned to his beloved Hawaiian Islands and is often called the poet laureate of Hawaii. In 1927, he suggested and founded Hawaii’s annual holiday, Lei Day, on May 1st.

art deco-art nouveauTo a modern audience his illustrations may appear quaint and outdated but one must keep in mind that his artistic style is rooted in the art nouveau and art déco traditions of his era, like the examples pictured to the left. Blanding was a classically trained artist who became a master of blending art nouveau’s sinuous lines and plant forms with art deco’s bold and geometric motifs.

studioMany would consider Blanding’s poetry excessively sentimental. Literary academics of the time characterized him as a poet in the “popular genre,” a derisive term meaning that he wrote poems that appealed to the tastes of the general public rather than highbrow society — a way to distinguish between a hack, who turns out fluff for popular consumption, and poets of true talent such as his contemporaries Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams—much like one would compare J. R. R. Tolkien or C. S. Lewis to J. K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. Point taken but to that I say, sometimes I like Masterpiece Theater and sometimes I like Desperate Housewives.

my collectionHis books can still be found at second-hand bookshops. Blanding’s poems and artwork still exercise their charms over me, even after all these years; they possess the ability to transport my inner vagabond to those imaginary, extraordinary places.

Some Lines Scrawled on the Door of Vagabond’s House
by Don Blanding

West of the sunset stands my house,
There…and east of the dawn;
North to the Arctic runs my yard;
South to the pole, my lawn;
Seven seas are to sail my ships
To the ends of the earth…beyond;
Drifters’ gold is for me to spend
For I am a vagabond.

Fabulous cities are mine to loot;
Queens of the earth to wed;
Fruits of the world are mine to eat;
The couch of a king my bed;
All that I see is mine to keep;
Foolish, the fancy seems
But I am rich with the wealth of Sight,
The coin of the realm of dreams.

To read Don Blanding’s long poem Vagabond’s House click here.

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16 Comments

Filed under Book Recommendations, Creativity, Graphic Design

16 responses to “Don Blanding, An Artist Turned ‘Vagabond’ Poet

  1. anita

    Paul, Thanks for another bit of education. It is nice to remember the creative as Don Blanding who never reached the fame of those who were masters in self-marketing, but rather focused on sharing his oasis within.

  2. Lynn Sears

    The illustrations in Floridays are evocative with wonderful use of negative space.

    • paulsanderson

      Yes, his art really rose to the level of a professional. It always surprised me he was so good at both art and poetry. Thanks for commenting.

  3. L Hamilton

    I read a book by Don Blanding in my teens and did a book report on one poem for school. I have not been able to locate that poem since then and would like to read it again. It was a short poem, one page, and had the ancient cities of Samarkand and Niveneh mentioned. Do you know the book that it was in? I would like to purchase it. Blanding’s illustrations were great examples of Art Deco. Thanks for your blog on the subject.

    • paulsanderson

      One poem I know that mentions Samarkand is his most famous poem, Vagabond’s House, which is a long poem. It is from his book by the same title. There is another long poem called A Thousand Lives from his book Memory Room that mentions Samarkand and many ancient places and cities, Athens, Egypt, Carthage, perhaps that’s it. Both available at many used book stores in the poetry section, or on eBay. Good luck with your search. Let me know if you find it and thanks for your comments.

  4. in the book “Magical Journey with Carlos Castaneda” by Margaret Runyan Castaneda, copyright 1997, She quotes Don Blanding’s poem “My Epithet” … it goes like this:
    Don’t write in stone or write in wood,
    that I was honest or that I was good,
    But write in smoke on a passing breeze–
    Seven words and the words are these:
    Filling more than a volume could,
    ‘He lived, he laughed and he understood.’

    what more could one want to be said of himself at the final moment ?

    • paulsanderson

      Robert, Thanks for your comment. I hadn’t heard of this author before but am familiar with the quote, remembering that I read it years ago. Always good to get these references.

  5. Hello Sir, I would like to know, If you happen to know if one is allowed to use Mr. Blanding’s poetry in say a guest book on an obit page? My father introduced me to Mr. Blanding as a child, then our son became a big fas as well.. Any advice you could give would sure be appreciated..
    Thanks you very much
    Jackie Rave

    • paulsanderson

      Usually, one can use a passage or quote from an author if you give credit to the author and are not profiting from the work. My father also introduced me to Don Blanding as a child. We had his books around our house growing up. He has since passed but his memory remains whenever I read a poem.
      Paul

  6. Keith

    It was wonderful to learn more about Don Blanding. My parents introduced me to his poetry and artistry, many years ago. This is the first I have learned about his life and education. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    • paulsanderson

      Hi Keith,
      Thanks for your reply and you are most welcome. It’s always great to hear from another fan of Blanding, a true original.

      Paul

  7. Tom Markle

    Nice concise write-up. Very well done. I’m a Blanding historian, collector, lecturer and biographer. I came across his book, Vagabond’s House in 1962 and my collection began. I most likely have the largest comprehensivee collection of his works in the world. I know more about him than most any other person. I’m always searching and researching and gathering more info on him.

    • paulsanderson

      Tom,
      Thanks for your comment. My dad was a real fan and I’m sure you have interesting stories about Blanding. I would love to read some things you’ve written on the subject, if you have some to share.

      Paul

  8. Tom Markle

    My present research is focused on documenting the history of the development of his poem, Vagabond’s House. It appeared in his first self published book and developed over 5 years until its final version in 1928. It’s a bit dry, but very interesting to me as it shaped his life and personality. After 1928, the Vagabond Poet was no one but Donald Benson Blanding. It continues on today. There are more Blanding fans than you suspect.

    • paulsanderson

      The research sounds interesting. You should write an article on your findings. I can create a link from here so others can read your results.

  9. Tom Markle

    I’ll think about that when I’ve got it clear enough for me. I’ve curated several exhibits in Carmel, CA., and met some real DB fans and some who actually knew him. Very interesting.

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