I’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.
Unlike 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.”
It 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.
In subsequent years Blanding wrote over a dozen more books of poetry, all illustrated in his signature style and all dealing with the themes of 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.
To 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.
Many 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.
His 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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