James Whitcomb Riley is also known as the Hoosier poet (Hoosier is a term of unknown origin describing a native of Indiana). He is best known for his poems in dialect such as “Little Orphant Annie”, “The Frost is On the Punkin” and “Raggedy Man”. These poems and many like them were read by Riley as he performed on a circuit in the eastern states with others such as Mark Twain and General Lou Wallace, author of Ben Hur. Riley never married, but in later life expressed regret that he had not married nor had children. Known as “The Children’s Poet”, Riley welcomed school children to his Lockerbie Street home, where he entertained them with recitals of his poetry. His young audiences were charmed and delighted by repetition of words and phrases in his poems written in “Hoosier” dialect.
Riley was born in Greenfield Indiana in 1849 and lived to the then relatively old age of 67, dying in 1916. He had an 8th grade education. It was said to have been completed at 20! This was most likely due to adversity and perseverance rather than retention. He attempted various jobs with indifferent success until he took an interest in sign painting. On these signs he added verse, which led him to try writing poetry.
Riley was struggling to sell his poems to newspapers when he took a job as a huckster at a medicine show, which may have given him the confidence to join the lecture circuit.
Riley also struggled with alcoholism. This caused him occasionally to disappoint audiences because he couldn’t perform. Notice of a cancellation – and the reason – appearing in a newspaper created interest in this young performer, and boosted his career. A letter from Riley to Longfellow including a poem led to an encouraging response that was used by Riley as an endorsement in his early writing days.
Love him or not, James Whitcomb Riley maintains an enviable position in the pantheon of poets. A volume of his collected works includes 1,000 poems and even a play written in rhyme but never produced.
An audio tape was played featuring Riley’s poems read beautifully in dialect. They included:
“The Frost is on the Punkin”
“The old Man and Jim”
“On a Splendid Match” (One line on the hazards of marriage)
“Tale of an Early Day”
“Little Cousin Jasper”
These poems read aloud with skill are a never to be forgotten treat.
After this, several of those present read poems with more traditional language. The selections were thoughtful and even sentimental. One example was The Last Thrill” ending with these lines:
“A something found and lost in the first kiss
A lover ever poured through lips of mine”
***The Riley Children’s Hospital at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis was created in 1921 and today is one of the premier children’s hospitals in the country.***
Find more at: poets.org
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