Winona Morris Nation: Oklahoma’s Premier Poetess

This is the third of a series of posts about Howard’s good friend Harold Preece and the lady poet Winona Morris Nation. This actually started as a one shot deal, but blossomed into something more when Winona’s son John Nation contacted me with new, previously unknown facts about the last 14 years of Harold’s life with Winona. Those earlier posts can be found here and here. I have to give special thanks to John for the information he provided for this post

In the beginning it was just Harold in love with her. She admired Harold; respected him; but love grew more slowly for her. One morning after taking care of Harold’s breakfast and cleaning his apartment as she did daily, Winona stormed up the stairs mad as a wet hen saying, “That Harold Preece thinks we are having a great love affair. Let me tell you we are not having a great love affair.”

But whatever got her riled, it passed.

Then fast forward about ten years to late 1990. John was then living in the Bahamas on a sailboat and he returned every year to the states to stay two months with Winona in her house. This is why John knows things about the pair his brothers don’t – he was part of their lives on a daily basis.

The first Gulf War had just started and John was troubled by all the sabre rattling and hoopla. One day at lunch he said to Winona, “I live in a country of eternal sun where wars never come — the Bahamas. With what we have together we could rent a small house and spend the rest of our lives there in peace and happiness.”

It was as if she didn’t see or hear John. She sort of looked right through him like he was transparent. “I could never leave Harold,” was all she said. So you see he had won her heart. And there are her poems to prove it “. . . one man alone has plumbed my depths” (from “The Vigil Keeper”).

Winona appreciated many different kinds of poetry, except for “beat poetry.” She had nothing against the style; it just didn’t appeal to her. Both John and Winona read some of Howard’s prose and John was impressed by its apparent effortlessness —  its flow and smoothness — its ability to express a mood or a description of something in what for a painter would be a few simple but elegant brushstrokes.

But John has no specific memory of Winona saying anything about Howard’s poetry — good or bad. She did write a poem about the day he died called “Storm Over Cross Plains,” which appeared in Simba #2 (Simba Reproductions, 1978).

Storm Over Cross Plains
by Winona Morris Nation

Celtic chieftans rode the wind.
Lightning sharpened the fearless swords,
Of Conan, Conar and Glek and Dork
All the dark avenging lords.

Their mythical steeds rearing wild with power
Their voices shouting with primal glee
He heard them calling in the cosmic storm
And said “My own have come for me”.

Nearer they came, their fury growing
The thunder of their summons rolled.
And he looked above the little town
And felt the fear in him grow bold.

“From this night on I ride with them,
I will fight against our bitter foe.
Seeking the monsters of the mind.
To vanquish them; to bring them low.”

His answer sped across the night.
Swift and certain was his reply
And the Texas town slept on not knowing
What was happening in the sky.

Winona’s best friend was fellow poet Betty Shipley, who later became Poet Laureate of the State of Oklahoma. The pair wrote in two totally different styles of poetry. Winona’s was of the classical style, while Betty’s’ poetry was off the cuff, witty, modernist and often hilarious. Betty and Winona were sort of the “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” of the Oklahoma Poetry Society. They cleaned up at every poetry contest each year, leaving pretty slim pickings for everyone else.

As a student, Winona would place third in the National Collegiate Poetry Contest, behind poets from Princeton and Yale. As a professional writer she received the Lasky Literary Award and has been chosen as one of the top twenty poets in America by Atlantic Monthly.

Betty was John’s friend in those bleak days when he was cleaning Winona’s house and putting her things and Harold’s in big storage boxes. She’d make him stop and take him to lunch a couple of times a week just to get him out of the house. The two of them attended a memorial service  for Winona on November 10, 1992, in the Y-Chapel of Song on the campus of the University of Central Oklahoma. The memorial was conducted by her mentor, Dr. Cliff Warren. According to John, Betty is gone now, which is tragic since she would have been a great source on Harold and Winona.

John wants to start something similar to Howard Days for Winona — some sort of annual celebration of her life and works. Her century old childhood home is still standing, a big two story farm house out on the prairies of Stephens County, Oklahoma. Winona’s hometown is Comanche, just north of the Red River on US 81. Indeed, there was some talk a few years back in her community of converting the elegant old mansion into a museum, one room of which would be devoted to Winona. When John returns to Cisco, Texas later this year, he plans to go to Cross Plains for a the tour of the Howard House Museum. His goal is do something akin to what has been done to the Howard House to Winona’s old homestead.

The next step for Winona is Oxford, England. She is basically unknown now even in her home state of Oklahoma, which has a very poor record of promoting its artists. So gaining a following, even a small one in England, would be a victory. John and a writer friend are going to “beard the English Poetic Lion in its den” and get a verdict once and for all on the enduring artistic merit of her work — if any.

Here is another example of Winona’s poetry from Fantasy Crosswinds #2 (Stygian Isle Press,1977):

The Red Rain
by Winona Morris Nation

The wet red rose
Drips blood, and I stop.
Alerted by a possible ominous meaning,
I can not define or correlate.

I know of no precedent that would establish
The likelihood of such an occurrence.
It exists in the mind as a bizarre explosion of disbelief.
An idea for which there is no antecedent.

Yet, I see the rose drip red.
And there is no acuity in the mind that can convince
Me it is not so.

Like Howard, Winona never saw a collection of her writing in a book during her lifetime. Eight years after her death, If I Still Hold Earth As Dear, a volume of her poetry was published by Vantage Press. Additionally, all of Winona’s works have been put on computer disks in a year-long effort by her sister-in-law Fredrica Morris, Winona’s brothers wife, now an incredible 97 years young and looking to make the century mark. As for Harold’s writings, Winona told John that Harold had sold the copyrights of his books (there are five that John knows of), years before he passed away.

John is currently writing an account of his mother’s life as seen through his eyes. He expects the volume will run over 500 pages and has written 200 pages so far. When the book is finished, John is returning to the USA to get some things sorted out —  particularly related to Harold and Winona, their writings and their lives together.

Winona once told John that Harold’s wish for an epitaph for a possible memorial was: “He loved the purity of his white plume.” Of course, the white plume Harold referred to was from Edmond Rostand’s famous play Cyrano de Bergerac:

All my laurels you have riven away… and my roses; yet in spite of you there is one crown I bear away with me. And tonight, when I enter before God, my salute shall sweep away all the stars from the blue threshold! One thing without stain, unspotted from the world in spite of doom mine own and that is… my white plume.

The plume represents purity and love that have not been ruined by external forces.

 Winona’s poems courtesy of John Nation.