Bayview grave marker quietly reveals nature of poet laureate Ella Higginson

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 5, 2014 

If you designed your own grave marker, what would it say?

And what would that say about you?

Ella Higginson, the once-famous Bellingham writer and Washington state poet laureate who died in obscurity, did just that for the stone bench at her burial site in Bayview Cemetery.

"It was very elaborate for the time," said Laura Laffrado, the English professor at Western Washington University who is researching Higginson's life and writings. "I think it's poignant designing your own gravestone."

Laffrado visited Higginson's stone bench on Thursday, July 3, to be interviewed by Walter Skold, a poet and filmmaker from Maine who is filming the graves of nearly 500 U.S. poets for a book and, he hopes, a documentary.

Laffrado is working with Whatcom County Historical Society to publish a selection of Higginson's works. Higginson wrote more than 100 short stories, many poems, several plays, a novel, a nonfiction book about Alaska, and numerous newspaper articles.

Her short stories were immensely popular, and by the early 1900s reviewers were comparing Higginson to the great writers of her day and of earlier generations. Yet Higginson met the fate of other accomplished writers who won popular acclaim only to disappear from public attention in their later years.

Higginson, who died Dec. 30, 1940, outlived her pharmacist husband, Russell, by 31 years, so she had plenty of time to plan her funeral and grave marker.

Her graveside ceremony included a musical performance of "Four-Leaf Clover," her best-known poem.

Her stone bench features a large cross, which isn't surprising; Higginson attended a Presbyterian church. Each arm of the bench is adorned with a four-leaf clover, also not surprising.

Interestingly, the bench describes Higginson as "poet, writer," in that order.

"I like that she identified herself as a poet first and a writer second," Laffrado said. "It was her poetry that had gotten such public acclaim."

The base of the bench memorably reads: "Yet, am I not for pity - trembling I have come face to face with God." The first part is the title of one of Higginson's sonnets; the second part is the last line from the sonnet.

"She didn't want anybody else quoted on her gravestone," Laffrado said. "She quoted herself."

There's nothing on the bench that refers specifically to Higginson's husband, but there's a flat burial marker for each of them on the ground in front of the bench.

Her flat marker doesn't include a birth date. Even when famous, Higginson skirted the issue whenever questioned about her age, Laffrado said.

When asked to assess what Higginson included, and excluded, from her gravesite, Laffrado responded with "assertive" and "pointed."

"Frustrated" might be apt, too. Higginson, who thrived in an era of letter-writing, destroyed most of her letters, but kept letters she received from famous people.

On the folder holding those letters she wrote: "Letters from famous folks; and from publishers, proving that I didn't need to seek publishers - they sought me."

MORE DETAILS

- To watch an interview with Laura Laffrado about Ella Higginson, go to c-span.org/localcontent and click on Bellingham in the Tour TV Schedule.

- For information about Walter Skold and his Dead Poets Society of America, see deadpoes.org.

- People with books, photographs, artifacts or information by or about Ella Higginson are encouraged to contact Laffrado at 360-650-2886 or Laura.Laffrado@wwu.edu.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com .

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