06/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Herb Vandecker, Poet, Writes Again

Once again, April not only brings the start of the baseball season, but the thrilling event that showers exhilaration upon the lyrical amongst us, National Poetry Month. That time when odes are owed, and a ball competes with a ballad. And thoughts of poetry brings us once again to one of the nation's great lost poets, the brilliant Herb Vandecker.

Herb Vandecker, as these pages have oft noted, is one of literary history's most obscure giants. It's hard to grasp the near-insurmountable hurdles he had to overcome. Perhaps most notably, the general public was never able to understand in the slightest what his obtuse poems meant. But even more than this, that same public believed Vandecker to be fictional. Yet fictional or not, Herb Vandecker created an output of poetry so massive that one can't help at least admire his stamina, a quality not generally associated with poets.

As I have mentioned, it was after I discovered a warehouse filled with Vandecker poems, correspondence and various lists, and had several published in North Dakota's prestigious quarterly gazette, Poetry Now!, that this once-lost poet was raised from fictional status to "who knows?" Several of his relatives wrote to find out if there was proof of his existence, because if so, he owed them money for his portion of a family vacation house in northern Minnesota.

Remarkable though Vandecker's poetry was, his letters bring a rich insight into his personality and attempted understanding of his work. At time cranky, but at other times extremely cranky, he was a man with many layers and deep interests. One of the more revealing is his letter to Harry S Truman, when the former president was living in retirement in Independence, Missouri. Vandecker had visited Truman for several days, though it is unclear whether he had actually been invited.

My Dear Harry,

It has come to my attention that I am missing a toothbrush from my stay. I am not casting any aspersions that it was taken by a member of your household. It is possible that an intruder took it, but that seems unlikely since you have not mentioned any break in. Certainly it is possible that I overlooked it when packing, though I think we can agree that I am generally quite diligent. Whatever, it is gone. If it happens to "show up" in your home, I would appreciate its return. Otherwise, could you please reimburse me for one dollar and 59 cents, which includes tax. Knowing your decency, I'm sure you feel a responsibility as homeowner for its disappearance. Please give Bess my best. And ask her perhaps if she has seen my toothbrush. Or has it.

With appreciation,
Herb Vandecker

The toothbrush didn't show up, and from Mr. Truman's crusty replies, it does not appear that much effort was put into finding it, nor was a reimbursement made. For years, Vandecker would tell friends that he couldn't understand how a toothbrush could vanish into thin air, nor how a man once in charge of U.S. Treasury bonds didn't believe in meeting his own personal obligations, but eventually he let the matter drop, since by then he figured the statute of limitations had passed. Still, the event didn't seem to impact the two men's relationship, as they both always understood the other's foibles.

Interestingly, it was in regards to this toothbrush and brushing his teeth that Herb Vandecker wrote one of his more notable poems. As the faucet was running, he watched the rush and listened to its gurgle, and what resulted was the following work of poetry.

"O the Wondrous Gift of Water"
Herb Vandecker

O the wondrous gift of water
Is what I'd tell my daughter,
If daughter I had.
Yet still I am at peace
To tell instead my niece,
For, lo, a niece is nice.
'Tis family.
Family extended, family expanded, ever flowing,
Like water.
Flowing down a mountain.
Flowing up a fountain.
It quenches our thirst when parched we be.
It washes glass when one canst see
O water.
Go, water.
No water?
Perish the thought.
There'd be no flowers.
Or baths and showers.
Or oceans.
Or instant soup.
It makes a puddle.
And mud'll
Be made from it and dirt.
It cleans a shirt.
Water is magic, for it too can be ice.
Or, poof!, become vapor, or snowflake or mist.
You get the gist.
Without water, try fishing. Or swimming or e'en just floating.
Or boating.
It is the dream of life.
The dream of nature.
The dream of all mammals.
Except camels.
They can get by without much water.
But they shouldn't oughter.

(c) Herb Vandecker, 1964.
From the collection "Hark, I Say" and Other Poems"