Few now recall the poet Laurence Pratt who spent most of his life in and around Portland and Southwest Washington. A prolific writer, Pratt penned numerous poetry books and three partly autobiographical prose volumes about his experiences growing up and living in the area. He often contributed to the Oregonian’s poetry section, and his work appeared in anthologies. All are now out of print.
His mother’s 1933 Oregonian obituary listed two brothers and four sisters as his siblings. After graduating from Reed College, Camas High School hired him as the principal in 1918. Next, he spent four years as a bookkeeper for what was then the Crown Willamette mill in Camas. Then he taught at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. Later, he taught English and creative writing at Jefferson and Lake Oswego high schools. A 1968 Oregonian story noted his communication with hundreds of writers worldwide, some of whom were former students.
While working at Crown Willamette, Pratt observed its workers and listened to the cacophony of its machines intently. From that experience, he later authored a book of sonnets about the mill, its people and Camas. “A Saga of a Paper Mill” was published by Caxton Printers in 1935 and was his first book of poetry. The same year, several of his poems were anthologized in “Oregon Poets: An Anthology of 50 Contemporaries.”
Oddly, the mill saga is written in sonnets, a form traditionally used in love poetry since the Renaissance. The book’s 14-line verses are divided into two parts, the mill and the town. A brief book review in the Spokane Chronicle commented his “short poems” were more akin to essays than poetry.
Pratt’s poetry regarding the mill wasn’t flattering but full of irony and mocking humor. Published during the Great Depression, Pratt’s theme is the dreariness of millwork at a time when jobs were scarce. His handling of people echoed Edgar Lee Masters’ 1915 “Spoon River Anthology,” which critiqued small-town social faults seen through its citizens’ character flaws and internal conflicts.
For example, in Pratt’s “Minnie Marries,” millworkers gossip about a coworker’s marriage choice of an older man, admitting, “it’s her only chance to break away from all the grind.”
In “Refraction,” he portrays a woman whose “active hands made paper boxes grow” and how the millwork deadens her life. The poem “Gertie” describes a sensual woman who can’t stoke the romantic flames of men in the office but knows “mill hands get me quick enough.”
Pratt transferred the mill noises into a poem. “The Woodmill” echoes the snarls of the drag saw, “Zing … whang … zing … whang” as its fangs devour the lumber fed into it, suggesting the mill does the same to employees. The second half of Pratt’s book, “The Town,” chastises the townies as ironically as the millworkers.
Pratt was a friend of beloved Oregon poet William Stafford. Whether he knew his contemporary Vancouver poets Elizabeth Crawford Yates or Mary Barnard is unclear. However, he met Clark College’s playwright Hermine Decker in 1957 when she was the guest speaker at a Verseweavers poetry society meeting. She spoke on poetry and modern drama. Pratt was part of a panel evaluating poems that evening.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.