Their Descendants...Their Stories...Their Achievements

Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

Monday, February 15, 2010

More Reflections on Byron Herbert Reece (Part 4 in Series)

Byron Herbert Reece’s advice to me (“Don’t hide your light under a bushel”) could have been reminiscent of his own case, for he had written for several years before his literary talents were discovered by Kentucky poet Jesse Stuart who summarily sent poems by Reece to E. P. Dutton Publishers in New York.

In my senior year of high school, under the leadership of my teachers Mrs. Grapelle Mock and Mrs. Elizabeth Elliott, I memorized portions of Reece’s long free verse poem, “Choestoe,” and gave it as a dramatic monologue at the Georgia Beta Club Convention in Atlanta. So Reece, in a sense, was the reason behind my life-long love for poetry. Many times since, I have given that same poem as a reading before groups.

Beset by tuberculosis which took his mother Emma’s life on August 30, 1954, and also afflicted his father, Reece suffered declining health in his last years of life. When he went to Battey State Hospital in Rome for treatment, the neighbors heard how he despised staying there. He left without permission and discharge after about four months of treatment. He headed out toward home, getting there before Christmas.

To help make ends meet financially from the farm work, he became a poet-in-residence, teaching terms at University of California at Los Angeles, at Emery University in Atlanta, at Young Harris College, and at the University of Georgia.

Over the decade of his most productive work, 1945-1955, when he published four volumes of verse and two novels, he was twice winner of the Guggenheim Fellowship for writers and won the Literary Achievement Award for Poetry. He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, but did not receive it.

Reece's health broke under the triple demands of dirt farmer, college adjunct professor, and writer. What he longed for was the quiet atmosphere along Wolf Creek near Blood Mountain where he could pursue his writing career.

When Reece took his own life on June 3, 1958 at Young Harris College, my husband and I lived in nearby Hiawassee, Georgia where Grover was pastor of McConnell Memorial Baptist Church. We heard the news of Reece’s death with disbelief.

I personally went through a grievous period of “What If’s?” and “Why’s” Why had we not kept in touch with Reece? Why did he not let us know of his personal suffering?

My husband Grover had skills in counseling. I kept thinking he could have helped Reece. Did Reece not know that I, his long-time neighbor from Choestoe, could have given him a listening ear, helped him to find solutions? And so for several weeks following the poet’s untimely death, I had a sense of failure, of not having reached out enough to aid him.

The Byron Herbert Reece Society was formed to help increase interest in and knowledge of the mountain poet.

From that time on, I began to study his poetry and prose avidly. I made scrapbooks of clippings about him. Later, I would write articles about him, lead workshops on his life and works. I helped to launch the Byron Herbert Reece International Poetry Awards sponsored by the Georgia Poetry Society in his memory. I suggested that the Poetry Society’s anthology of prize-winning poems from members be named The Reach of Song to honor Reece’s memory. Through these means, the knowledge of and love for his works will grow.

When I served as state president of the Georgia Library Media Department, my husband Grover and I talked to Ken Boyd of Cherokee Publishing Company about his company securing the copyright from Dutton and the Reece books and republishing them. This republication feat, gratefully, was accomplished by Cherokee Publishers in 1985. That company had already published Dr. Raymond A. Cook’s excellent biography of Reece: Mountain Singer: The Life and Legacy of Byron Herbert Reece in 1980.

When my two children were growing up, I took them by the Reece homeplace frequently. I read Reece’s poems to them. Keith, having more of a literary bent than his sister Cynthia, became enamored with Reece’s words. Both he and I have written poems about Reece. We were honored to participate on October 14, 2003 in National Poetry Day at the state capitol to read Reece’s poems. I read “Invocation” and “Choestoe” and Keith read “Elbows on the Sky” and “Ballad of the Bones.”

The Byron Herbert Reece Society is an organization that can perpetuate the memory of our mountain poet and instill in present and future generations a love for his poetry and prose.

Plans are in the making to turn the Reece homeplace and farm into a cultural and interpretive center. When this goal of the Society becomes a reality, there on the banks of Wolf Creek under the shadow of Blood Mountain on soil that knew the toil of poet/farmer Reece, people will again hear strains of his poetry and be inspired by the atmosphere he wove so adeptly into his literary works.

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Nov. 20, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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