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

Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

Monday, February 15, 2010

Poet Jesse Stuart Assisted Poet Reece (Part 2 in Series)

The Prairie Schooner, literary magazine of the University of Nebraska Press, published Byron Herbert Reece’s poem “Choestoe” in the spring issue, 1944. But it was Reece’s ballad, “Lest the Lonesome Bird,” published in that magazine in 1943 that caught and held the attention of poet Jesse Stuart of Kentucky.

Reece, who was still feeling the blunt of rejection for World War II enlistment because of what he termed a “nervous tic in his face,” was feeling lonely and isolated on his Choestoe farm. It was amidst this loneliness, his care for his sick parents, and the heavy farming duties that he received a letter from Poet Jesse Stuart inviting Reece to send him more poems.

Form a picture of another Appalachian poet sitting on a potato box in the combination store/post office in Kentucky, oblivious to those milling about him, reading a sheaf of poems that Reece sent him and recognizing the genius and ability of the poet.

Stuart later stated that he considered “The Ballad of the Rider” one of the best ballads he had read by an American poet. Commenting on the ballads and short lyrical poems Reece had sent him for evaluation, Stuart stated: “He hadn’t written just so many meaningless lines but he had written lyrical ballads with beauty and power. He had written poetry akin to the sixteenth and seventeenth English and the early Irish poets.” (Quoted on p. 36 in Raymond Cook’s biography, Mountain Singer, 1980).

Published poet Jesse Stuart of Kentucky introduced Reece's poems to publisher, E. P. Dutton of New York, and thus assisted Reece to have his first book, Ballad of the Bones, published in 1945.

Stuart asked Reece if he might take the ballads and poems to his own publisher, E. P. Dutton of New York. Reece granted his permission, although with some doubts as to the outcome, as noted in a letter to his friend, Phillip Greear: “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.” (Cook, p. 36)

Poet Byron Herbert Reece was mowing hay on his farm when three advance copies of Ballad of the Bones arrived from publisher E. P. Dutton on Reece's 28th birthday, Sept. 14, 1945.

Dutton Company did accept the poems for publication and tried to reach Reece by phone, but there was no telephone at the Reece farm. The announcement came by letter. He completed another long poem in November, 1942, “Ballad of the Bones,” based on the account in Ezekiel 37 from the Bible. He showed the ballad to his mother, Emma. She got a ride to Blairsville and took the ballad to Charles Bartholomew, editor of The Union County Citizen. Emma had commented to her son, “It’s something!” Bartholomew said to Reece’s mother: “It’s too wonderful to be true!” (Cook, p. 40)

The new ballad became both the title and the first poem in his first book, Ballad of the Bones, published by E. P. Dutton. On his twenty-eighth birthday, September 14, 1945, he received in the mail three advance copies of the book. He was mowing a hay field when his mother called him to the house about 11 a. m. He was pleased with the book and showed his parents that it was dedicated to them.

In the afternoon, no doubt with a lighter heart, he went back to his task of mowing. In November of that year the book was released by Dutton and immediately met with national acclaim. Poets such as William Rose Benet, John Gould Fletcher, John Hall Wheelock, and Alfred Kreyemborg praised his depth of perception and lyrical acumen. The book sold well, in first and second printings, and by January, 1946, Dutton had produced a third printing.

He was on his way to fame as a poet. Dutton published three more volumes of his poetry: Bow Down in Jericho (1950); A Song of Joy (1952); and The Season of Flesh (1955).

Working also in the novel genre, Reece produced two novels published by Dutton: Better a Dinner of Herbs (1950) and The Hawk and the Sun (1955). In ten years from 1945 through 1955 his publication number for books totaled six, an achievement of note for any writer and especially for a farmer-poet in Union County, Georgia.

[Next week: More on the life and times of Byron Herbert Reece, Part 3]

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Nov. 6, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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