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

Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

Sunday, March 28, 2010

April is National Poetry Month: Byron Herbert Reece, Mountain Poet

I have not covered nearly all the early post offices of Union County’s rich history. I will return to those not touched upon at a later date. For the next two weeks I plan to write about one particular emphasis the fair month of April brings us. First we will pay tribute to National Poetry Month. In this column I will write about two of Union County’s poets. One is our native son, Byron Herbert Reece, about whom much is known already. Another is my poet friend and daughter of one of my high school principals, Dr. James M. Nicholson and my eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Flora M. Nicholson. Her name is Barbara Ruth Nicholson Collins Sampson, who, though not born in Union County, has nevertheless made it her home for many years.

She and Reece knew each other and he encouraged her in her poetic efforts. I had the privilege of reviewing her delightful book of poems, "Earth Is a Splendid Place” at the April, 2001 Georgia Poetry Society Meeting.

First, to some important observations about poet Byron Herbert Reece (1917-1958). Born in Choestoe, Union County, to Juan and Emma Lance Reece, he early on showed great propensity for words. By the time he entered first grade at Choestoe School, he had learned to read, having already been taught by his mother. His favorite books to read at that tender age were the King James Version of the Bible and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

His poetry writing was a gift but also utilized his sharp observation of nature, the wind, life, death and the changing seasons on his Choestoe farm. All of these themes play prominently in his exquisite poetry. Add to these themes important truths from the King James Bible. His first book, Ballad of the Bones and Other Poems, published in 1945 by E. P. Dutton, New York, had as its lead poem the ballad using the account in Ezekiel 37:1-10, of the dry bones coming to life again. In many other ballads and poems, he employed biblical themes. Reece became a master of the ballad form as well as the sonnet and the lyric poem.

Bill Shipp, writing in “The Atlanta Constitution” said of Reece: “He was...a farmer, depending on the harsh and lonely life of a mountain farm for [his] livelihood. He was also a poet, perhaps the greatest balladeer of the Appalachians. And Ralph McGill, long-time editor of the same paper, who seemed to take Reece as an example of country boy who became great ranked him “among the best poets this country has ever produced. His poetry was lonely and mystical and often seemed preoccupied by death.”

Death walked with him in the illness of his father, mother, sister and himself, all beset with dread tuberculosis. His frail body was often overcome by the rigors of hard work on the farm and his eagerness to write. He spent many midnight hours working on the poems that came to his mind and begged composition. His calling to be a poet and a recorder of what he understood of life and nature are expressed in his poem, “The Speechless Kingdom”:

Unto a speechless kingdom I
Have pledged my tongue, I have given my word
To make the centuries-silent sky
As vocal as a bird.

The stone that aeons-long was held
As mute through me has cried aloud
Against its being bound, has spelled
Its boredom to a crowd

Of trees that leaned down low to hear
One with complaint so like their own
--I being to trees an ear
And tongue to the mute stone.

And I being pledged to fashion speech
For all the speechless joy to find
The wonderful words that each to each
They utter in my mind.

(from Bow Down in Jericho, 1950)

A poet can relate to Reece’s ideas in “The Speechless Kingdom,” can know the compulsion to let the rocks speak through his words, the trees take voice, the sky utter its paean of praise. Poetry is like that with “wonderful words that each to each” utter in the poet’s mind and do not give rest until they are committed to paper.

The Byron Herbert Reece Society was formed in June, 2003. Its stated purposes are “to preserve, perpetuate and promote the literary and cultural legacy of the Georgia mountain poet/novelist, Byron Herbert Reece. In addition to enhancing both knowledge of and appreciation for his writings, efforts will be made to honor his way of life, with particular emphasis on his love of nature and his attachment to farming.”

In the first year, the Society was able to record an oral history, with interviews from several who knew Reece personally before his death. The Reece farm on Choestoe came under the auspices of the Society, with the future intention of turning it into a cultural center. Efforts are now under way to raise the revenue to turn the farm into a memorial to this mountain poet/farmer.

Recently, thanks to the efforts of Georgia Representative Charles Jenkins, that portion of Highway 129/19 from the Blairsville courthouse southward to the county line, and running by the Reece farm, has been named the Byron Herbert Reece Highway to honor this literary giant of the mountains.

In this month emphasizing poetry, we are grateful to Reece, poet and novelist extraordinary, a son of whom the mountain citizens can be justly proud.

During April, National Poetry Month, find some of his writings and read them thoughtfully and with deep appreciation. I think you, as I, will be awed by his exquisite and polished lyricism, his inimitable insights into life, nature and death, and his humility that he should be one chosen to speak for “The Speechless Kingdom.”

Next week we will look at a contemporary poet of Union County, Barbara Ruth Sampson, one who was named “National Senior Poet Laureate of 2004” with her poem “Return to Spring.” You will be delighted with her poetry’s insight and expertise. It is very likely that we should try to find a fitting way to honor this lady poet of the mountains and let her know that we appreciate her expertise with words. Reece, who had already read some of her poems when his Three Lyric Poets (by Reece, Alise Moser and Tom McNeal) was published in 1942, wrote on its flyleaf when he autographed it for Barbara Ruth: “With admiration and affection.” Poet to poet, one encouraged the other to higher achievements in the poetic arts.

c2005 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Apr. 7, 2005 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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