By John “Jack” Widner
Byron Herbert Reece was not a well-traveled man; this is understandable given his farm chores. Much has been made of his two trips to California, but Byron also traveled to Cleveland OH and was feted with great fanfare by the Ohio Poetry Society in April 1951.
Cleveland was no stranger to Byron, insofar as the connections he had with his poetry. In his college days, one edition of the Quill Club’s collection (1938) was published in Cleveland by the Pegasus Press. In the late 1940’s one of his consistent publishers was the American Weave Press, and its publisher Loring Williams was the catalyst for bringing Byron to Cleveland.
Mr. Williams (Loring Williams on the left) and his wife Alice Crane Williams (she was the aunt to the American writer Hart Crane) were members and sometimes officers in the Ohio Poetry Society (OPS) from the early 1930’s. He was a poet in his own right, having collections of his work published since the 1920’s; a collection over the years was printed in Selected Poems and published by Golden Quill Press of New Hampshire in 1963. His primary contribution to poetry was as a publisher; the American Weave Press published a quarterly magazine as well as ‘collections’ in a kind of chapbook form. Williams was editor & publisher of Weave from 1934 to 1959. Byron’s Remembrance of Moab was one such Weave collection; it was an award winner for 1949. He sponsored writing contests both in the OPS and in his own publications.
The OPS held regular meetings, sponsored contests, and now and then featured writers of national significance. Robert Frost was the main speaker in 1938. The impetus for Byron’s visit is in a letter Williams wrote in late January 1951. Williams and another writer had been on the schedule for a March joint presentation, but the other writer had to cancel due to health reasons. Williams, who as a publisher was not the kind to promote his own work, wrote Byron to ask if he would consider visiting and give a talk and a reading. Over the next two months a flurry of letters snowballed into a banquet, a reading, a visit to a nearby college English class, and culminating in a book signing at Cleveland’s largest bookstore/department store. In between, Byron attended a chamber music performance, visited art galleries, toured the city, and got a private tour of the Cleveland Public Library and its special collection of folklore and “Chess & Checkers!” We know he took pictures of his visit because in one letter from Williams he was asked how his snapshots turned out.
Byron took a Greyhound bus roundtrip to Cleveland from Atlanta. He stayed with the Williams’ as his host was out to make his visit a memorable one. Williams must have given him time to sleep because his days there were pretty full. He was interviewed on three different Cleveland radio stations (though they were transcribed); Williams even tried to arrange an interview on a television station; it is not known if this took place. He also lectured to a class of Prof. Neille Shoemaker’s English students at Baldwin-Wallace College; unfortunately we have not yet found any reference to his visit in the College’s publications. The BW visit was spurred by the recognition of Byron’s ballad skill; Prof. Harry Ridenour was called an authority on ballads of Ohio and it was thought this would be a good match. On Saturday April 7th, the OPS held a luncheon at Halle’s, Cleveland’s largest department store (and largest bookshop) where Byron autographed copies of his newest collection, Bow Down in Jericho.
The main event was a lecture,
held in the Board of Education auditorium, where Byron spoke about poetry and its place in contemporary culture. Williams scheduled a poetry recital and a question and answer session after the talk; the questions were pre-arranged. Later letters between Williams and Byron indicate that the visit was a great success. It certainly left an impression on him, for in an interview with Mildred Greear in 1955 he had this to say about Cleveland: “Cleveland is a cultured city. New York thinks it owns culture, but Cleveland wants to share what its got. One of the greatest public libraries and art museums is in Cleveland.”
Williams told Byron in a later letter: “The conversation will be about ‘Byron’ for some time to come.” It was a creative time for him: Bow Down in Jericho was out on the heels of the first novel Better a Dinner of Herbs, to be followed by A Song of Joy a year later. The OPS had one contest shortly after his visit in which the ballad was to be the form for all submissions.
It is testament to Byron’s writing that he would be recognized as a genuinely fine poet in other parts of the country. Editors such as Williams were and continue to be instrumental in the promotion of literature to the public. In this case, he drew Byron away from the mountains long enough to show a ‘cultured city’ how poetry can be as ‘the reach of song.’
One side note: in thanking many people for the success of Byron’s visit, the OPS thanked in particular several names, one of whom became famous for something quite different. “We’d like to thank Alan Fried of WXEL…for Mr. Reece’s part in their programs.” Alan Fried aka Alan Freed was afternoon movie show host on WXEL later WJW. More importantly, Alan Freed aka Moondog became one of the most famous rock disc jockeys in history and is credited with coining the term “rock and roll” in 1952. Now just close your eyes and picture Byron with…Alan Freed! Imagine!
Board of Education Cleveland OH June 2012 has changed little since BHR’s visit.
Cleveland Public Library Main branch
Cleveland Plain Dealer ad 1951 for book signing at Halle’s
Loring Williams 1961 (courtesy Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University) Cleveland State University Archives Photograph Collection http://images.ulib.csuohio.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/fenn&CISOPTR=621&CISOBOX=1&REC=1
Sources of information: The University of Georgia archives holds a scrapbook of Byron’s where some of the memorabilia of the meeting can be found. MS56 Box 16. Letters from Loring Williams are also in this archive, MS3055 Box 22 folder 4.
Interview with Reece by Mildred Greear dated 4-7-1955 quoting the Cleveland culture is MS2283 Box 1 folder 15. Hargrett Library, University of Georgia.
Last quote from the OPS (Ohio Poetry Society) is from their newsletter, and is held by the Cleveland Public Library.
Jack Widner is a Reference Librarian at the Baron-Forness Library, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Byron Herbert Reece Society.