By: Philip Lee Williams
(This article is adapted from a speech given on June 9, 2007, at the Annual Meeting of the Byron Herbert Reece Society on the campus of Young Harris College.)
I have known of the Georgia poet and novelist Byron Herbert Reece since boyhood, and one of the real regrets of my life is that I never met him. I was only eight when he died, and yet by the late Fifties I knew his name and had heard his work. I understood that the people from whom he came were very much like my own—country people who worked hard their whole lives, who found meaning in the desperate beauty of struggle.
And yet, even though I knew Reece’s name, I did not know his work until twenty-five years ago, when my mother and father gave me, for my birthday, Dr. Raymond Cook’s book Mountain Singer. In the front of that book, here is what my father wrote: “For Phil on a special occasion from Mother and Dad. January 30, 1982.” Then in smaller print at the bottom of those words was this: “Read page 271 first.”
By this time, I was 32 years old and had published a considerable amount of poetry myself and was just about to embark on a career as a novelist and writer of creative non-fiction. My parents knew I was on this cusp and that I was a rather quiet man as I had been a quiet boy, given to hours of watching the natural world from my perch in a red cedar tree. They also knew that when I was in high school, the vocational tests we all had to take said I would be one of two things: a farmer or a librarian. I believe they knew that in finding Byron Herbert Reece, I would find a lost older brother, a predecessor in whose shoes I might find direction and hope.
I turned to page 271and found a poem called “The Speechless Kingdom.” I closed the book and walked out the back door and into the woods, where I found a quiet sunny spot, and I read Reece’s words:
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 the 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.
Perhaps Reece might give voice to the natural world, but in that transcendent moment I was struck joyfully dumb. Yes, I thought. I understand. I see. And I knew why my poetry-loving parents had given me the book. They knew already that it was not just about poetry, but about country, about the solitary life I was destined to live and a man who loved that life, too. It was about a man who loved classical music just as I did, who came into this world to the sound of his own cries and went out of it in the glory of Mozart.
Some saw how he lived and concluded he must be a simple soul, a natural man in touch with the world of these magnificent and well-worn mountains. And yet, as I read about his life, I found out he was extremely well read, knew modern literature, and yet made a conscious artistic decision to work in older forms. I suspect he knew the risk in it. I suspect he realized well enough that he could be marginalized. And yet, in the end, he could not fight against his own integrity as an artist. (And he was honored, as you know, with visiting writer positions at UCLA, Emory and the University of Georgia.)
I read until dark that day. When I returned to the house, my wife asked me with her eyes if I was all right, and I told her with my eyes that I couldn’t speak. That night, I finished Dr. Cook’s narrative, knowing already that Reece had taken his own life in 1958 and yet I was unprepared for the shock of reading it. I felt as if I had just met another part of my history and lost him on the same night.
By that weekend, I had read the whole book twice, now calmer and with less raw emotion. And I began to understand Reece, and more than anything I wanted to write about him—to honor him in some small way. When that initial rush of emotion subsided, I began to catalog what I knew of the Georgia mountains and particularly the area where Reece had been born and raised. As it turns out, I had known the mountains of Georgia and North Carolina well since childhood. My parents both grew up in Oconee County, South Carolina, in the state’s far northwest corner, and on clear days you could see the mountains from there. My mother also attended and graduated from the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School when it was a junior college in the early 1940s.
When I was a boy, we began to go ruby mining in the Cowee Valley north of Franklin, North Carolina, and on those trips, we passed through Clayton and Mountain City and then up toward the mines, which struck me as magical. I felt a deep peace in the mountains that I could not explain. More than once, we swung to the west and came by Reece country, and later, after I was grown, I brought my own family often to the mountains and came to Lake Vogel and other places to picnic or camp.
Part of my own history was much like Byron’s, too, in that I felt, from childhood, a sick certainty that white Southerners could never quite erase the stain of racism that led to the Cherokee Removal and to Jim Crow. Like millions of others, we visited the Qualla Boundary, and I felt a fascinated sickness. Part of it, I believe, is that I come from proud poor people, men and women who could not make money but who, by God, could make music. They told stories on endless, slow-baking summer evenings, creaking in porch swings to the tales of a relative killed by snakebite or shot dead by British sympathizers at the Battle of Kings Mountain in the American Revolution.
To me, the Cherokee Removal was beyond a measure of Manifest Destiny. It was, quite simply, genocide. Because Andrew Jackson pushed it, I have despised him since boyhood, and I wrote about it in my first published novel, The Heart of a Distant Forest. This book is perhaps my most “Reecian,” in the sense that it deals with many of the same things he did.
The truth of the matter is that there is no excuse that I came to know Byron Herbert Reece’s work so late in my life. I knew his name, of course, but most people over a certain age remember when finding things out wasn’t as easy as it is now. And in those days his books were hard to find.
All I knew, as I graduated from the University of Georgia in 1972, was that I was taking a job as managing editor of The Clayton Tribune over in Rabun County, and that my girlfriend was mad at me for not staying and heading right into graduate school with her.
By that time, I was already publishing poetry, and when I got settled in Clayton, I began a meticulous journey through the hidden back-trails of the world that made BHR. That was a mere 35 years ago, but it was, in truth, a different era. Foxfire magazine had only been around a few years. The movie of Deliverance came out that year. Families who lived deep in the mountains still came to town on Saturday—men and women who worked the land and really lived life in the old ways, not oblivious to the modern world by any stretch, but not really wanting to be part of it, either.
That September, Linda married me, and this fall we celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary. I moved from place to place around Clayton for a while, staying in one apartment only two weeks. After all, when your entire worldly possessions fit in a 1966 Mustang, moving only takes a couple of hours. That summer, though, I had moved into a tin-roofed cabin at the foot of the north slope of Black Rock Mountain in Mountain City. And it was there that Linda and I lived after our marriage in Atlanta, where her family lived.
In all, I lived in the mountains only six months, before we moved back to Athens for graduate school that December, but it marked me, and so by the time I truly discovered Reece as a man and writer, I had spent years traveling his territory as a boy and then a while living in it as a man.
If The Heart of a Distant Forest, which came out in hardcover in 1984, is my most Reecian book, then my connection with him goes much deeper than what I read in Dr. Cook’s pioneering book. In truth, I wrote that book in 1980, two full years before my parents gave me Mountain Singer, and so I believe that in many ways, I was much more like him than I ever suspected.
I knew, from the beginning, that in many ways, the whole idea of the farmer-poet out of touch with 20th century ideas was a narrative created for newspaper readers. I knew that the real BHR may have had no more in common with the public’s view of him than Alvin York did with the character played by Gary Cooper in the film Sergeant York.
If it was in some ways a cliché, then I suspect it was a cliché that we needed as a people in those days. There is something terrible and beautiful about the poet who is “too good for this world,” and who dies tragically young. And yet, in my own case, this was so close to the truth that I felt I knew what was real and what was invented. And the real of it was more than enough.
To be honest, one of the things with which I identified when I read of Reece was an early death. My father’s father had died in 1935 when my dad was 12 years old, of a heart ailment, though not a heart attack. He was only 43 years old. My father’s older brother was devastated by the loss and began to tell everyone that he would die on his 43rd birthday, which would occur in the fall of 1958.
I remember when the phone rang in the middle of the night that September, and my father’s shouted disbelief. As he had predicted, my father’s brother did die of a heart attack on his 43rd birthday, and for years, that knowledge haunted me, as only family tragedies can haunt. And then, when I found out that Reece had died barely three months before my uncle, I suppose that in some way they grew together in my mind as men who looked too long into the darkness.
I looked into the darkness myself. I wrote like a madman, hoping to make my name before my 43rd birthday. When it came and passed with no harm, I thought I was in the clear, until a few weeks before I turned 44, when I found out my heart’s mitral valve was hanging by a thread. If I had been born in 1917 like Byron Herbert Reece, I would have died of heart failure some time in 1995, doctors say. Because I was born a generation later, I was able to have surgery and receive an artificial heart valve.
I survived, but in a sense I knew the dark core of what BHR looked into—a sensitive man with a love for art, who adored the natural world and found himself part of its great narrative of tragedy.
And yet, in so many ways, I don’t like to think of him that way these days. I like to re-read his poetry or his novels and to see what he saw, to slip into the plow-harness of his verse and take it with me, making furrows from which the living seed of his art still grows.
My plan to write something about Reece stayed with me. To be honest, I was mildly terrified of it, since I knew he still had family living and since so many who knew him were still alive and well. I told myself that it would be folly to write such a book, and I set it aside some time in the mid-1980s and wrote several other books. But each time I came to the mountains, each time I thought of what book I really wanted to write, I kept coming back to my obsession with this man and his indelible work.
And the more I read of his work, the more certain I became that he possessed an uncanny ability to channel the world of ballads and narrative poetry in a way like no one else in the country. I began to understand his motives as I had spent much of my life trying to understand the mountains I loved so dearly.
In addition to my obsession with BHR, I had a lifelong obsession with William Blake, that strange prophetic poet who, like Reece, wrote like no one else. Right after my uncle died in 1958, my father, dealing with his grief, decided to set to music the most famous of Blake’s Songs of Innocence, called “The Lamb.” Here is the first verse and the only one my father set:
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, wooly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
My father used to play it, and I would sing it, a piece lasting less than two minutes but one that moved me deeply and made me think of innocence and experience. And so I began to think of a story about a damaged young man, Daniel Mitchell, who worked in a cemetery in Athens, who in some ways was pre-Freudian—a young adult who had not yet shed the innocence of youth. It matched him against a worldly wise and cynical English professor named Rebecca Gentry, who for years had been trying to write a book about a farmer-poet from the north Georgia mountains named Lawrence Dale.
It was at this point, as I began to write the novel that became The Song of Daniel, that I felt that in some half-mystical way that I had almost become Byron Herbert Reece. I knew, I believe for the first time, that one can grow to love someone you’ve never even met.
I need to stress that Lawrence Dale was only a rough shadow of Byron Herbert Reece. I changed things where I needed to for the story’s sake. I did know Dr. Cook’s book inside and out when I wrote this, but beyond the poet’s suicide, I changed almost everything. And yet I could not let Lawrence Dale go without walking all the way with him, imaginatively entering his death as well.
When this book was published in hardback by Peachtree Publishers in 1989 and then in paperback by Ballantine in New York a year later, I was very nervous, lest someone misunderstand my motives in creating a character somewhat like BHR. Then I began to get comments, second-hand at first, that people up here understood. They saw clearly enough that my motive was to praise “Hub” Reece, not to bury him yet again. Perhaps in some way it was a cheeky thing to do, but I knew well enough that I was not going to be able to get beyond Reece if I didn’t write the book.
So have I “gotten beyond” Reece? The answer, I must admit, is no. I feel an inexplicable attachment to and understanding for him that is unique in my experience. In matters of art, we could hardly be more different. He loved and honored the past while I have spent much of my life in love with High Modernism and the avant-garde. And yet I began my journey into the written word with Wordsworth and Shelley and Keats and Byron and Robert Burns. I knew all of them before I knew Pound and Eliot and Joyce and their descendants. And yet BHR has in a sense, won in the end, as poets once again are writing in old forms and loving the discipline they bring to art. It’s also true, as I said earlier, that even if Reece honored the past, he certainly knew contemporary poetry and prose. He was an educated man who made an artistic choice that was swimming upstream against the Academy. I suspect he didn’t care. I also suspect that he might well be a little nonplussed to know how much fuss is made about him now. But I also suspect that he knew his work would last.
I have thought a great deal about Reece over the past three decades, and I have come to believe that I understand him. I know only too well how illness can wreck lives, and I also know what artistic men, especially in the South, must fight against to do their work.
After I “read page 271 first” at my parents’ request, I began to scan the other poems in Mountain Singer that afternoon in the woods behind my house. I read the ballads out loud, as of course they should be read. I mumbled my way through the lyrics. But then I got to page 171 and stopped cold. I read a poem at the bottom of the page once, twice, three times. I read it for ten minutes. In all truth, I couldn’t stop reading it.
There are poems in my life whose power over me is enduring, thought I am never quite sure why. The best example (which Jesse Stewart also compared to BHR) I know is “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats.
On the surface, that is a simple poem. And yet it isn’t simple at all in the end. People who love that poem hold it close, like a sacred text. That is how I felt when I read this poem by Reece, called “I Go by Ways of Rust and Flame.” After a lifetime, I choose now to read it not as evidence of despair but of a deep love for a world none of us, in the end, can keep. And when read that way, it is, to me, transcendent:
I go by ways of rust and flame
Beneath the bent and lonely sky;
Behind me on the ways I came
I see the hedges lying bare,
But neither question nor reply.
A solitary thing am I
Upon the roads of rust and flame
That thin at sunset to the air.
I call upon no word nor name,
And neither question nor reply
But walk alone as all men must
Upon the roads of flame and rust.