Who can define inspiration? From what inner spring or outer deluge (or both) does inspiration flow?
For any writer—essayist, storyteller, historian, novelist, poet (one or all)—for whom does “its currents sing,” for whom is the “thirst greater” always “for the drink denied”?
I think poet Byron Herbert Reece answered questions about inspiration in one of his poems published in A Song of Joy (Dutton, 1952, p. 72):
From Whence Is Song
Though I have drunk the waters of that spring
From whence is song, if it be God’s or no
I cannot tell; nor why its currents sing
Nor by what secret ways they sometimes flow
Like desert rivers sucked into the ground
To leave the traveler who seeks their tide,
And dreams he hears far off their welcome sound,
With thirst the greater for the drink denied.
That wizard water waits upon our need
To strike it from the burning silt of drought
That we be pilgrim to its currents freed,
As to that stream that from the rock gushed out
Turned all of Israel from upbraiding God
When Moses, grown desperate, smote it with his rod.
He admits to drinking from the spring. I like to think he refers here to the spring of inspiration, that Pierian Spring of Greek mythology where the Muses dispensed knowledge and inspiration. He would have been familiar with Alexander Pope’s quatrain:
“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain
And drinking largely sobers us again.”
Reece wonders if inspiration comes from God. Having tasted the waters, or heard them flowing yet not having drunk, he knows “thirst the greater for the drink denied.”
The stream of inspiration also has a parallel. Adroitly and with literary allusion, Reece likens it to the abundant water in the desert for the complaining, fault-finding, thirsty Israelites. Moses struck the rock with his rod and water gushed out (see the account in Exodus 17:1-7).
With Reece or any writer who waits at the spring of inspiration for thoughts to flow, for words to come, we hope the words we write, all of them, will be fluent, freed from restraints, will quench a thirst for knowledge or lend inspiration. If we cannot produce, then do we strike out, our desire to write desperate, our efforts pinched, pained, pointed?
In his poem “The Speechless Kingdom” (Bow Down in Jericho, Dutton, 1950, p. 114), I consider that Reece gave us an insight as to why he is a poet, (his calling, if you will):
“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.”
Through his poems, his words, we are introduced in a fresh and inimitable way to sky, to stones, to trees—all of which speak through him. In A Song of Joy and Other Poems (Dutton, 1952, pp. 11-29) in his title poem, “A Song of Joy,” he asks the question:
“Saying, How better
Could I employ
The tithe of my time
Than in searching for joy?”
In this ballad, the title poem of his third book of poems, the inspired poet rides forth in imagination through the earth in quest of joy, capturing, in words at least, that lithesome, time-evasive quality which we all want: joy.
The year 1952 the poet was home in his beloved Choestoe and teaching literature and creative writing at Young Harris College. He won a prestigious award, Poet of the Year, from Georgia Writers Association. That no doubt brought him joy, for who of us does not like to be recognized for a job well done?
This summer has been a good season at the Byron Herbert Reece Farm and Heritage Center. Ken Akins, Dr. John Kay and the staff and hard workers from the Byron Herbert Reece Society have sought to introduce facets of mountain culture as well as to help visitors to the venue become better acquainted with Reece the man, Reece the poet and novelist. His nephew, Terry Reece, spoke to us at the annual meeting about the tender heart of his uncle who blended with the community and life in Choestoe like the flowing waters sparkle and glow as they travel northward along Wolf Creek that runs through the farm. In this “Speechless Kingdom” where he lived and worked he helped
“…all the speechless joy to find
The wonderful words that each to each
They utter in my mind.”
Inspiration happened this season of 2014 at the Byron Herbert Reece Farm and Heritage Center. It can happen any time for those who seek his books and read his words.