In Memoriam: Kathryn Stripling Byer

IN MEMORIAM

 

A poet who sang, who shared, but above all, who inspired.

 

I have a clear memory from the end of a British Lit course in college: we were packing up our things, and the professor called me to the podium to hand back a poem I’d given him the week before. “It’s good,” he said. “And the poet of the house likes it, too.”

The professor was easily among my favorites, and as anyone knows by now a young writer handing his verse to an inspiring teacher needs only “good” to make his day. But the second part–the part about the poet of the house–meant even more.

That poet, Kathryn Stripling Byer, would later become the first female Poet Laureate of North Carolina and a member of our state’s Literary Hall of Fame. She passed away today after a brief illness.

Kay, as her friends called her, spun beautiful verse with a Southern voice that hung in the wind like a spiderweb floating in the early summer breeze. Her poetry was so often borne from whatever Kay happened to see–on the farm, around the house, among her family–and she contained a fearlessness for setting things down just as she found them.

Beyond whatever mournful attempts at literary criticism I can muster, and much more importantly, Kay was an accessible poet to a legion of her fellow writers in western North Carolina and across the southeast. As N.C. Poet Laureate, she toured from the mountains to the coast, and back and forth, again and again, stopping in for readings and workshops with all kinds of audiences. Her ambassadorship for poetry was exhausting work, but she left behind a bumper crop of writers excited to try their hand at verse.

She came to my classroom, too, back when I taught creative writing, and read to and worked with my students. And listened to them. Kay was never dishonest with anyone about his or her writing, but she never condescended, and above all she encouraged every writer in the room. And with the magic that a Laureate’s crown brings, I remember so many students lighting up with joy that someone cared to hear what they said and complimented them on how they said it.

That “the poet” of the Byer household liked one of my poems was the highest praise I’d received as a college-aged writer, and from its richness sprouted a tiny hatchling of confidence that mattered. As I told friend and writer Brittany Harrison today, Kay happened to be the right influence at a critical time in my life. I struggled as a young person with what it meant to be a writer and how one became as much. Kay’s guidance and inspiration gave me the energy to continue shaping my voice.

As word began to spread that she was terminally ill and in her last days, the social media community of writers and students and readers who followed her created a spontaneous living vigil of poetry on her Facebook wall. It was moving to see so many readers and writers pushed into motion by this terrible news, so many whose best, most comforting words happened to be words Kay herself wrote.

“In an ideal world, our poets would sing our stories back to us,” Kay said in an interview several years ago, “connecting us through language that’s memorable, moving, often disturbing: our poets would through their poems urge us to awaken and look around us, fall in love again and again with the things of this world.”

My dear friend, you sang to us, and I thank God for the quiet tunes I will cherish in my mind, with your books and the notes you wrote to me inside of them, as we all struggle with the heavy burden of tending your light.

 

Kathryn Stripling Byer
Kathryn Stripling Byer, 1944-2017
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6 Replies to “In Memoriam: Kathryn Stripling Byer”

  1. Such a fitting tribute. Kay will be missed, yet we are all blessed that her words will live on to touch and inspire us.

  2. We didn’t know Kay was ill. Thanks for sharing the sad news in such a beautiful, caring way.

  3. Thanks for your reflection, and especially for sharing Kay’s comments: “In an ideal world, our poets would sing our stories back to us,” Kay said in an interview several years ago, “connecting us through language that’s memorable, moving, often disturbing: our poets would through their poems urge us to awaken and look around us, fall in love again and again with the things of this world.”

    1. Eric, Kay was a life long friend. I learned much about life and about poetry from her. Early on she said, “Poetry is a living thing. Each poem has an integrity of its own. The poem knows what it wants to be if you listen to it. Also, years later when my oldest son was in hospice for three weeks before his death, out of the blue, three poems I had almost forgot I had submitted all were accepted. They each one had a connection to my son in some way. Kay wrote to me that …”Your poems are talking back to you.” I knew that to be true.

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