'Miss Lily's' Poetry Is Music to Arkansas Ears

Times Staff Writer

. . . the slender papyrus speaks in the evening with so faint a whisper, that only the falling darkness makes less sound . . . --Lily Peter from "In the Beginning"

At 94, poet laureate Lily Peter is one of Arkansas' greatest treasures.

Peter, who never married, has provided hundreds of scholarships to college and university students, erected and presented theaters, auditoriums and public buildings to the America people of Arkansas and is given much credit for the establishment of the state symphony orchestra.

A remarkable woman, "Miss Lily" or "Lily of the Bayou," as she is affectionately known, is as alert, witty, productive as ever with her writing, music, lectures, photography and civic and philanthropic endeavors.

Although she readily reveals that she was born in 1891 in the wilderness of the eastern Arkansas swampland not far from the Mississippi River, she prefers not to dwell on her age. "When people find out how old you are they want to put you on the shelf," she said.

But no one is about to put Peter on the shelf. She is a bundle of energy and possesses an uncanny photographic mind, vividly recalling episodes spanning her entire life. She tells of her childhood in the log cabin in which she was born not far from her present 80-year-old, white-frame bungalow in Big Cypress Bayou in Phillips County.

There were no schools in Big Cypress Bayou when Peter was a girl; her mother and father were her teachers. By age 6, she was writing poetry and, by 10, she was learning Latin and calculus, she said. All her life she has been fascinated with mathematics.

Among four books of poetry she recently completed is one about higher math called "The Mad Queen." "Numbers govern everything. Numbers put the universe together," she said.

She attended high school in Ohio, graduating at 16. She did her university work at Columbia, Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins and Juilliard, then taught off and on for 40 years in the Delta country of her eastern Arkansas home, interspersing her teaching with undergraduate and graduate studies.

In her mid-50s, Peter left teaching to devote full time to farming, becoming a successful, progressive cotton and soybean farmer.

She built, owned and operated a cotton gin. She owned and ran farm equipment agencies. She farmed 7,000 acres, which she recently has rented out in order to devote full time to her poetry.

"Farming 7,000 acres was enough to keep anybody out of mischief," said the 5-foot, 110-pound Peter.

During the years she operated her farming empire, she also kept busy performing at concerts and recitals as an accomplished violinist, photographing Arkansas landscapes and writing poetry. She also was an active member of numerous state committees and commissions.

With a deep appreciation of the wilderness of her childhood, Peter has championed many causes. She single-handedly took on the Army Corps of Engineers and successfully stopped the channeling of a bayou.

Her concern for nature, for all things living and for land unspoiled is exemplified by her poem, "I Hear a Hawk Calling":

"I hear a hawk calling from the top of a cypress:

"Babylon is fallen, is fallen! That great city!

Whoe! Whoe! Those who dwelt in her borders

are destroyed utterly, and her

princes are sunk in

her ruin!

Babylon indeed is fallen!"

What does a hawk

know of Babylon? He knows only that his own

dominion is gone forever--the green wilderness

is vanishing swiftly and he who was once a king

and looked down upon the swamp with a proud,

impavid,

golden eye has been dispossessed and is doomed.

But perhaps he is looking afar and sees farther

from the top of his lonely cypress tree than we

who are making our own doom, even as Babylon."

One of Peter's better-known coups occurred on June 3 and 4, 1969, when she did "what I thought would be a most dramatic thing to appeal to the imagination and emotions of the people of Arkansas.

"I wanted to do something that would awaken the people to the beauties of symphonic music," she said.

A year and a half earlier she had commissioned composer Norman Dello Joio to write a suite for Arkansas for $8,000. Then she wrote a letter to Eugene Ormandy, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and invited him and his orchestra to come to Little Rock and perform the suite. "Set your fee," she wrote Ormandy.

"He later told me he thought the letter was a joke, that no single individual had ever written him asking to hire the Philadelphia Orchestra," she said.

Ormandy answered the letter, never expecting a reply, noting that it would cost $45,000 to bring the orchestra to Little Rock and that for that price he would give two performances.

"Well, I replied immediately, sent along a check and he had to reset his whole schedule for 1969 to fit in his Little Rock appearance."

Peter said she believed the only way Arkansas would ever have a symphony orchestra "would be to get the businessmen of the state so aroused they would open their pocketbooks. Money is a lifeblood of a symphony orchestra."

Today, Arkansas has a state symphony orchestra with an annual budget of $750,000.

Peter has had hundreds of poems published, authored four volumes of poetry and prose published by the University of Arkansas Press in several printings: "The Green Linen of Summer," "The Sea Dream," "The Great Riding," "In the Beginning."

Critics have termed "The Great Riding," the 190-page story of the Hernando de Soto's 1541 expedition, one of this country's great epic poems.

In 1972 the heads of the English departments of Arkansas-supported colleges and universities selected Peter to be the state poet laureate, a lifetime appointment approved by the General Assembly and governor.

"In England the poet laureate receives a cask of ale and a small stipend each year for which he or she is supposed to write poems at the request of the royal family and Cabinet," Peter said.

In Arkansas the public is the royal family and if anyone wants a poem for a special occasion Peter is expected to write one. She has written scores of poems--requested by governors and ordinary citizens.

Once she was asked to write and read a poem for a horse show put on by the University of Arkansas to benefit underprivileged children. "I asked when they would like the poem. I was told to put it in the mail the next morning, which I did. Some think writing poetry is like taffy on the kitchen sink, that it just pours out," she said with a laugh.

Peter writes and delivers a special poem at each governor's inauguration. One year during a blizzard, when the telephone lines were down and the state was blanketed in ice and snow, the National Guard was dispatched to the Big Cypress Bayou to fetch Peter and her poem.

The final poem in "The Green Linen of Summer," which she wrote in 1964, is entitled "Note Left on a Doorstep" and reads as follows:

Tell Death I am not here,

When he comes for me.

He will find me standing yonder

Under a quince tree,

With violets in my hair

Jasmine in my hand,

Looking for the last time

At the lovely land,

Feeling for the last time

The wind in my face,

Watching the clouds go over

In their tall grace.

Death may have the body

In the room at the head of the stair,

But I shall be under a quince tree

With violets in my hair.

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