Late last week, I was interviewed at UNC TV studios, for an episode of North Carolina Now, by Heather Burgiss, a reporter and producer there. Heather was a masterful interviewer, and also easy to be with on camera and off. While we were waiting to go on, she shared the fact that her husband’s grandfather, Long Grady Burgiss, had once been the Poet Laureate of Yadkin County, North Carolina.
The paragraph below this one is a boiled-down paraphrase of a much more substantial article, “L. Grady Burgiss – Poet Laureate Of Yadkin County, NC,” by Susan Thigpen, from the December 1984 issue of The Mountain Laurel: The Journal of Mountain Life, a rather fascinatingly sprawling compendium. I’m thoroughly in debt to Ms. Thigpen for supplying me with this elusive information. Great gratitude as well to David Potorti, Literature & Theater Director at the North Carolina Arts Council, for pointing me in the right direction and for more things than I can name here.
Long Grady Burgiss, born in 1902 in Yadkin County, near Winsor’s Cross Roads, later moved with his family, to Elkin, where his father became a grocer and his mother operated a hotel. Both businesses failed and, by 1916, Burgiss quit school to assist his family financially. In 1925, he was ordained a minister at the Elkin First Baptist Church. He was stricken in 1926 with TB and was, more or less, an invalid for the next eight years. During those bedridden years, he began his foray into poetry. He recovered – I’d like to think because of poetry – and became an active minister and worked in a number of churches across North Carolina. From what I can deduce from the patchwork of sources available on Burgiss, he was appointed Poet Laureate of Yadkin County in 1983 when he was 81.
Appropriately here’s his poem, “At Eighty-One”:
And not half done
The things I wish to do!
In this grand world
With splendors hurled
Across my dazzled view;
A hundred years
My eyes and ears
Could gleaming goals pursue!
Pursue with might
Some mountain height
Where grandeur stirs my soul-
Pursue with zeal
The sound and feel
Where ocean breakers roll-
Pursue with zest
New Truth, impressed
On Life’s expanding scroll-
Pursue, through Grace,
A secret place
Where life, and Peace are whole.
With heart and mind
Still bent to find
Earth’s secrets one by one,
I shall not grieve
If I must leave
Some trophies never won;
And yet my quest
For Heaven’s best
Still throbs at eighty-one!
Following is an earlier poem, “Retirement,” from his book A Temple Of Trees:
My work is done:—Now let me rest.
Let these few years include the best
Of peaceful days, and simple joys,
Enriched by Nature’s living toys:—
The ant that builds his rounded hill;
The spider on my window sill;
The thrush’s song, in sylvan shades;
The rustling corn, with waving blades;
The tall and slender trees, so high
Against the Evening’s painted sky;
The martin’s graceful, soaring flight;
The crickets singing through the night:-
All these, the gifts of Nature’s art,
Are treasures in my aging heart
Which throbs, then rests, and throbs again
To be a blessing to all men.
Burgiss’s A Temple of Trees and Other Poems – written over a wide span, from the 1920s through 1970 – is illustrated by Lou Todd, and was self- published in 1970 in Hamptonville, North Carolina, in Yadkin County. The book is 32 pages, so it’s actually a chapbook. If you’d like to learn more about Long Grady Burgiss, Special Collections at Appalachian State University houses the Guide to the L. Grady Burgiss, Yadkin County, North Carolina, Papers, 1972-1990.
While I was at the UNC-TV Studios, I also had the great privilege to meet James Ford, from Charlotte’s Garinger High, who was recently named Burroughs Wellcome North Carolina Teacher of the Year. Congratulations to James on this enormous honor and to those lucky students who end up in his classroom.
And to round things out, here’s a little more Langston Hughes from a 1958 reading of “The Weary Blues,” coupled with Jazz arrangements by Charles Mingus and Leonard Feather, and interspersed with illuminating commentary on poetry and Jazz.