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

Charles Hillinger's America

October 06, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

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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