It was Mildred White’s first trip to the principal’s office. Mrs. McDonald had called the fourth-grader’s mother to tell her that Mildred had turned in a poetry assignment that she simply could not have written. The poem about tulips, her first-ever poem, was too good, too rhythmic and structured.
“I hated her,” the now 94-year-old said of her primary school teacher. “I didn’t get in trouble though, because my mother knew I had written the poem. It was then that I learned it was dangerous to let people see what you had written.”
However, Mildred White, now Mildred Greear, discovered at that moment she was good enough to be an accomplished poet if she worked at it.
The Helen woman was correct. And the second printing of her collection of poems “Moving Gone Dancing” proves it.
Penning, publishing her book
The collection of her poems “Moving Gone Dancing,” was first published in 2008. And with her goal finally reached, Greear did not hesitate in signing her full name — Mildred White Greear — to the first edition.
“Growing up, I never had a middle name,” said Greear, who subsequently picked and used Elizabeth as her middle name. “But I got sent to the principal’s office for the second time, because teachers couldn’t find any records with the name ‘Mildred Elizabeth White.’”
Luckily, her mother knew how to solve the problem. She told a young Mildred she would be “Mildred White Somebody,” when she married.
These anecdotes from her youth in Mississippi and Louisiana along with the characters from her life, including her uncle Henry and Mrs. McDonald, pepper her book of poems.
“I wrote about how much I hated Mrs. McDonald, and a woman named Mrs. Barlow that had cancer,” Greear said. “People always ask me to read ‘Mrs. Barlow.’”
Uncle Henry is also a frequent topic, especially since he helped his niece through her first year of community college in Louisiana following her parents’ deaths.
In fact, one of her “good” poems was written in respect of the man.
“I wrote it in the voice of Uncle Henry talking to God,” said Greear, who did not know the techniques of writing in a voice at the time. “I also wrote a lot of essays about him.”
Her book begins with her poem ‘Moving’ and continues through her life and experiences in the South. She writes about people and nature as well as her honest observations of life.
Some accounts detail the losses in her life. By the time she was 17, her parents, grandparents and one uncle had died.
“All of my poems are honest,” Greear said. “The people (who) lived there know who I’m talking about and that the events are real.”
The woman, who described her family and community as “the same amount of poor,” delved into her family and history to pull out and write down her experiences and emotions.
“When my mom died after my dad, we had $100 to spread between five children,” she said.
But grief and sorrow are only a couple of emotions contained within her body of work. She also focuses on her passions such as dancing.
“I can’t count the number of times I use ‘dancing’ in this book,” she said. “I always wanted to dance, but I never did. It’s so free, but I was always afraid I wasn’t going to do it right.”
“Gone Dancing” is the final poem in the book, and the biggest release for Greear. The poem is about the whirlwind at the end of life. Greear uses herself as the subject, and she dances from this world to the next. It has been read many times at funerals in the area.
“I get people asking all the time if they can read ‘Gone Dancing’ at a funeral,” Greear said. “It’s carte blanche; they don’t have to ask. It belongs to everyone.”
As she became more involved in the poetry in the mid-1940s, Greear fell more in love with the art through the people she met. This love actually led Greear to her husband, Philip Greear.
Mildred met Philip when she was teaching poetry and living in Gulfport, Miss., at age 23 in 1943. They bonded over a love of words and nature, but Mildred remembers Philip’s reaction to the first poem she read him was not ideal.
“He laughed when I read him my poem about Uncle Henry,” Greear said. “I made sure he was asleep later when I cried.”
A poet and botanist, Philip Greear had been writing poetry for years. In fact, his best friend was the late Byron Herbert Reece, one of Georgia’s most famed poets. Reece’s poems are full of metaphors and vivid imagery, while Greear’s are, as one critic noted, “absolutely honest” and “courageously observant.” However, Reece remains her favorite poet and was one of her closest friends.
“I’m an expert on his life and works,” she said, regarding the man who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and author of four books of poetry. “He was part of our family.”
In fact, on the night he died in 1958, Reece was supposed to eat dinner with the Greears. That evening, the family received the call that Reece had killed himself.
Greear wrote a piece in memoriam for the 1958 Georgia Review and has spent years studying his poetry.
Greear also met former chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts and famed poet Dana Gioia less than five years ago at Ma Gooch’s restaurant in Cleveland. She had a conversation with him about poetry and asked about one of his deepest pieces, “Planting a Sequoia.”
“The poem was about the loss of his infant son,” Greear said. “After I heard that, I spent a lot of time thinking about death and loss and realized that for people like he and I, it was a release to write it. If you keep it inside, it will fester.”
The poet also met some of her closest friends through her love of language.
Once she was established as a Helen resident, she joined an arts and crafts club at a local church. The Eagles Club at Nacoochee Methodist Church offered programs twice a year on sewing, painting, cooking, writing and more.
“There is always a poetry component, and that is how we meet so many talented people,” said Marlene Eubanks, who runs the club. “We read before an audience and write together.”
While Greear teaches a class at the Eagles Club, she encourages some of the students to write.
“When she told me I could write a poem, I said ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Jackie Burkhalter said. “But she made me. She will even (make you) if you don’t think you can.”
Although Greear does not consider herself a teacher, she has shared skills and techniques for writing poems with club members and local students.
“I never call myself a teacher,” Greear said. “I believe that everyone’s got one good poem in them, and I’m going to pull it out.”
One of the regular poets in the Eagles Poetry Club, which stemmed from the Eagles Club, joined the group under begrudging and confusing circumstances.
“One of our good poets came in because the program she wanted was already filled,” Eubanks said. “Mildred’s class was something about a can opener, and she thought it was a cooking class. Really, Mildred was talking about being the can opener to get the poems out of us.”
Writing as a poultry expert
While poetry was her passion, Greear did not limit herself to it. In 1953, she started writing for “The Times” as an expert on chickens at a time when Gainesville was not yet known as the “Poultry Capital of the World.”
“Mr. (Charles) Smithgall told Sylvan Meyer, the editor of the newspaper, that they were raising chickens up in Helen, and they sent someone up here to find out about chickens,” Greear said. “I said ‘Well, I raise chickens and I raise children.’”
The reporter asked Greear some questions about chickens. The woman responded with a long-winded, confusing answer.
“Back then, you would name off the different breeds of chickens as a way to call someone a name,” Greear said. “It was our way of calling someone a chicken.
“I thought, ‘How can they send someone here to write about chickens if they don’t even know the names of the breeds?’”
She began telling the reporter about chickens and how families depended on them if they didn’t have much income. Then, Greear proceeded to tell him that she wished the newspaper had “ladies present” on its staff. The reporter, along with Meyer and Smithgall, realized Greear knew more about chickens than anyone else. Therefore, they asked her to write a column and she reluctantly agreed.
“They wanted me to have a typed copy to them by 9 a.m. Monday,” Greear said. “I looked and saw what they had called it and it said ‘Ladies Present.’ I did not like that at all.”
Greear called Meyer and explained she didn’t like the column title because she was not just a lady. She vehemently stated she was a woman, “a mountain farming woman!”
“I said it didn’t need a name like that, it’s only chicken copy, and they said ‘That’s it!’” Greear said. “I wrote the column every week for eight years and only missed it once.”
She finally retired her column in 1961.
But that didn’t mark the end of her writing career. Greear continued to pen poems and does so to this day.
“I don’t remember when I was not thrilled by words,” she said regarding her love of poetry. “And to know you could make two words rhyme was wonderful,” she said.