HISTORY:  Ennis Rees, poet laureate

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S.C. Encyclopedia  |  Poet, literary critic, translator, children’s author. Ennis Samuel Rees, Jr. was born on March 17, 1925, in Newport, Virginia, to Ennis Samuel and Dorothy Drumwright Rees. He received his A.B. from the College of William and Mary in 1946, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Omicron Delta Kappa and where he received the Botetourt Medal for distinguished scholarship. The same year he married Marion Ensor Lott.

Rees

Also in 1946, near the end of World War II, Rees served his country in the U.S. Army. By 1948 he received his M.A. and in 1951 his Ph.D. in comparative literature, both from Harvard. From 1949 until 1952, Rees was an English instructor at Duke University, and he taught at Princeton from 1952 until 1954. For the next thirty-four years Rees served as a professor of English at the University of South Carolina in Columbia where he raised his three children and retired in 1988. In 1984 Rees was nominated the Poet Laureate of South Carolina.

In 1954 Rees’s book-length analysis, The Tragedies of George Chapman: Renaissance Ethics in Action, was published. The collected essays draw critical attention to George Chapman’s tragic plays. In the introduction, Rees suggests that Chapman divided his tragic heroes into either active or contemplative characters to emphasize and complicate his moral and aesthetic beliefs. Rees ultimately suggests that Chapman’s plays are underappreciated works of literature with strong moralistic and philosophical intentions.

Rees published his lyrical translation of The Odyssey of Homer in 1960 to critical acclaim, and three years later his translation of The Iliad of Homer was published. Although in the introduction of The Odyssey he acknowledges multiple thematic aspects of the poem that might be brought out in translation, Rees also expresses his dedication to creating readable stories that use natural diction, syntax, and a loose iambic pentameter.

In 1964 Rees saw the publication of Riddles, Riddles Everywhere, a book of popular riddles based on stories in American and English folklore that Rees places in rhyming verse quatrains characterized by wordplay and a sense of humor. That same year Rees published another children’s book in free verse, The Song of Paul Bunyan and Tony Beaver, which transforms into verse the exploits of the fabled northern logger, Paul Bunyan, and his southern counterpart, logger Tony Beaver. In a 1986 interview Rees labeled the story as “comic heroic, not mock heroic.”

Also in 1964, Rees’s first collection of original poems was published by the University of South Carolina Press. Entitled simply Poems, the book contains verse that reveals an overall optimistic outlook on life, celebrating the everyday, and also experiments with formal concerns such as meter and rhyme.

Rees published Pun Fun in 1965, a book of rhymes adapted from English and American folklore, and the next year he published a verse translation of Fables from Aesop, illustrated by J.J. Granville. Over the next several years, Rees saw the publication of numerous children’s books, including Windwagon Smith (1966), Tiny Tall Tales (1967), Teeny Tiny Duck and the Pretty Money (1967). Brer Rabbit and His Tricks (1967), The Little Greek Alphabet Book (1968), Gillygaloos and Gollywhoppers (1969), and Potato Talk (1969). These books are all characterized by a lyrical sense of whimsy, a fascination with southern folk stories, and strong moral lessons. In 1971 he published a follow-up to Fables of Aesop entitled Lions and Lobsters and Foxes and Frogs: Fables from Aesop, written in rhyming verse and illustrated by playfully macabre artist Edward Gorey. Many of Rees’s children’s books have become classics of the genre and are among his bestselling works.

In 1973 the University of South Carolina Press released his Selected Poems, which contains most of the pieces from his first collection along with newer works that exhibit a looseness of form and embrace the absurdity of the human condition. The collection also includes large excerpts from his translations of The Odyssey and Aesop’s Fables and two long dream-based poems, “Daze” and “Snakes and Butterflies,” which attempt to touch on archetypal concerns and avoid the stylistic conventions of contemporary poetry. In regards to his own verse, Rees once said, “All my poems have South Carolina settings, even if they are not specifically mentioned.” Due to an economic downturn in publishing in the late 1970s, Rees continued writing but had trouble finding publishers for his work until Boyd Mills Press published Fast Freddie Frog and Other Tongue Twister Rhymes in 1993.

In 1999 Ennis Rees was awarded recognition for his literary contributions by being inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors. He counted his influences as Homer, Chaucer, Emerson, and Whitman. All of his writing—his children’s books, his various translations, and his own poetry—is notable for its uncomplicated diction, sense of optimism, humor, and wordplay.

Excerpted from an entry by Roy Seeger.  This entry hasn’t been updated since 2006.  To read more about this or 2,000 other entries about South Carolina, check out The South Carolina Encyclopedia, published in 2006 by USC Press. (Information used by permission.)

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