Cullowhee resident Kathryn Stripling Byer, former North Carolina Poet Laureate, inductee into the state’s Literary Hall of Fame and an unabashed defender of the relevance of poetry in a world increasing satisfied with 140-character tweets, died Monday. She was 72.

Byer had been diagnosed with lymphoma.

A native of southwest Georgia, Byer moved in 1968 to Jackson County. She worked at Western Carolina University, becoming, in 1990, the school’s poet-in-residence. Her husband Jim was a WCU professor. The couple had one child, a daughter, Corrinna.

Gov. Mike Easley appointed Byer in 2005 to serve as North Carolina Poet Laureate, distinguishing her as the first woman to receive the honor. Until her tenure ended in 2009, she motored across the state, emphasizing at each stop the importance of poetry, all the while cajoling and encouraging everyday people, especially children, to write and enjoy verse.

“Kay was an exceptional poet, but she was also, as she showed during her time as poet laureate, a fierce and devoted advocate for our state’s literature. She will be greatly missed,” novelist and Western Carolina University professor Ron Rash said Tuesday.

Here at home, Byer started a poetry competition for students. The winners were featured during Sylva’s annual spring festival, Greening Up The Mountains. She felt too ill this year to organize the April 22 event.

In an April 5 column published by the Herald, Byer voiced her conviction poetry should be celebrated (April was National Poetry Month) for the sheer pleasure of language. And, she said, to hear “our own inner responses that we’d be embarrassed to say ourselves given voice by poetry.”

Art, including poetry, can transcend human differences, she said.

“In a time when our civil and political discourse has become so divisive, sometimes to the point where friends and neighbors are no longer speaking to each other, maybe we need the music of poetry and the joys of art in all its manifestations to lift us above the divisions and the silences,” she said.

Byer wrote nine books. Her work appeared in The Hudson Review, Poetry, The Atlantic, Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Nimrod, Southern Poetry Review and other publications of note. She won numerous awards, including the Hanes Poetry Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Poetry Award and the Roanoke-Chowan Award.

After graduating from Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia with a degree in English literature, Byer received her master of fine arts degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she studied with writers Fred Chappell and Robert Watson.

“American literature is going to miss her presence, and North Carolina is going to mourn her absence,” Chappell, a Canton native, said Tuesday. “What set her apart is the fact she chose our part of Appalachia to live in and write about. She fell in love with us.”

Byer’s poems were deeply personal, but avoided meandering into the confessional. She used rich imagery that was deeply informed by the world around her. In the poem “The Vishnu Bird,” written after a friend died, Byer said: “If ever the kingfisher finds his way back/to the mud where the creek waits,/maybe our neighbor will be resurrected/as cow herd and gather his cows/on the hill where they used to graze/until he died of the usual cancer.”

“I grew up wanting to be a singer,” she wrote in October for the Herald’s opinion pages. That column, and others published in this newspaper, were part of her attempts to persuade the newspaper’s leadership to publish poems, something newspapers do not typically do.

“I sang solos in our small town church,” she wrote. “‘In the Garden’ was one of my favorites. So was ‘Near to the Heart of God.’ Later on, I wanted to be Emmylou Harris, shiny boots and fringe. Or Dolly Parton singing, ‘Fair and Tender Ladies,’ sounding so high lonesome, she gave me goose bumps. I still sing along sometimes with her and Emmylou while I drive to the grocery store or over Cowee, heading down south to where my mother lives.

“I didn’t give up singing, I just found another way to sing. I found poetry.”

As news spread of her death, other writers in the Western North Carolina literary community spoke of Byer’s generosity to them, both in time and energy. “I tried not to take advantage of her kindness, but she never turned me down when I had a poetry question,” said Glenda Beall, a Hayesville writer and program coordinator for N.C. Writers’ Network-West, a group Byer was involved in.

“My book publications are pretty much the result of Kay’s kindness and thoughtfulness,” said Catherine Carter, the director of the English Education program at Western Carolina University, author of three collections of poetry. “There are plenty of other people who will tell you essentially the same story.”

Her family had not announced funeral arrangements as of Wednesday.