The absence of SC’s poet laureate from inaugural

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Sorry to repeat myself, but I find this digression from a previous thread sufficiently interesting for its own post.

M. Prince brought this story to my attention, asking, “Was it really a matter of too little time?”

Marjory Wentworth expected to read a poem Wednesday at her fourth gubernatorial inaugural, but South Carolina’s poet laureate has been silenced.

Marjory Wentworth

Marjory Wentworth

Gov. Nikki Haley’s inaugural committee turned down Wentworth’s words, saying there wasn’t time enough to read a poem during the inaugural. Wentworth was told she did not have a spot at the State House ceremony before her poem was finished and submitted to the governor’s office.

“While we appreciate Ms. Wentworth’s long service to South Carolina, the inaugural committee told her the 96th S.C. inaugural program — which, in part, celebrates our state’s rich culture — has been full for weeks,” Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said. “Scheduling constraints simply wouldn’t allow a poem to be read.”…

One doubts that it was just a lack of time. But if the organizers were trying to make a point by leaving her out, I don’t know what the point was.

Unless, even though they hadn’t seen her finished poem (which you can read here), they knew she was someone who might write:

Here, where the Confederate flag still flies
beside the Statehouse, haunted by our past,
conflicted about the future; at the heart
of it, we are at war with ourselves

Not very “It’s a great day in South Carolina!,” is it?

M. said maybe it was those lines. But he thought it was more likely these:

“at Gadsden’s Wharf, where 100,000
Africans were imprisoned within brick walls
awaiting auction, death, or worse.
Where the dead were thrown into the water,

and the river clogged with corpses
has kept centuries of silence.
It is time to gather at the water’s edge,
and toss wreaths into this watery grave.”

M. thought that maybe “somebody considered that sort of imagery too much a downer” for “the governor’s own great day in South Carolina.”

I responded that maybe we could persuade the organizers to invite Randy Newman to sing this at the inaugural.

Of course, that would depend on them completely missing the irony.

M. loved that idea, which shows we can agree on something.

On another subject, I had forgotten that we HAD a poet laureate. How does one run for that?

What do y’all think of her poem? It occurs to me that maybe the organizers are poetry snobs, the sort who sneer at Poe (not likely, but possible). Even to me, Ms. Wentworth’s imagery and messages seem too plain and obvious — too… prosaic — and lacking a bit in pretentious profundity. And I’m no poetry snob. I love Poe’s driving rhythm and rhyme.

But what do y’all think?

17 thoughts on “The absence of SC’s poet laureate from inaugural

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    But I will say this: She certainly looks like a poet, and has a good name for a poet. If Hollywood wanted to present someone who was convincing as a state poet laureate, casting and wardrobe and makeup and the writers would together come up with Marjory Wentworth.

    A name, you know, can be destiny. When I first went to the offices of the campus newspaper at Memphis State and offered my services as a reporter, the editor said, “Brad Warthen — that’s a great byline name.”

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Editor’s note: That cartoon atop this post is a coincidence, based on Robert Ariail and I thinking alike. Robert saw this post, and emailed me to let me know he had just drawn this this morning. So I added it to the post.

    Almost like we’re still working together. I wish we were…

  3. Doug Ross

    I can see why they didn’t want the poem read. First, it sucks – a cacophony of liberal dog whistles and tortured symbolism (the cords that bind us are also river???) Second, it’s so utterly depressing and negative. Whatever the literary value of the poem may be, it’s completely inappropriate for what should be a positive event. It would be like the best man standing up to give a toast at a wedding and talking about what a slut the bride was.

    This passage is especially dense:

    “Picture us all, crowded onto a boat at the last bend in the river:
    watch children stepping off the school bus, parents late for work, grandparents fishing for favorite memories, teachers tapping their desks with red pens, firemen suiting up to save us, nurses making rounds, ”

    Are we on the boat watching all those events occur? How would that be possible? I preferred the Beatles version in Lucy In The Sky Witt Diamonds.

    Maybe there would have been time for a limerick:

    We’re here to salute our fine governor,
    Who most voters decided they’re lovin’ her,
    She trounced Vincent Sheheen,
    Who treated her mean.
    Poor Vinny’s no longer buggin’ her.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I confess, I prefer your poetry to hers. It has more wit and fire. Although I’m not going to be as mean about it as you, Doug. (And to think, some accuse ME of harshness.)

      I see that Andy Brack, in his Statehouse Report, laments the omission of the poem thusly: “It’s a crying shame that Haley and her administration couldn’t spare 140 seconds to hear the solid, passionate ring of Marjory Wentworth’s poem.”

      “Solid” may be a good way to describe the verses. “Stolid” may say it even better. I don’t know about the “passionate,” though. “Empathetic” and “passionate” don’t mean the same things…

      1. Juan Caruso

        “It’s a crying shame that Haley and her administration couldn’t spare 140 seconds to hear the solid, passionate ring of Marjory Wentworth’s poem.”

        Brack’s is an excellent contrast (sour grapes) to the paean we would be reading had Vinnie won and the public further bombarded by what Doug terms “a cacophony of liberal dog whistles and tortured symbolism”.

        Propaganda hurts everyone, sooner or later. S.C. poet laureate should be an honor for people capable of a robustly bipartisan critique (e,g. Robert Ariail). Otherwise, it amounts to patronage.

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    I think it is a shame that few of us read poetry any more. I read the poems in the New Yorker, and despite an English Lit degree, scratch my head over 90+% of them.
    But the Poet Laureate deal is weird. Great art seems as if it is seldom created by command, or on demand.
    Reading a poem at the Inauguration would mostly just irritate the attendees.

    1. Doug Ross

      If it don’t rhyme, it ain’t poetry.
      – d c ross

      My favorite poem?

      I eat my peas with honey,
      I’ve done it all my life,
      I know it may sound funny,
      but it keeps them on the knife.

      I also won a free dinner in third grade for memorizing a poem during our meal at an Dutch Pantry restaurant in the Amish area of Pennsylvania.. and for whatever reason, that poem has stuck in some dark recesses of my mind:

      Der distelfink is a lovely bird,
      His song is not loud, nor is it heard,
      But he’s my friend, voice or not,
      His presence here a happy lot.

      And due to the magic of the internet , I see I was correct!

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        You get a gold star!

        That reminds me of my initially humiliating experience in the 1st grade.

        I was forced to attend a private school in Norfolk that year because my birthday came two days late for the Oct. 1 cutoff, and my parents didn’t consider for a moment holding me back. It was a very accelerated school, academically. We were doing a lot of things that public schools didn’t do until a couple of years later, such as writing in cursive. I seem to recall being similarly advanced in math. (I got straight As, and thought that was normal. But then, I wasn’t challenged academically for another couple of years, and I slacked off. Then, late into the 3rd grade, we started getting to some new material, and it was a shock. I got my first C on a report card, and I felt like my life was ruined. My concept of myself as a good student was gone. I didn’t really study hard from then until I was halfway through college. What was the point? I’d already had a C.)

        Anyway, the first week, the teacher had us take turns standing before the class and reciting a poem. I happened to know a poem, so I got up and recited it. No sweat. I felt very erudite for being able to come up with a poem, just like that. I wasn’t yet 6 years old.

        The next week, she had us do it again. That being the only poem I know (I don’t remember what it was now), I got up and recited it again. See? I still remember it! This prompted a note to my parents. Turns out I was supposed to find and memorize a different poem each week.

        My mother, embarrassed for me, went out and bought an anthology of poems, and drilled me each week, the night before recitation day, until I had that week’s poem word-perfect.

        I wonder if I could do that now. My mind was such a sponge then…

        1. Doug Ross

          “I don’t remember what it was now”

          Did it start with “There once was a man from Nantucket”?

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          I tried to go back and relive MY childhood through the Internet, but failed. I remember the school as being called “Garrison Williams Academy.”

          The closest I could find in Norfolk is “The Williams School,” which was founded by a Virginia Garrison Williams. But there’s no mention of it ever having been called “Garrison Williams.”

          I THINK that’s it, but I can’t be 100 percent sure….

  5. Bryan Caskey

    My kind of poetry:

    If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
    It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
    Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
    There’s still time to change the road you’re on.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      It resonates…

      I like this, too:

      I was committed to life and then commuted to the outskirts
      With all the love in the world
      Living for thirty minutes at a time with a break in the middle for adverts…

      Meanwhile someone’s hiding in the classroom
      Forging the books of history
      Never mind there’s a good film showing tonight
      Where they hang everybody who can read and write
      Oh, that could never happen here, but then again it might…

      It’s not that impressive written, but it sounds great when sung by Elvis C.

  6. David Carlton

    Actually, I think it has its moments, especially the opening stanza. But then I’m a historian, and teach this stuff. But it is a little too obvious; Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” tackles a similar subject but does it with a twist of the knife.

  7. clark surrat

    The comments above remind me of this poem:

    “The facts we know are these;
    In 1803 Louis Pasteur
    Discovered a cure
    For which there was no known disease.”

  8. Doug Ross

    One other point – I think Haley’s spokesman made a big mistake in claiming that snubbing the poet laureate was due to a tight schedule. Why not be honest and tactful? It would have been better to say “We respect her work and her position as poet laureate, but we did not feel the tone of the poem was consistent with what we felt should be a celebratory event.”

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