“Get me the Girl Who Writes about Trees”
Author: Paul deVere
“O.K., class. Who is the poet laureate of South Carolina?”
A young student raises his hand.
Gerald, not used to public speaking, blushes slightly. “Ma’am, what’s a poet laureate?”
What, indeed. And who?
Unless you subscribe to The New Yorker magazine (0.3 percent of the U.S. population), the only “poetry” most Americans are exposed to are the horrid courses students are required to take (“Please analyze Stanza II in Ode to a Grecian Urn.”) to the equally horrid, “heartfelt” verse in a greeting card. So it is not surprising the title “poet laureate” doesn’t ring a bell with most folks.
“Most people don’t know what it means,” said Marjory Heath Wentworth, South Carolina’s current poet laureate. “They just like the sound of it. ‘Poet laureate, cool.’”
A very dry definition of a poet laureate is “a poet officially appointed by a government and often expected to compose poems for state occasions and other government events.” That is what Wentworth does. However, she’s anything but “dry.” Her latest book, Despite Gravity, published in October of this year, tackles everything from simple home life to the dreaded dictator, Idi Amin. And she does a great deal more.
Wentworth was appointed South Carolina poet laureate by Gov. Mark Sanford in 2003 for his first inaugural. Actually, Sanford was reviving a long-practiced tradition, dating back to 1934, of having the state’s poet laureate read an inaugural poem. Ironically, when Sanford’s staff went looking for the state’s poet laureate, they learned she had died three years earlier.
“Then get me that girl who writes poetry about trees,” Sanford was said to have told his staff. “That girl” was Wentworth. She had gained a wide reputation for her poetry featuring the natural world of the Lowcountry.
So, other than the inaugural, what does the poet laureate do? “This is an honorary, lifetime position,” Wentworth explained. “You aren’t given any instructions, so I define the role. I represent the state at various events, give college graduations speeches, and act as a kind of liaison between the arts community and the government. Like on the Arts Advocacy Day in February in Columbia. I asked Mark to speak to the arts community, and he showed up. The people felt like he wanted to hear what they had to say and he made the time,” Wentworth said. “That’s never happened before.”
It was on that day when Wentworth remembered, that she walked across the street with the governor, from one building to another, to get lunch. “I mean, we were just crossing the street and there were all these people around him, security, aides, media. I asked him, ‘Do you ever, like, just go to the grocery store?’ He looked at me and cracked up.”
While Wentworth’s “real job,” as she calls it, is book promotion, she does hear from teachers about the state of poetry today. “I think it’s full of contradictions. In some ways there is an awful lot of interest in poetry. More people are writing it, publishing it, performing it. Charleston has become a real center,” she said.
“On the other hand, in the marketplace, poetry has no value. Right after September 11, people started reading poems and sending poems to each other on the Internet, putting them on the memorials in Washington and Pennsylvania and New York City. What was that about? I remember Billy Collins (National poet laureate until 2003) saying that poets are like goalies in a hockey game. Everyone ignores them until someone is about to score. Suddenly the goalie is the most important person on the ice. That’s exactly true. When else do we hear poetry but at weddings and funerals?” Wentworth said.
“Teachers tell me this over and over again. They’re intimidated by poetry because they weren’t taught it well themselves. You’ve got to allow students to get connected to poetry, to put it in context they will appreciate,” said Wentworth. “One of my favorite moments in graduate school was when I had [instructor] Dennis Donahue; he was a great critic. We started with T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland [author’s note: considered one of Eliot’s most complicated poems] Donahue said, ‘I want you to forget everything you know about Wasteland. This is a poem about a really bad marriage.’”
When Wentworth is not on the road for the state, working at her “real job” as a book publicist, giving readings and classes about her own poetry, or writing her poetry column for the Charleston Post and Courier, she is busy with a free therapeutic program for cancer patients she founded called Expressions of Healing. It is held at the Roper St. Francis Cancer Center in Charleston. “I started the program 10 years ago. I approached the Roper Foundation and they said yes. I was 12 or 13 when my dad got cancer,” she said. The “students” create art and poetry to move through the healing process.
“I work with an art therapist. We have two eight-week sessions a year. People come who are in the middle of treatment and post treatment. It even could be somebody who’s a widow, anyone who’s life is impacted by cancer. I learn from them. It’s a privilege. It’s great. It’s about process, not product,” Wentworth said.
But poetry is Wentworth’s life—her writing life. “This is an interesting, strange time. As we move faster, we need poetry more. We crave moments of stillness, reflection. We just don’t get them. That’s when I find people are turned on to poetry. They love that. There’s so little in life where you can stop. And think.”
Marjory Wentworth’s new book, Despite Gravity, was published by Ninety-Six Press. (http://facweb.furman.edu/~wrogers/96Press/dg.htm).