David Lauderdale

State's poet laureate prepares for third inauguration

A lot of water has tumbled from the mountains to the sea since Marjory Heath Wentworth first stood on the Statehouse steps to read an inaugural poem.

In January 2003, the Lowcountry poet was a last-minute savior when incoming Gov. Mark Sanford realized he was inheriting a state without a poet laureate. Her "Rivers of Wind" embraced the metaphor of rivers uniting us as they run from the foothills to the ocean.

Three months later, Sanford appointed Wentworth to the lifetime position of state poet laureate. At his second inauguration, Wentworth's "The World Is Green Again" swooped directly down on Lowcountry images of oaks and ospreys.

On Wednesday, when Nikki Haley becomes the first woman to take the oath in South Carolina's 95th inaugural ceremony, the Lowcountry's poetic voice will again grace the dais. Wentworth plans to read the fresh words of a poem called "The Weight It Takes." She said it's another landscape-based metaphor, because it is the land that South Carolinians love.

"It's celebratory," she said, "and hopefully wise."

Wentworth showed a draft to her friend Jenny Sanford. Jenny and Mark Sanford both will be at the inaugural, said Wentworth, who found herself a reluctant media contact when the Sanford marriage publicly crumbled in 2009.

Jenny Sanford sent back a note of encouragement on the new poem: "Good for the times and challenges we face."

When Wentworth traveled from Mount Pleasant to meet Haley for the first time in preparation for the inaugural, she was hugged at the door. Wentworth says she found herself engaged with a smart, warm, personable, enthusiastic, interested person very willing to crunch numbers. They talked for 15 minutes about how the film industry, which drew the poet laureate's family to South Carolina in 1989 from her native Northeast, has sadly died in this state.

Wentworth knows that poetry can rejuvenate.

She has long used poetry as therapy in a cancer ward, just as it was therapy for her through a long childhood illness, and the loss of her father when she was 14.

She also knows poems can educate. She and poet Carol Ann Davis started the Lowcountry Initiative for the Literary Arts in Charleston to promote and connect writers and readers.

To her, poetry is more than pretty images. It must give voice to the voiceless, which Wentworth now tries to do for refugees around the globe.

As a people, we turn to poems to mourn, but also to celebrate. The Bible stands as the timeless piece at an inauguration. But like water flowing to the sea, a good Lowcountry poet somehow makes us understand that everything will be all right.