The Poetry Society of South Carolina offers hope, connection during isolation
Story and photo by Jonathan Shipley
“Beauty,” poet Edna St. Vincent Millay said, “is whatever brings joy.”
Founded 100 years ago, the Poetry Society of South Carolina has given joy to generations of word lovers in the low country and beyond.
“Poetry offers deep meaning,” says society President Jim Lundy, who is working on a book of the society’s history. “Particularly in this age of COVID, poetry offers solace, hope, and a connection to others.”
Based in Charleston and started in October 1920, the Poetry Society of South Carolina is the oldest state poetry society in America. Other states have based their own societies on the one in South Carolina.
Just months after its founding, Carl Sandburg did a reading. Gertrude Stein has read for the society. Amy Powell, too. Edna St. Vincent Millay brought her joys to the society’s stage. Robert Frost came not once, but thrice. Pulitzer Prize- winner Henry S. Taylor has read for the society, as has Billy Collins—former poet laureate of the United States.
Jim came to poetry from humble beginnings. He says he has enjoyed reading it since childhood. Jim didn’t write poetry, but appreciated as Frost waxed eloquent about birches and Sandburg wrote about the hog butchers of the world.
The same rings true among the society’s approximately 150 members.
“The majority of our members aren’t poets, per se,” Jim says. “They like poetry. They like hearing it, being around it.”
This isn’t to say South Carolina isn’t full of writers scribbling in Charleston coffee shops, Myrtle Beach cottages, or Orangeburg student union buildings. Poet Nikky Finney is from Conway. Terrance Hayes is from Columbia.
Marjory Heath Wentworth is the state’s current poet laureate.
Jim makes special note of three poets who have all died but had strong ties to the society. Beatrice Witte Ravenel was a founding member and a leader of the Charleston Renaissance—a period between World Wars I and II that saw a boom in artists, architects, historians, and writers.
Helen von Kolnitz Hyer was also a founding member and the state’s second poet laureate. Her writing often focused on South Carolina’s history and Confederate heroes. Her work appeared in such publications as Argosy and The Christian Science Monitor.
Society member Susan Laughter Myers was circulating a manuscript titled “Self-Portrait in the River of Déjà vu” when she died in 2017. The piece was published posthumously by Press 53.
COVID-19 has brought a silver lining to the organization.
“Now that we’re going all virtual, we’ve been able to expand our reach across the state and beyond,” Jim says, noting members can reach the cottage writers in Myrtle Beach and the students in Orangeburg.
The society has started a YouTube channel to showcase readings, and offers workshops and contests with cash prizes. It pays the poets to read, so membership helps bring writers to the stage—writers with much to say.
“Write the poem only you can write,” former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins implores.