South Carolina cannot spare the four minutes it would take to hear a poem by the state poet laureate at Gov. Nikki Haley’s inauguration Wednesday.
So our paint-by-number ignorance will flap in the wind with the Confederate flag nearby.
And we will have missed the whole point of the poet’s role in a free society.
Ditching the poem, painstakingly written for the occasion, is not a personal thing, said Marjory Wentworth of Mount Pleasant. She has been the state poet laureate since 2003 and has read original work for the previous three inaugurations.
Event organizers scratched her before reading the poem, “One River, One Boat.”
“It wasn’t anything like ‘We don’t like your poem,’ ” Wentworth told the (Charleston) Post and Courier. “It’s not personal. It’s not something that is on their radar. I don’t make judgment. I just wasn’t going to be included.”
It may have saved her some boos and hisses, if not worse. Her blunt, graphic words about the state’s role in the tragedy of slavery, and the racism that the prominent Confederate flag symbolizes, have been silenced.
If you think the poet is an outside agitator stirring up negativity when she should be reading from Dr. Seuss, you haven’t been watching the news lately. Mankind needs to narrow some great divides, and poets can help.
John F. Kennedy was the first to invite a poet to be part of a presidential inauguration. Robert Frost wrote a poem for the day, but then couldn’t see to read it in the glare of fresh snow. He instead recited “The Gift Outright.”
It lent an air that our new president was a man of culture, and that we were a refined people.
But in Kennedy’s own words, Frost’s role was much more important. When the popular poet died two years later, Kennedy talked about that role in a program to honor Frost at Amherst College.
“In honoring Robert Frost,” he said, “we therefore can pay honor to the deepest sources of our national strength. That strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.”
The poet stands “against an intrusive society and an officious state,” Kennedy said. “The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a lover’s quarrel with the world.”
That quarrel strengthens the state.
“In free society, art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology,” Kennedy said.
“Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But in democratic society, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may.
“In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having ‘nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.’ ”
But here in South Carolina, we don’t have four minutes to spare for any of that.