Poetry Society of South Carolina
By Asimoula Alissandratos
The Gadsden GAB is a monthly publication that’s written by BG residents, for BG residents. Every two weeks, we’ll feature an article from the GAB on the Bishop Gadsden website. To read more, you can read the entire March edition here.
As an art form, poetry often combines the incongruous to offer new perspectives. The story of the Poetry Society of South Carolina (PSSC) also contains many paradoxes. One of the original founders of meetings to hear and discuss poetry was deaf. Two high school dropouts became authors and founders. Another founder repeatedly stepped down from years of service as president vowing not to return but did so ably every time there was need. The society’s name was at first more aspirational than descriptive: it was not statewide but concentrated in Charleston, specifically, South of Broad. And poetry was not always the subject. Eventually, the organization was led for several decades by professors not from the liberal arts The College of Charleston, but from the military academy, The Citadel.
The PSSC was incorporated in 1920 and modeled on the decade-earlier Poetry Society of America (in New York). But in imitable Charleston fashion, it was the first state poetry society in the U.S. The founders shared an interest in poetry as well as genealogical and/or social ties. Their era inherited the previous century’s European custom of small gatherings in salons to hear poetry, together with the education and sensibility to appreciate it.
The founders. Two independent groups–male and female–planted the seeds. Three men met to read and critique poetry. Dubose Heyward, the sickly descendant of a signer of the U.S. Constitution and later the author of Porgy, wanted to be a writer but had stopped school to work odd jobs after his father’s early death. Heyward found a mentor in John Bennett, an Ohio native, who married into a prominent Charleston family. He too was a high school dropout, but worked at a newspaper and became an author. A perfectionist of many talents, he penned Master Skylark, a popular children’s book. Hervey Allen, a wounded World War I veteran and impressively intelligent published poet, moved to Charleston from Pittsburgh, where he had graduated from the eponymous university and after writing Anthony Adverse. This threesome formed a writers’ group where they vigorously critiqued each other’s work.
Laura Bragg, the Massachusetts-born graduate of Simmons College and daughter of a Methodist minister, overcame illness and loss of hearing at age six to be hired as librarian of the Charleston Museum, where she earned respect as an innovator before being appointed Director. Only while recovering from the Spanish flu did she become interested in poetry, which she pursued enthusiastically by starting a women’s group to read and discuss poetry. Two Ashley Hall graduates participated: Elizabeth Myers, future wife of Charleston Mayor and U.S. Senator Burnet Maybank and later one of 12 charter members of the Charleston Junior League, together with Josephine Pinckney, whom Bragg mentored and whose quite wealthy mother had rejected Dubose Heyward as a suitor for her daughter. The group also included Helen von Kolnitz Hyer, another Simmons graduate and museum employee with a talent for poetry, together with Elizabeth Miles, an educator. Underpaid, Bragg entered a Boston marriage with Isabel Bowen Heyward, Dubose Heyward’s distant cousin, who nursed Bragg during her convalescence from the Spanish flu and hosted their poetry meetings.
The two groups discovered each other and combined as the PSSC, grew and thrived locally and added a few non-resident members. During this post-World War I time, poetry was popular, especially among writers and the social set. The Social Register listed all of the founding members in 1920, except Miles and Allen, and approximately 25% of the more than 200 members that decade. A later cliché from 1930 described the PSSC as 10% poetry and 90% society. Downtown socialized to rhyme and rhythm.
The activities. In its 1920s heyday, the PSSC held monthly meetings, except in summer. Heyward and Allen produced the first book of poems out of the Writers’ Group. Carl Sandburg and Stephen Vincent Benét were guest speakers before becoming famous. Prizes were awarded to competitors. An annual gala in December brought out the membership in very formal attire. Members included many of the city’s leaders. One was Clelia Peronneau McGowan, who joined the Writers’ Group, wrote a book of poems, participated in the suffragette movement, served as president of the city’s League of Women Voters, and served as the first woman appointed to any position in the state, and she was the first woman elected to Charleston’s City Council. On the South Carolina Board of Education, she worked to improve African American education. She also acquired grants to fund the new Charleston Free Library.
Poetry resurgence and membership growth. The first half of the fifties expanded membership through incipient outreach. Some lectures were opened to the general public, and education received more emphasis. Nationally acclaimed poets like W. H. Auden visited. The work of several members, like that of the perennial winner of PSSC prizes Charlestonian Katherine Drayton Mayrant Simons, was published in Contemporary Verse, edited by a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In the mid-fifties, John Doyle became President for several years and eventually broke the record for longevity on the board. The prizes awarded to American authors by the PSSC, which had shrunken to only two during the war years, were expanded to 24. By the late fifties, however, membership was again being restricted. New applicants had to be endorsed by two members to prevent unwanted, specifically African American, intrusion. In contrast to the first years of the PSSC, women were outnumbered by men and unmarried women by married ones. Unusually, during the fifties no women gave lectures. The sixties began to reverse that.
Women’s return. In 1960, women not only read but opened the season for four consecutive years. In 1963, Katherine D. M. Simons, one of the most frequent prize recipients, became President at the age of 73, but even at the end of the decade, her last prize-winning poem dealt with Helen of Troy, a centuries old topic. In the 1970s, Helen von Kolnitz Hyer, one of the original members became president and then shortly thereafter, South Carolina’s first female Poet Laureate.
This is just the beginning of our dive into the Poetry Society of South Carolina… check the April GAB next month to read even more about this fascinating group and its history.