HISTORY: Bennie Lee Sinclair, poet laureate

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S.C. Encyclopedia  | Bennie Lee Sinclair was born on April 15, 1939, in Greenville to Graham Sinclair and Bennie Ward. While she was in the first grade, her first published poem appeared in a teachers’ magazine. Overwhelmed by the attention she received, she stopped writing poetry and returned to it only after the deaths of her father and her brother. A 1956 graduate of Greenville High School, Sinclair entered Furman University, where she received her B.A. in English and later received the Distinguished Alumni Award in 1996. In 1957 she married Thomas Donald Lewis.

Sinclair

Gov. Richard Riley appointed Sinclair as poet laureate of South Carolina in 1986. The state’s fifth poet laureate and the third woman to serve in the role, she held the position for the remainder of her life. She taught writing at Furman University and gave workshops at the University of Notre Dame, Western Carolina University, and Brevard College. Her commitment to teaching poetry included a 28-year connection with the South Carolina Arts Commission through its Artists-in-the-Schools program. Additionally, she taught poetry at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. Sinclair promoted public appreciation for poetry via educational radio programs during National Poetry Month each April. She composed Coastal Carolina University’s alma mater in 1994 and wrote poems for formal state functions, most notably one for Gov. Jim Hodges’s inauguration in 1999, a poem that also celebrated the end of the millennium.

In addition to four books of poetry, Sinclair published short stories as well as a novel, The Lynching (1992), which was based on the state’s last lynching in 1947. She composed poems in her mind before writing them down and amazed everyone with her capacity for memorization. Sinclair died of a heart attack at her home, Wildernesse, near Cleveland, S.C., on May 22, 2000.

Excerpted from an entry by Rebecca Tolley-Stokes.   To read more about this or 2,000 other entries about South Carolina, check out The South Carolina Encyclopedia, published in 2006 by USC Press. (Information used by permission.)

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