ON POETRY, PRESIDENTS, & AMANDA GORMAN.
Poetry is the first, best, and oldest communicator of the feelings that are otherwise impossible to fathom. Poems are also the best way to communicate events that have passed long before our time. Every culture across the globe, across all times, has their epics which still resonate today.
In more modern times, the Truth of America during the mid-1800s is best told through the words of Whitman. In current times, we look to The Shaper in Gardner’s Grendel: “The Shaper represents the power of art and imagination to change people’s perceptions about themselves and the world in which they live.”
Poetry works because it does not rely only on words’ meanings. It works on sounds; of words against each other and of silence and as the words stand alone. It works because of rhythm and tempo and timbre.
Several presidents have recognized the power of poetry.
JFK chose Robert Frost. Frost read “The Gift Outright.” It is a poem of American Exceptionalism that is more than a little repugnant today. When he asked Frost to read, JFK chose a man near to himself- a Northern East Coast patrician — a white man, an old white man — to speak his truth for him.
Clinton chose Maya Angelou, who read “On the Pulse of Morning.” In essence, her work was a repudiation of Frost’s. In addition, Maya, a Black woman, was also older, 65 at the time of her reading, a woman who had lived already a dozen lives. Her poem spoke of anger and change as she looked back at her life.
Biden and Harris chose Amanda Gorman. She will be 23 in March. The poems of Frost and Angelou pale, as faded white as newspaper ashes, against Gordon’s work.
Without rhythm, a poem cannot soar. Gorman, growing up in the hip-hop era of spoken word poetry, possesses a rhythm that Frost could not imagine and Angelou could not grasp.
Gorman’s rhymes are exquisite-they are clever and deep.
Her words, as we hear them bump up against each other, are most memorable. Her silences speak as loudly as Wu-Tang and Rage Against the Machine ever played.
Most importantly, Gorman manages to look back and forwards simultaneously. A young woman, she sees the evil and hate in the past, yet her message of hope and self-reliance is wildly inspirational.
Exceptional stuff. If she never writes another piece in her life, Amanda Gorman will be remembered for writing this piece in the time in this place.
As a poet, I am thankful for her — she flew higher than the sun — as she has returned poetry to the eyes and ears of Americans.