The Basement Poetry Reading Comes To the Capitol (And No, That’s Not A Compliment)

It is said that you cannot judge someone “so young” with the same yardstick of measurement that you would someone more mature, more established in their field. With 22-year-old Amanda Gorman’s poetry reading at Joe Biden’s inauguration, however, that becomes something of a tall order. Her delivery of the roughly six-minute long “The Hill We Climb” felt, by and large, rough-hewn, as though we were in the basement at an open mic night in Brooklyn (back when such congregations were allowed). But Gorman is not from Brooklyn. No, she’s from Los Angeles. And being that California has so few representative writers (basically, Joan Didion–for the really well-versed, Eve Babitz), it’s all the more important that the lackadaisical stereotype about the state is not upheld.  

Yet it seemed Gorman could have stood in front of that podium and said just about anything, recited the menu of a restaurant for all the audience cared. The important thing was, she ticked all the boxes on the Biden-Harris agenda of playing it by the book from now on in terms of how equality and diversity are represented. Represented being the operative word, for that does not mean inequality and division won’t continue to persist. Just as everyone seemed to believe December 31, 2020 turning to January 1, 2021 would magically solve coronavirus and all the other ills it put a glaring spotlight on, so, too, does everyone seem to think that the transition from Trump to Biden will serve as a magic wand for American society’s woes. As though the Doctrine of Trump and all who still adhere to it have been wondrously wiped from the Earth. If that’s the case, it’s nothing more than a sleight of hand, for they are still here, just waiting for their next “in.” 

Still, we have Amanda Gorman, embodying the youth and diversity angles this administration seeks to promote as part of a more “longview” agenda for the U.S., and, in turn, the world at large, which, for whatever reason, still can’t help but uphold America as an example of something. What that something is, at this juncture, is hard to say. But it seems to be, more than ever, a matter of righting the wrongs of white supremacists past. And all whites have been guilty of benefitting from that supremacist’s mentality, regardless of whether they’re on the extreme spectrum of donning a certain white hood or not. That said, the decision to select Gorman to read from “The Hill We Climb” was a calculated move in every regard. The only thing more calculated would have been to get Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to read “We Should All Be Feminists.” But 1) Adichie is a bona fide talent who took a less indolent approach to literature by actually writing fiction and 2) it would have been something of a lie to spout how a feminist is “the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.” For that is not what America truly believes, even still. If they did, a puppet president in the form of an old white man would not have needed to be the entity required to get a woman of color into the White House. Or to “sanction” a woman of color reading at his inauguration. 

The decision to count himself among only the fourth president (all of the previous ones being Democrats as well, for we know the Repubs ain’t much for book learnin’) to select an inaugural poet also makes it easy to compare her delivery to the others that came before her. The most recent prior to 2021 being the 2013 inauguration (at which Joe B was also present, bien sûr), called “One Today” by Richard Blanco, reading in steadfast form. This was also a poem that would speak to the theme of the immigrant struggle and looking to a brighter future via the lines, “And always one moon like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop and every window, of one country—all of us— facing the stars hope—a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it—together.” At Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander was read. Performed with an at times shaky tone, Alexander sustained her confidence for the majority of the poem, acknowledging the U.S.’ dark past and alluding to the idea that immeasurable amounts of Black blood had to spill before a Black man could be president. Thus, “Say it plain: that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.”

Before her, there was Miller Williams in 1997, offering “Of History and Hope” in a dry, pedantic tone. It would, in fact, be the perfect smash cut to go from his reading to Gorman’s to show how far the U.S. has come in twenty-four years with its increasing increments of “wokeness.” More variations on a rather tired motif are bandied–which is rather difficult to believe, considering how few poets have taken the inauguration stage, yet only seem to want to repurpose the same message. In Williams’ case, “But where are we going to be, and why, and who? The disenfranchised dead want to know. We mean to be the people we meant to be, to keep on going where we meant to go. But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how except in the minds of those who will call it Now? The children. The children.”

It was 1993’s inauguration, during which Clinton resuscitated the too long dormant trend that had been started by fellow philanderer and ladies’ man John F. Kennedy at his ‘61 inauguration, that Maya Angelou spoke. Against Robert Frost before her, who read the colonial-happy “The Gift Outright,” Angelou towers over him with her own poem. Without equivocation, it was her message–and the manner it was carried–that made it the most memorable and superlative of the inauguration offerings. This, too, would make a striking smash cut to Gorman, who does not bear such talent (though who’s to say she won’t in the future?–even though, in one’s experience, talent is not something that can be “worked on” if it’s not there. “Not there” also pertains to ho-hum abilities). It is Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” that resonates even more in the present–“arriving on a nightmare, praying for a dream,” being just one of the standout lines from her take on an appropriate poetical and political assessment of America. And it is her lines that Gorman does her best to disguise as her own in “In This Place (An American Lyric)” via the following:

“…a poem by the people, the poor,
the Protestant, the Muslim, the Jew,
the native, the immigrant,
the black, the brown, the blind, the brave,
the undocumented and undeterred,
the woman, the man, the nonbinary,
the white, the trans,
the ally to all of the above
and more?”

She then blows it in her emulation with, “Tyrants fear the poet./Now that we know it/we can’t blow it./We owe it/to show it/not slow it/although it/hurts to sew it/when the world/skirts below it.” Have you gotten your overpriced drink at the bar yet to further re-create the feeling of that basement?

At the time of his own inauguration, Clinton was coming from a similar place as Biden is now, wanting to reflect America as it truly is in tapping Angelou to read. Of course, the obvious difference is that she was Maya Angelou, established, poised and at the top of her game. And so we go back to Gorman in contrast, patently not chosen based on “talent” alone. It would be one thing if she was young, Black and genuinely gifted. But there is an overt lack with regard to this latter category that her age and appearance have duped many people into believing otherwise, and because to believe otherwise would make them either racist, contrarian or “empty inside” and unable to “feel” the poetry, no one says anything about how it isn’t really that good. And if we want to talk about young and gifted poets worth their weight in arrogance, one needs only look to Rimbaud, who would have pulled his pants down and farted in the face of an invitation to write an inauguration poem (especially if it was for Macron). Furthermore, the sentiments about “the future” and “the children” being expressed by Gorman would have been better served by simply reading from Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All”: “I believe the children are our future/Teach them well and let them lead the way/Show them all the beauty they possess inside/Give them a sense of pride to make it easier/Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be/Everybody’s searching for a hero/People need someone to look up to/I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs/A lonely place to be/And so I learned to depend on me.” That at least bears a somewhat honest depiction of life, and a need for self-sufficiency. 

While part of the praise for Gorman’s poem stemmed from people believing she addressed some of the nation’s ugly truths (most recently reaching an apex with the Capitol riots), more than anything, she seemed to gloss over them with a Pollyanna outlook. While one understands that “negativity” (a.k.a. addressing reality) is not what anybody wants to hear during an inauguration, a complete break with pragmatism is not great either, as manifest in the lines: “That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.” Um, is she watching the same tape as everyone else? Sowing division is literally a daily part of American existence, whether conscious or not. To say we’ll never do it again is tantamount to delusion (we’re doing it as we take this very breath). Particularly if the Orange One is ever permitted to take office again, should he somehow eke by the full effects of his second impeachment. In truth, this is a nation more divided than ever, and it won’t likely change over the course of Biden’s presidency, if at all.    

Other indications of a psychotic break include, “But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.” Did she want to run over to China or Russia and say that? It’s at this moment, one must pause to ask: is the poem actually good? (she rhymes “knew it” with “do it,” “right” with “birthright”–for fuck’s sake, why not just go broke with “poet” and “don’t know it”? Oh wait, she actually already did in the aforementioned “In This Place [An American Lyric]”). Or are people, more and more, becoming willingly susceptible to the idea that anyone who conveys a poem with conviction and happens to be a color that indicates being well-acquainted with strife is, well, “exceptional” in that art form? What’s more, we have the likes of Instagram poetry (fucking r.m. drake) to thank for this increasing devolution in quality, therefore people’s standards of what quality actually is. In this sense, many would simply argue that Gorman is the appropriate poet to mirror the times we live in, the one who can help us “move forward” (while summarily making literature move backward). Who wants some stodgy old person (“old,” these days, being “not twenty-two”) talking about anything, let alone America? Especially if they’re not of a certain age and couleur (Greta T is going to need to move out of the way pretty soon on both counts).

The institutions that decide what is “high art” in the present are, let’s be honest with ourselves, constantly allowing politics to overshadow objectivity in judging what quality is. As time goes on, that’s only going become the less and less challenged norm. Hence, the bizarrely effusive reaction to Gorman’s words, made all the more charming to people when presented with the backstory about her childhood speech impediment (also designed to render the Duke of Hastings endearing in Bridgerton). Gorman’s work being based entirely on identity politics also indicates a certain immediate nullification of the Biden-Harris intention of promoting unity. For there really can’t be that much of it so long as we’re all focused on what one’s “background” is. 

“Wow, how’s that for a national debut? We will all remember when we heard Amanda Gorman speak to the world as America’s first national youth poet laureate,” the commentator concluded as Gorman walked away from the podium. Here, too, we see that youth plays into people being impressed, “bowled over.” For even something as simple as reading a poem against the backdrop of an inauguration becomes more “awe-inspiring” when you’re youthful. Youth also buys you the “getting away with it” card on a cadence and rhythm that deliberately draws attention away from what is being said for the sake of attempting to sound Shakespearean, yet only coming across as a slam poetry proponent.

And once again, those who would dare to pick apart the poem and its delivery would be left to feel like Amber in Clueless when she says, “Hello? Am I the only one who thought it reeked?” Or, at best, was “fine”–something you’d see, again, in the basement at an open mic night. Alas, to say something so sacrilegious is to be classified as not “brave enough” to see the “light.” And so we have Rupi Kaur as a best-selling poet. Who knows it.

2 thoughts on “The Basement Poetry Reading Comes To the Capitol (And No, That’s Not A Compliment)

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more. It wasn’t poetry. Given her youth, I suppose we have to forgive her naivete, but it was a great opportunity to feature a genuine poet who might shake things up a little with art (or at least an attack on corporate America) and they blew it. Didn’t expect any different of course but one always (well, sometimes) has hope. Bravo on the excellent writing of this. Needs to be seen by a larger audience.

  2. I think anyone who has written to prompt has an idea that it’s not an easy task.  And I imagine it would be far more stressful for someone at Amanda’s age, especially for such a monumental event, at this juncture in history.  
    From her interview at CNN, I believe she got news of her being chosen as the inauguration poet toward the end of December, which left her with about three weeks to write this piece, and we all know how crazy that period had been.  
    Aside from that, the fact that she is African-American must have been an added weight for her, given the momentous occasion of also celebrating the first female VP of Africa-Asian-American descent, after so many generations of traumas experienced by those in the African-American community, especially given the way last year’s events seemed to have put a giant spotlight on those, with the disproportionate COVID deaths and the extra-egregious police executions. 
    In addition to the added layers of race, gender, age and brevity of time, being an inaugural poet at this moment in history also meant Amanda was tasked with not only having to resonate with an incredibly divided nation, after four years of non-stop drama, but also becoming a symbol for the future of America on a world stage, where many people from numerous nations were as nervous about the direction in which the USA has been heading.
    At the same time, as you’ve noted, her poem is not the best-written piece and it definitely could have used more revisions.  What I think she did truly well was to tap into the need of people for words of assurance and inspiration, and the gorgeous lines her poem is peppered with definitely caught people’s hearts where they needed them.  
    I think it is important to take all the circumstances surrounding the writing of her poem into consideration and I don’t think it’s fair to have compared Amanda with much more seasoned poets, like Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Alexander or Richard Blanco, who were all more than twice her age when they took the inaugural stage, or even the young Rimbaud, who definitely had the benefit of white-male-stable-economic-background privilege of his time (or even this time if he were alive now).
    Amanda was the first National Youth Poet Laureate. I think that mirrored well the fact that Kamala Harris is the first female VP and will serve as a role-model for many young girls and women, especially in BIPOC communities, in an age where there is still a dearth of those who hold positions of power.
    Like it or not, an inauguration poet must come in a well-rounded package and their work need to speak to a diversity of people who, more likely than not, will not be as well-versed with poetry as those in the literary world.

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