Democracy Needs Poetry: The Controversy Around Amanda Gorman’s Inauguration Poem

I’ve known Amanda Gorman since she was sixteen.

When Amanda Gorman was announced as the United States’ first Youth Poet Laureate and invited to read at the Inauguration, I was thrilled and not totally surprised. Amanda is someone I have known since she was 16 in a weekend poetry workshop I taught through California Poets in the Schools. It’s rare to see someone you’ve casually passed by in the grubby stairwells of public buildings suddenly showing up in the national spotlight. Watching her appear next to John Baptiste and Oprah and Lady Gaga has been kind of a trip.

Amanda has always been what we in the teaching industry refer to as “a force.” She had come to poetry long before I met her, and like many of my students she already had her own light turned on before I started opening my yap about line-breaks and metaphor. We were pleased to include one of her poems “Disaster Charming” in our book Method and Mystery, and I knew she had ambitions to change the world for the better, but I had no idea she would go so far so fast.

It’s been a real pleasure to watch her rise. It’s natural that I was proud to watch her perform. It’s natural the first thing I did after was post about it on Facebook, and it’s natural that when I saw some negative comments about her poem on social media, I went into a blind rage. A small, but vocal proponent have accused the poem of being trite, of pandering to an audience, or of being more like a political speech than a true poem.

I found myself breaking my rule about not engaging with trolls online to try to talk sense to these naysayers… It was, you’ll be stunned to hear, a waste of time, except that it got me thinking more reflectively and honestly about what bothered me so much about their comments. Other notable poets, like Jericho Brown, said to lay off because writing, “poems written for a specific occasion are, “Always a mess.” Tim Green asked why she couldn’t read something like “Sestina for My Sisters” which is a more artistically sound poem but probably wouldn’t have been appropriate for the setting.

I noticed that there seems to be a break between two schools of thought, one that wants to keep poetry pure and elevated as high art, and another that simply values the act of people expressing themselves and are less critical of the mode or intended audience.

 

The Best Thing Poetry Can Teach Us is to Listen and Be Humble

What bothers me most about these critiques is the narrowness of their vision. How arrogant it is to decide, “I know what is good poetry and bad poetry; I am the arbiter of the human heart and what it needs and wants.” We’ve been through years of one man on the national stage saying that “he alone understands” any particular problem and “he alone can fix it.” We live in a world where people are deeper and deeper in their faction, choosing bubbles, refusing to communicate or concede opinions, or even listen to alternate view-points.

Too many believe that their chosen culture, values, belief system or institutions are just better than others, and that they have a right and a clarity of vision that allows them to know who is on the wrong side and insult them or worse. Just as demagogues prey on the insecurities of others, turning their despair to hatred, so too I think this urge to belittle the poetry of others springs from our own insecurities, our fear that we are not good enough, or our anger that nobody recognizes what we have to offer.

As JFK wrote:

When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement. The artists, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.

I don’t think this statement applies only to poets in the moment they are writing poetry. To live as a poet, or as an artist, means putting yourself in a place of humility, receptivity, and constant ambiguity. A lack of ability to inhabit another’s perspective makes you not only a poor artist, but a poorer person and a worse citizen of a democracy.

The job of the artist is to see multiple layers of meaning, to fight against simple distinctions or easy categorization. It is to live with ambiguity and a level of humility, knowing that our limited perceptions are… limited. (This might shock some artists you know). This kind of open-mindedness and acceptance of others is necessary not only to making art, but to living in a society of differing voices.

 

Why is it So Hard to Live with Ambiguity?

 As any of us who have ever taught poetry know, a lot of people are afraid of it. They feel they aren’t clever enough to write it, and vastly more feel they aren’t clever enough to understand it. This doesn’t always go away when a person starts writing or getting published or even winning awards. Sometimes a little success or a little knowledge can actually make us more arrogant or harder on ourselves.

When I was a newer poet, and started learning some of the “rules” and techniques of poetry, I got quite fanatical about putting other poets into categories and pointing out their shortcomings. If a poet used a generality, if there were too many abstract nouns, if their work was cliché, I was quick to stand on my soapbox and denounce them.

Among the poets I decried then were Rumi, Longfellow, and Mary Oliver.

What was I so mad about? Why was I so quick to throw them out? . . . The truth is, I was insecure. I didn’t have any clue what poetry was, why I was drawn to it, or how to write a good poem myself. I wanted to believe that there were rules, and as soon as I found anything that resembled a rule, I clung to it as though it would save me from the sea of doubt in which I was drowning. I wanted guidance and a feeling of security.

More importantly, I wanted to be part of the club – the “good” poets who knew what they were doing – just the way some people want to be the King of El Dorado and have access to all that elusive gold. It wasn’t just that I was unsure about my poetry specifically. I was unsure about what it meant to be a poet at all. I wanted something to separate what I was doing from what the teenager in her notebook was doing.

As I grew more adept at using poetic technique and saw my work published more often, I became less of a judgmental romantic and more of a “real poet” doing something I believed in. Brendan Constantine said in our podcast interview with him:

I used to be militant about putting art in camps, ‘This is the GOOD art, and that’s the BAD art, and the good art should be celebrated. The bad art should be shunned…’ Life got easier when I realized that truth is in fact mutable. The truth does move. There may be a time where this is the case again… Edna St. Vincent Milay keeps getting kicked out of the club, then voted president. I will go on the record and say I like her. Go ahead. Despise me.

 

The Two Camps of American Poets Today

Poets are always getting sidelined. If you want to reach the top of the pile you are mainly trying to write for other well-studied poets who are looking for the things you treasure – a fresh use of language, a complicated thought, something to startle. For a long time people did this for the love of poetry itself, maybe with some small hope that they would have a legacy of books in their wake and a small but loyal following of readers.

However, as poetry becomes more “commodified” via social media followings that result in well-trafficked books, people are seeing happen to poetry the same thing that happens to anything bought and sold in the marketplace. It’s becoming competitive. It’s becoming something you can sell and measure, in ways that identify the writer as popular or unpopular.

This causes a variety of problems, and I believe encourages the kind of upset and backlash we’re seeing against Amanda Gorman. For lots of poets, poetry is the place where they feel like they have solid footing, where their talents are valued. This is the one place where people care if your metaphor is fresh, if your image is precise. It’s literally the one place in the whole world where anyone is going to compliment you on slant rhyme.

They want to keep it special and small and manageable. If non-poets enter, it will upset the balance. There will be mayhem. Chaos. Plus, we won’t be able to compete. If we say that, “Rap is poetry, song is poetry, etc.” how can the “real poets” compete in that much wider field?

More people watch the news than watch poetry readings or poetry slams. It’s no wonder they feel a little snubbed.

 

Can we Challenge America to Appreciate Poetry More?

Don’t get me wrong about all this. Many, if not most poets are thrilled about and for Amanda Gorman. In some ways we’re always excited when a poet is in the national eye. It makes us all look so much more relevant. People who have no interest in or idea what I do are coming up to me exclaiming, “You KNOW that young woman? I saw her on television. She’s a big deal. I had no idea what you do for a living is actually… popular!” No doubt more than a few poets went home to their parents or in-laws last weekend feeling like they could actually brag about their art instead of defending it.

Twas not always thus. In the Civil War era most Americans read Shakespeare and the Bible, even when only a certain number of people could read at all. There’s no reason to think we couldn’t collectively embrace a more challenging form of literature now. However, with creative voices comes critical evaluation, and consideration of any kind needs flexibility and more importantly compassion, if we are to make the world safe for poets to speak, experiment, and explore new possibilities in language.

Perhaps the fact that we are asking that question belies a kind of narrowness of scope. Who is to say what form a poem needs to take in order for it to be of value? I’m thinking of Yeats’ famous line from The Second Coming, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” I would suggest that if you find yourself trying to divide people into groups, getting all huffy and puffy about what should and shouldn’t be allowed, if you feel yourself filling with “passionate intensity” you might be putting yourself on the side of the worst of us – the arrogant dividers.

Perhaps it is time for us to speak up with passionate intensity about what is best, what we most love and not what we disparage.

 

The Real Value of Poetry

What I think is so exciting about this moment, and about Amanda as a poetic presence, is that she has passionate intensity about what is best in us – our ability to speak our truth. It’s a distinctly human thing, and for too long too many people have been silenced or sought to silence others. In a democracy we depend on the ability to speak and also, more germane to this post, to listen with open minds and an open heart. In doing so, we make way for a multitude of voices. This is what we need to do if our creativity, our community, and our democracy is to survive. 

If anyone has a poet or a poem they would have preferred for the inauguration, my challenge is not to tear down Amanda’s poem, but rather to add another voice to the chorus. Go promote the things you love on social media. There’s room enough for all voices here.

 

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