It’s Okay If You Didn’t Love Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem
I watched the inauguration ceremony of Joe Biden with an unquestionable sense of pride. For weeks, it had seemed like this day was in danger, that domestic terror threats were intent on sabotaging the peaceful transition of power in America. But, thankfully, our institutions were capable of weathering the storm.
The tenure of Trump and his challenges to the electoral process were definitely a stress test of the system, and this was a test that luckily, we passed. President Joe Biden is now in office, along with his historic Vice-President, Kamala Harris, and already they are hard at work trying to repair the damages of the past four years.
The combination of relief and joy I felt witnessing these events take place, literally had me in tears. I’m sure I am not alone. Although, from videos I have seen, not all of the tears shed that day were tears of joy.
For many, the highlight of the inauguration ceremony was the presentation of a poem from the first Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, Amanda Gorman. She is already a highly successful personality on the poetry scene, having graduated from Harvard, and having three books pending publication with major publisher Penguin/Random House. The poem she read for Joe Biden’s inauguration was one filled with much alliteration and internal rhyme, a kind of slam performance piece that took her nearly six minutes to recite. It was titled “The Hill We Climb.”
You can watch the poem below:
Or, you can read the text of the poem here.
The responses to this poem have been overwhelmingly positive. Praise has been heaped on Gorman from every considerable angle, ranging from Lin- Manuel Miranda, to the likes of Oprah Winfrey, and more. Gorman reportedly had to overcome many obstacles to be able to perform her poetry, including a speech impediment that likely resonated with Joe Biden, who also struggles with a stuttering issue.
The poet also faced a considerable obstacle of having to address the nation on the global stage, before the eyes of literally millions of people, during a time of unprecedented division and debate. And she had to do this at the considerably young age of 22 years old. She was likely told by the Biden team to try and write something that addressed this divide, and sought to evoke a healing sense of unity, the ongoing theme of Biden’s Administration for months now.
When you factor all of that in, it’s hard to find much fault in Amanda Gorman at all, or in her poem, which she stated she recently wrote after witnessing the attacks on the Capitol. But of course, it’s impossible to expect any work of art to universally appeal to every human sensibility.
Poetry isn’t for everyone. As far as art goes, the appeal of poetry is already extremely niche. Whether it’s the fact that how poetry is taught in school turns people off at a young age, or if it’s just the perception of poetry’s obtuseness or aloofness, many people find the art form difficult to understand or think it sort of an elitist passion, much like opera. Even having said that, among the lovers of poetry themselves you’re lucky to ever get through a discussion of the craft without some form of debate.
Art is by nature a subjective medium. What one piece means to one person, is likely to mean exactly the opposite to the next, with a myriad of variances in between. And what the artist intended to say is rarely how it is interpreted by the audience, which also contributes to the opaqueness of the craft’s window to its potential. It would be impossible to expect any poet or poem to universally appeal to everyone.
And that’s why some of the responses I am seeing to Gorman’s inauguration poem are particularly disturbing.
To put it frankly, for a poem that intended to bring the theme of unity to the foreground, some are already using it to segregate themselves further from others. I’m sure Amanda Gorman would be disheartened to see this happening, but looking through the responses on social media is a bit of an eye opener. I’ve already seen folks drawing lines in the sand over this, telling their friends they are not allowed to criticize the work, and even coldly cutting them out of the circles of social engagement if they do. I’ve seen people using the ethnicity of the poet and the delivery of the poem as racially charged dividing lines, telling those who find fault in the work that they must be racists for doing so.
All of this clashing of opinion should be natural, but the “with us or against us” mentality of it surely highlights the depths of the division that social media encourages between people in this era. It’s just fucking sad.
There’s never been a time in our history as a species where such echo chambers of thought were so expressly cultivated between groups.
Everyone needs to take a step back and find their gravity. Relocate their gravitas. Chill out.
It’s just a poem, folks. It’s just a poem.
To be clear, I’ve seen some people using race as a means of critiquing the poem as well. If your problem with the work is rooted in some racial prejudice, that doesn’t hint at flaws in the art, but flaws in your own humanity. If you come at the poem from this angle, you’re not fairly criticizing an art work, you’re simply just a piece of shit. That’s something you need to address within yourself, and not something you should expect to sway others with. There’s no reasonable excuse for racism. So, you can take that idea and just shove it up your own ass.
I’ve also gotten the distinct impression that some of the criticism of the poem comes not from a place of honest concern about the arts, but from a position of envy and sour grapes that a poet of such youth has already been granted fame and fortune and an audience that most poets only ever dream of having. Remember how poetry is not for everyone? Well, that means most poets never join the New York Times bestseller list, at least not while they’re alive. While it’s only natural to be somewhat envious of another’s good luck, to be embittered by jealousy to the point of being unfairly critical is a bit of a bad look. In other words, don’t be an asshole.
Now, I think it’s obvious that Amanda Gorman deserves all the praise in the world for her accomplishments and for elevating herself to the challenge of writing such a successful poem for a presidential inauguration. It’s hard to watch her performance of the piece and not be utterly moved by her words. Her work met the needs of the moment with dignity and grace. And also with class.
Besides that, imagine the sheer level of inspiration she must have garnered in the eyes of America’s youth, and the youth of the world. The inspiration she must have garnered in persons of color. The inspiration she must have pulled from the hearts of the children out there who themselves struggle daily with their communication skills, or that feel disheartened by the impossibility of their own dreams. Amanda Gorman gave them an example to aspire to. Quite frankly, it’s a marvel.
Is the poem she wrote perfect? Does it, in my eyes, meet the standards of what I think modern poetic craft should be? Not especially. I can find flaws in it. I think it could be revised and refined to eliminate quaint language, cliche, and didactic preaching to the choir. But, at the same time, for the style of performance itself, many of these things come second to the presentation. I’ve always felt that slam poetry tends to fall prey to the same gimmicks of style over substance, but it’s just a trait of this particular subset of poetics.
Does that mean everyone who dislikes or criticizes the poem has to be labeled a racist? No. Does that mean that we need to draw lines of division between people over a poem, and cut people off from being allowed to comment on the work, if their opinion is different from mine? No. People must be allowed to disagree about the merits of any work of art. They must be allowed to participate in debating the successes and flaws of art, because these debates are how we improve not only our understanding of art, but also the nature of art itself.
For some contrast, here is another poem Amanda Gorman wrote that I found to be absolutely stunning. It’s a sestina titled “Sestina for my sisters,” and it showcases the poet’s abilities far better than the one we are discussing here, in my opinion. But see, that’s just a matter of personal preference. I’m sure there are those who enjoyed the inaugural poem that will find the sestina to not be their cup of tea, and I’m sure there are those who will grimace at the thought of each much in the way they would grimace at the thought of Brussel sprouts.
No one is going to magically like a poem just because you think they should. Art is subjective. Perspectives are as infinite as you can imagine. Trying to hold others to the standards of your own opinions is not only kind of narcissistic, but is extremely unfair. It sets the bar to the height of impossibility, a standard that can never be met unless you expect no one to ever disagree with your opinion for the rest of your life. Not only is that absurd, but it’s also freaking boring. Who wants nothing but to have their own thoughts regurgitated back to them ad infinitum? Not I.
So, let’s try and have some levity shall we? Agree to disagree. Respect the fact that a person’s opinion on something as subjective as a poem or any work of art is highly unlikely to line up 100% with your own. One opinion on one work of art is hardly a litmus test for a person’s humanity. Meaning, unless they indicate for other reasons, an opinion on an art work doesn’t make a person better or worse.
It’s okay if you didn’t love Amanda Gorman’s poem. Likewise, it’s okay if you thought it was the greatest poem you’d ever heard. It’s also okay, if to you the poem was simply okay.
The theme of Amanda Gorman’s, “The Hill We Climb,” was rebuilding a union in a time of great divide. Even if we must agree to disagree on the quality of the work within which this theme is present, I think we can all agree the message was relevant, and it came through loud and clear.
Now, if only we could open our hearts to the message, could actually listen to the words behind the words, maybe the healing of the nation could truly begin.