The Washington Post Sunday

Amanda Gor­man’s poem was un­like any other in­au­gu­ral verse.

English pro­fes­sor Seth Per­low on how the spo­ken-word tra­di­tion dif­fers from the more for­mal read­ings of the past

- Twit­ter: @seth_per­low Seth Per­low teaches English at Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity. He is the au­thor of “The Poem Elec­tric: Tech­nol­ogy and the Amer­i­can Lyric.”

At pres­i­den­tial in­au­gu­ra­tions, im­por­tant peo­ple in im­por­tant out­fits gather for some­thing mo­men­tous: the trans­fer of power. When a poet gets in­vited to such events, it is not al­ways clear how they can con­trib­ute. Po­ets spe­cial­ize in grand pro­nounce­ments, but in­au­gu­ra­tions feel so starchy that it’s hard to en­joy what even the best writ­ers of­fer up on these oc­ca­sions. Such was the hur­dle that 22-year-old poet Amanda Gor­man faced, and com­pletely dis­man­tled, at the Bi­den-Har­ris in­au­gu­ra­tion.

No mat­ter which pres­i­dent they help to cel­e­brate, all in­au­gu­ral po­ets face the same un­for­giv­ing task. Writ­ing in a genre that many as­so­ciate with the in­ti­ma­cies of love and grief, they seek to min­gle up­lift­ing po­lit­i­cal max­ims with sweep­ing pic­tures of the na­tional sit­u­a­tion — but with­out de­volv­ing into mean­ing­less ab­strac­tion or alien­at­ing too many cit­i­zens who voted for the other guy. No in­au­gu­ral poet has truly flopped, but these con­straints have led to more than a few trite images and tired metaphors. There’s a road we all walk to­gether, or else a ma­jes­tic moun­tain range, or a door of op­por­tu­nity open­ing for a child.

“The Hill We Climb” con­tains as many of these generic Amer­i­can­isms as the rest, from the rhetoric about heal­ing di­vi­sions to the prom­ise that “there is al­ways light,” al­ways hope, “if only we’re brave enough to see it.” De­spite the cliches, Gor­man dis­tin­guished her­self by per­form­ing with re­mark­able dy­namism and grace. In­stead of merely read­ing her poem from the page, she brought the lan­guage to life. Her de­liv­ery made po­etry a more vi­tal, stir­ring part of the cer­e­mony than it usu­ally is.

Gor­man drew upon the con­tem­po­rary style of spo­ken-word po­etry, which em­pha­sizes the rhythms and rhymes of the poet’s voice as she speaks. Spo­ken-word po­ets treat poems as per­for­mances, rather than texts for silent con­tem­pla­tion. Many peo­ple learn in school to read poems like reg­u­lar prose, with­out paus­ing at line breaks or stress­ing the rhymes, but spo­ken-word po­ets do the op­po­site, fore­ground­ing the rhyth­mi­cal, mu­si­cal qual­i­ties of lan­guage. This ap­proach works per­fectly for an in­au­gu­ra­tion: It makes a poem an event in it­self, some­thing we ex­pe­ri­ence to­gether.

Her poem is rich with au­di­ble word­play — “We’ve braved the belly of the beast. / We’ve learned that quiet isn’t al­ways peace, / and the norms and no­tions / of what ‘just is’ / isn’t al­ways jus­tice” — and the strik­ing en­ergy of her voice con­veyed the power of her mes­sage.

Oth­ers have noted that Gor­man had not fin­ished the poem on Jan. 6, when Trump’s ter­ror­ists at­tacked the Capi­tol, and have praised her for not shy­ing away from con­flict. But what re­ally makes the poem sing is its sound. Our ears eas­ily catch the rhymes of “beast” with “peace” and “just is” with “jus­tice,” as well as the al­lit­er­a­tions of “braved . . . belly . . . beast” and “norms and no­tions.” All this au­ral play en­abled Gor­man to per­form the poem, rather than merely re­cite it. Ev­ery pre­vi­ous in­au­gu­ral poet has moved their hands only to turn pages. She ges­tured ex­pres­sively as she spoke, in­stead of clamp­ing onto the lectern.

Only six U.S. pres­i­den­tial in­au­gu­ra­tions have in­cluded a po­etry read­ing. The first was Robert Frost’s read­ing at the in­au­gu­ra­tion of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Frost had writ­ten a poem for the oc­ca­sion, “Ded­i­ca­tion,” but the sun’s glare on the snow pre­vented the 86-yearold poet from read­ing the text. He in­stead re­cited a dif­fer­ent poem, “The Gift Out­right,” from mem­ory. Both poems de­liver a Euro­cen­tric, colo­nial­ist mes­sage that to­day’s au­di­ences would rightly crit­i­cize. Many have praised Frost for his grace un­der pres­sure, but I sus­pect that “Ded­i­ca­tion” would have made a bet­ter im­pres­sion be­cause it rhymes a lot: “Come fresh from an elec­tion like the last, / The great­est vote a peo­ple ever cast, / So close yet sure to be abided by, / It is no mir­a­cle our mood is high.” Like parts of Gor­man’s poem, these lines sound al­most cloy­ing when we read them silently — but a great de­liv­ery can im­bue words with con­vic­tion, even a sense of spon­tane­ity.

Af­ter Frost, no poet read at a pres­i­den­tial in­au­gu­ra­tion un­til 32 years later, when Maya An­gelou re­cited “On the Pulse of Morn­ing” at Bill Clin­ton’s first swear­ing-in. An­gelou is the only in­au­gu­ral poet whose de­liv­ery comes near to Gor­man’s. She sounded care­ful and de­lib­er­ate at first, with a tone of decla­ma­tion that un­der­scored the size of her au­di­ence, the 800,000 present in per­son and the al­most 30 mil­lion watch­ing at home. But as An­gelou gained con­fi­dence and mo­men­tum, she placed more em­pha­sis upon the gal­lop­ing rhythms of her words: “Here, on the pulse of this new day / You may have the grace to look up and out / And into your sis­ter’s eyes, and into / Your brother’s face, your coun­try / And say sim­ply / Very sim­ply / With hope — / Good morn­ing.” (In a pos­si­ble nod to An­gelou’s theme of morn­ing, Gor­man’s poem be­gins, “When day comes.”)

Since An­gelou, ev­ery in­au­gu­ra­tion of a Demo­cratic pres­i­dent (and no in­au­gu­ra­tion of a Repub­li­can) has in­cluded a po­etry read­ing. Barack Obama’s first swear­ing-in fea­tured El­iz­a­beth Alexan­der, whose “Praise Song for the Day” re­mains my fa­vorite in­au­gu­ral poem. Alexan­der builds from evoca­tive de­tails to a mov­ing crescendo. Near the start, we hear that “Some­one is stitch­ing up a hem, darn­ing / a hole in a uni­form, patch­ing a tire, / re­pair­ing the things in need of re­pair.” By the end, Alexan­der speaks not of ev­ery­day acts of care but of what drives them, of “Love be­yond mar­i­tal, fil­ial, na­tional, / love that casts a widen­ing pool of light.” Her poem is a “praise song for walk­ing for­ward in that light.” As a writ­ten text, Gor­man’s poem might not hold up as well as Alexan­der’s, but the younger poet’s per­for­mance clearly stands out. While her pre­de­ces­sors read in a staid, aca­demic style, Gor­man an­i­mated the lan­guage, more like a preacher or, in­deed, a politi­cian. (Gor­man says she in­tends to run for pres­i­dent in 2036.)

Gor­man’s spo­ken-word style re­flects her per­sonal story. A Black na­tive of Los An­ge­les, she was named the first na­tional youth poet lau­re­ate in 2017, at age 19. Like Pres­i­dent Bi­den, she has ex­pe­ri­enced a speech im­ped­i­ment; she cites that and an au­di­tory pro­cess­ing dis­or­der as in­creas­ing her sen­si­tiv­ity to the sounds of lan­guage. The spo­ken-word per­for­mance style draws upon mul­ti­ple African Amer­i­can tra­di­tions, in­clud­ing hip hop and church or­a­tory. Spo­ken-word po­etry is also quite pop­u­lar among the young peo­ple whom one might ex­pect a youth poet lau­re­ate to reach. My stu­dents some­times send me links to spo­ken­word videos on YouTube or Tik Tok, ask­ing how these re­late to the more con­ven­tional po­ets I usu­ally study and teach. I am not al­ways sure how to an­swer, but Gor­man’s per­for­mance sug­gests that spo­ken-word tech­niques can help to in­crease po­etry’s stature and spread its joy to broader au­di­ences.

It is a tru­ism among aca­demics that po­etry is fore­most an art of the spo­ken word, but we rarely live up to this ideal. Yes, the in­au­gu­ral poems by An­gelou, Alexan­der and the rest ex­hibit beau­ti­ful au­ral ef­fects. But so many of our en­coun­ters with po­etry are silent and soli­tary. We read the as­signed poems in pri­vate. If we like them, per­haps we bris­tle as a fel­low sopho­more botches the recita­tion in class. This but­toned-up style has damp­ened ev­ery in­au­gu­ral po­etry read­ing — un­til now. With her ex­cep­tional per­for­mance, Gor­man re­minds us how po­etry, de­liv­ered well, can en­rich public life.

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