After the inauguration, the Conservatives must rediscover poetry
Youth poet Amanda Gorman speaks during the inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden on the Western Front of the US Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr / Getty Images)
Read this with me:
The land was ours before we were.
It was our country for more than a hundred years
Before we were their people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia
But we were England, still colonial masters.
Own what we weren’t possessed by
Obsessed with what we now no longer have.
Something we were holding back made us weak
Until we found out it was us
We held back from our land of life
And immediately found redemption in devotion.
As we were, we presented ourselves directly
(The deed of gift was many acts of war)
To vaguely see the land to the west
But still undisturbed, artless, unimproved,
As she was, as she would become.
It is wonderful. Robert Frost read it at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. He had written another poem on the occasion, but with the sun in his old eyes, 86-year-old Frost couldn’t read “A Dedication” the paper he was holding. So instead he recited “The Gift Outright”. I’m happy. It’s a wonderful poem.
Frost’s precise iambic pentameter flows almost in conversation, interrupted only by a few strategically placed feminine endings, with the additional syllable suggesting the open border and unfinished land. His language of possession and possession, the irrevocable gift of an imperfect and ever-changing self to an imperfect and ever-changing partner, suggests marriage. Americans raving about the founding of their country tend to evoke a bloodless liberalism that portrays our country as a set of free-floating ideas. Frost shows us a better way. We didn’t conjure America like a castle in the air. We got married to her, for better or for worse.
It is true that, as one of my old university professors points out, the poem delivers “a Eurocentric, colonialist message”, as if people were not already living in the “unhistorical” West. But Frost wanted to tell a American history isn’t the American history, although I see no reason why an African American or a recent immigrant could not “marry” this tale. Frost was not obliged to extend his “we” beyond the descendants of white colonists. It’s never wise to blame a work of art for failing to do something it never tried.
Much of the criticism of “The Hill We Climb,” the poem recited by 22-year-old Amanda Gorman at Joe Biden’s inauguration, falls into this category. If I quote Frost at the beginning of this article, I am sure that I have led some of my readers to believe that my play’s thesis “old white poet would be good, young black woman bad” would be. I’m sorry to let you down.
My old professor praised Gorman’s poem to Heaven, while Melanie McDonagh from The audience and Malcolm Salovaara from TAC wild it. I’m somewhere in the middle. The slam poetry style of “The Hill We Climb” with its hip-hop and black homiletic influences is not my favorite, but I prefer it to the lame prosiness of much contemporary poetry. Gorman’s play at least benefits from being read aloud like Homer and Shakespeare instead of sitting dead on its side.
There is a lot to criticize. The poem uses platitudes such as “author of a new chapter” and “leave a land better than what we left” that Gorman apparently copied / pasted as filler material. And the line “Our people, diverse and beautiful, will emerge / smashed and beautiful” repeats a word with no discernible effect and gives the impression that Gorman just couldn’t think of another.
But “The Hill We Climb” has its moments. Here is one:
“Because being American is more than a pride that we inherit. / It is the past that we step into and how we fix it. “
This is a controversial statement that encompasses all of the overturned statue and reparation debates, as well as dueling historical projects that polarized the country. And yet Gorman manages to express it positively, consistently, and even inspiringly. Why should the joint project of repairing a past that is obviously imperfect and obviously continues to affect the present be a point of contention? Like Frost, she gives us a new perspective on what it means to be an American that is both engaging and difficult to argue with.
In transferring such an imaginative commitment to the left, the Republicans are making a grave mistake.
Amanda Gorman is the sixth poet to read at the President’s inauguration. Frost read for Kennedy, Maya Angelou and Miller Williams for Bill Clinton and Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco for Obama. No Republican president has ever had a poem read on his inauguration.
Why not? One explanation could be that all poets are left-handed. And why is that In a 2008 blog post, poet Lucia Perillo gave a brilliant answer: Conservatives are stupid and mean. Or, as she put it, “anyone who ponders long and earnest thought is led to liberal conclusions” and “poets are naturally compassionate”.
That is clearly not true. Left-wing poets can be fools or bastards. Many are both. In refusing to question this narrative, the Conservatives play along in Perillo’s narrative, tacitly admitting that the Democratic Party is the only abode for truth, goodness, and light.
This is bad.
It’s bad for the country because it turns empathy and intelligence into partisan issues.
It is bad for poetry because, as Perillo acknowledges, “it undermines the (naive?) Hope some poets have about the value of poetry in the community”. The success of a poem titled “Fuck Your Lecture on Crafts, My People Die” makes it clear that poetry has become an activist discipline and only a brand of activism is welcome.
It’s bad for Republicans because it turns their policies upside down. If you can’t imagine what a poem would sound like at Trump’s inauguration, maybe it’s because Trump is missing something. People respond to poetry. Virgil didn’t care what happened in the 12th century BC. Really happened in the plains of Troy. He picked it up Iliad and ran with it, and the Romans forever knew they were Trojans. A political vision that cannot be expressed in poetry is a political vision that needs revision.
And where is it written that only left-wing visions can find their expression in poetry? Rudyard Kipling was the bard of the colonial empire. Roy Campbell wrote a pro-Franco verse. T.S. Eliot said no one understood his Four quartets better than Russell Kirk.
Also, not every published poet in America would close their ranks and turn down an invitation to read at a Republican inauguration. As a friend told me, the conservative magazines First things, The new criterion, and Modern age All publish poetry. The friend who pointed this out, Michael Shindler, is both a conservative and a good poet himself. If I am ever elected president, he will be on my shortlist.
If all else had failed, George W. Bush could certainly have called Dana Gioia. An accomplished poet who voted for Dubya and was his chairman of the National Foundation for the Arts would hardly have minded writing a few stanzas for the dedication.
I’m not suggesting that reading a poet would create some kind of political revolution for the next Republican president. As with previous initiations, the poem would likely set an optimistic tone while going well beyond controversy. People listened politely and then forgot everything.
At the same time, it could be four years before many of them hear another poem read. Her only experience with poetry is in the context of politics, especially left-wing liberal politics. Such one-sidedness inevitably shapes Americans’ perception of what poetry is, what politics is, and how the two behave. A poem for a GOP inauguration might not change anyone’s mind on political issues, but, like Gorman’s great couplet on repairing the past, it might encourage a more benevolent interpretation of opposing views.
If conservatives want to stop being perceived as a party of prose – or worse – boring at best and nasty at worst, inviting a poet to read at the next Republican inauguration would be a good place to start.
GRayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. at Georgetown University.
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