Recently I attended a lecture about Irish “occasional poetry.” This doesn’t mean poetry written now and again; it means poetry written and performed for special occasions: holidays, commemorations, funerals and the like. The most obvious of these that comes to mind is “The Hill We Climb,” the poem commissioned for, written and performed by Amanda Gorman at President Biden’s inauguration.
I won’t get into a critique of the poem, except to say that I liked it on the whole, and that, like most people, I admire Ms. Gorman’s talents. Nor will I comment much on an infamous precursor, “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander, performed at President Obama’s first inaugural in 2009. (Suffice to say that at the time I had a good rant about it with my favorite poet, Alexandra Burack, who also happens to be my cousin.) I do want to ponder a bit on the phenomenon of poetry performance.
The lecture in question, by US Naval Academy Assistant Professor Shirley Wong, focused on the relationship between occasional poetry and the political and economic forces affecting it. Her interest is in examining how the recent gyrations in Ireland’s economic fortunes may influence the choices of occasional poets, the themes of their poems and the nature of their performance. It was an interesting talk, and it made me wonder more broadly about the connections between the occasion and the performance. How does the occasion itself, and all of the conditions surrounding the occasion, influence not just the words of the poetry, but way those words are spoken?
In the case of Ms. Gorman, the youngest ever inaugural poet by far, I think it is pretty obvious that there is no way the nature of the occasion could fail to be a major factor in the choice of poet, the nature of her poem or the tenor of her performance. And by performance, I mean every aspect of it, from the fabulous yellow coat to the emphatic pronouncement of the poem’s final lines. Gorman’s performance was surely also a factor in the instant iconizing of those lines. I mean that literally–within days, at least one friend of mine purchased a framed poster featuring the words, “For there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.” My point is that Gorman was clearly chosen as inaugural poet not just for her talent for crafting words, but also because of her talent for performing them. She is charismatic, telegenic and a good dramatic declaimer. She knows this, and she knows how these abilities contribute to her success and fame. So do her promoters. So does the President.
Gorman is not alone. It is also relevant that she is a young African American woman. In fact, she draws on a long tradition of poetry performance honed by minorities and women. And this tradition developed specifically as a means of breaking down barriers resulting from an even longer tradition of white male poets who, intentionally or not, have labored to keep the field to themselves. Poetry slams (about which I know practically nothing) and the opportunity they give to young poets, minority poets and women poets, are the most obvious contemporary examples. The liveliness of “The Hill We Climb” owes something to that practice, but even more to the art of rap. And if there are any doubts that male-dominated rap has been beautifully exploited to the advantage of talented women, we need mention only two words: Queen Latifah.
In Latin American poetry (which I do know something about), public performance has been a key factor in the legitimizing of women writers. One of the first and most famous of these, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the prodigy of 17th-century New Spain (Mexico), was celebrated first and foremost as a performer of her own works–religious theatre in verse, primarily. Without the access to spectacle for the entertainment of the Mexican colonial elite, her poetry might never have seen the light of day. Cuban-Spanish poet Gertrudis de Avellaneda, also a member of the elite, was able to publish her poetry mainly because she was admired as a declaimer. She organized her own salon performances, taking advantage of the one, the only avenue of performance and publicity available to a female in 19th-century Spain, an environment notoriously hostile to women. Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni, a renegade in almost every aspect of her life, was able to break into the all-male world of the Buenos Aires 1920s avant-garde because she was such a compelling performer (she had worked in a dramatic troupe as a teenager). These are just three important examples in a single poetic tradition among many. Multiply by a factor of hundreds, at least.
My point is that ambitious young poets like Gorman are to be admired not just for their wordsmithing abilities (which are considerable, but not in the line of genius–there, I did critique her after all). Anyone who has the perspicacity and energy to take an event as tightly circumscribed by political and social constraints as an inauguration and turn it into an opportunity to showcase the poetic talents of a young black woman deserves praise. She has succeeded at something that women have struggled with for centuries.