There Was No Poem At Biden’s Inauguration

How prose is passed off as poetry in an infantilized society

Image by Suzy Hazelwood, from Pexels

Amanda Gorman recited her poem, “The Hill We Climb” for Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration. Under the circumstances, her platitudes were suitably upbeat and dumbed-down, and Gorman’s youth and African Americanness at the forefront of the political discourse were likewise uplifting.

There’s just one problem. You see, I failed to detect a poem being recited when Gorman spoke at the podium. (You can read her “poem” and watch her recite it.)

Maybe I missed the poem when she was instead reading her prose speech, or perhaps she was speaking the poem surreptitiously in sign language with her odd hand gestures.

Can someone help me find the poem in “The Hill We Climb”?

Prose versus Poetry

But before you make the effort, let’s be sure we’re on the same page. What’s a poem? I dabble in poetry so I have some idea of what a poem’s supposed to be. To be sure, Amanda Gorman is ten thousand times more successful as a poet than I am, since she was a National Youth Poet Laureate and she’s read her poetry for the Library of Congress, MTV, and now Biden’s inauguration.

But is it possible that, paradoxically, the more successful you are as a poet, the less you have to produce actual poetry?

So a poem is primarily a highly creative use of language. Poets eschew clichés and abstractions, preferring to write in the most granular fashion, focussing on particularities and showing rather than telling, perhaps using metaphor, allusion, or other literary devices to invite the reader to change her perspective, to shake up our presumptions and habituated modes of experience.

Poetry is thus an art. Poems don’t have to rhyme or take any of the traditional forms, but the essence of poetry is the unapologetically creative, original use of language. If you don’t have that creativity, you don’t have a poem; mind you, you may instead have a serviceable piece of prose, an essay, a speech, or the like.

Now Gorman’s “poem” has some irregular, almost accidental rhymes, but mere rhyming makes only for the superficial appearance of poetry. Again, that’s largely because poets broke free from the traditional constraints so that poems need no longer rhyme at all, assuming the poet makes up for that lack of formality (for the lack of rhymes, meter, and other such devices) with at least the attempt at a highly creative use of language.

Where’s the linguistic creativity in “The Hill We Climb”? Where’s the avoidance of clichés, abstractions, and clunky, academic words like “intimidation,” “generation,” and “redemption”? Where’s the emphasis on concrete, evocative, punchy words like “skein,” “prank,” or “leers”?

A Telling Contrast

Let’s contrast Gorman’s “poem” with what I think is an actual poem, namely with one of mine.

I know what you’re thinking: How rude and pretentious I must be to make such a comparison. Remember, though, I’m not interested in assessing poetic quality here; on the contrary, I couldn’t do so without contradicting myself, since I’m maintaining that Gorman read no poem at all at Biden’s inauguration. You can’t have a bad poem if you don’t even have a poem to assess as such.

Here’s the first part of “The Hill We Climb”:

When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry a sea we must wade.
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 yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.

Does this come across to you as poetry? To be sure, there’s that cliché of “the belly of the beast,” the clumsy comparison of the adjective “quiet” with the noun “peace,” which might have been written as “quietude isn’t always peace” or perhaps “stillness isn’t always peace.” Then there’s the clumsy talk of “wading” through the “sea,” whereas wading requires walking, and the sea tends to be quite deep. She seems to have chosen “wade” just to complete the rhyme with “shade.” And there’s the ungrammatical switch from the plural “norms and notions” to the singular in “isn’t always justice.”

But those observations go mainly to that irrelevant issue of merit. Gorman is only 23 years old, and I’m sure the poems I wrote when I was that age were lamentable as a result of their amateurishness.

Suppose, though, we rewrote that section of her poem in simple paragraph form thusly:

When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry a sea we must wade. 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 yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow we do it.

The question we face or at least the one that puzzles me is whether we’d think that that prose format does a disservice to the artistry of the paragraph’s content. Does that paragraph cry out to be represented instead in a more poetic form? The answer seems to be no. I can see some such paragraph showing up in an offhanded, somewhat preachy text or email.

Now, here’s part of a poem I wrote, called “The Squint and the Grin”:

The Reason, the Word, the Song —
you could hold the seed
between your praying palms
or strain the twin vanguards
of your castled, squidgy conspirator
as you peer into the random folds,
at the bubbles in the fluxing death-blood
that coats the bark and leaves with the absurd
like a sprawling joke with no punch line,
inscribed in invisible ink.

Do you see the difference, dear reader? Again, erase from your mind the question of poetic quality. My poem may be pitifully weak in literary terms. But I’m talking about the difference between poetry and prose — or between an honest attempt at the former and a clear case of the latter that for some reason is being passed off as the former.

Take, for example, my poem’s attempt at a creative reference to the brain. The “twin vanguards” are the eyes since they’re at the forefront of the brain, of the “castled, squidgy conspirator,” that is, of the executive neural control center that copes with its environment by scheming and that’s ensconced in the skull, protected by the blood-brain barrier and thus “castled” like the king in chess.

Is that description of the brain a pretentious, confusing stretch? Possibly. But I think it’s undeniably an attempt at a creative use of language. That makes it poetic. (The references to the seed, bark, and leaves, by the way, are parts of an extended metaphor about “the intergalactic tree, Yggdrasil,” as an earlier part of the poem makes clear.)

Infantilized American Culture

Let’s assume Gorman’s speech wasn’t really a poem. The more interesting question for me, then, is why that speech of hers was passed off as one. Why did CNN’s Anderson Cooper and company fawn over Gorman as a fount of poetic genius? Was it just a case of political correctness or affirmative action?

I suspect the more potent dynamic here is the same as that which is responsible for the strange conceit that a journalistic interview should count as a debate in American politics. For example, there was much talk of “debates” between Biden and Trump and between Harris and Pence in the 2020 presidential campaign. Alas, again I detected no such debates, and I wrote elsewhere about the difference between a debate and an interview.

In case you’re interested, a reliable indicator that you’re witnessing an interview rather than a debate is if the moderator doesn’t shut his or her mouth for the event’s duration, but bizarrely presumes the audience is there to hear him or her speak and thus interrupts the back-and-forth between the actual debaters by posing dozens of questions for them to answer (as in an interview).

What unites these two bastardizations, the fake poems and debates, is the process of cultural infantilization. The fact is that most Americans couldn’t bear to watch an actual debate or read or listen to a real poem. The intellectual standards in popular culture have been so lowered that a genuine rational cross-examination would seem offensive, and authentic art would bore much of the nation.

That’s fine as far as it goes since there are plenty of outlets for intellectual and artistic expression on the internet. If the majority aren’t up to the challenge of thinking philosophically or poetically, that won’t necessarily impede the production of finer cultural works since philosophy and art are callings.

Let’s not pretend, though, that night is day. We are indeed missing out when we presume we’re watching a political debate that’s just an interview or when we think we’re listening to a poem that’s just a prose speech. We should at least try to know ourselves, to realize we’ve been infantilized, and we should stop pretending we have aristocratic interests when we prefer to be down in the muck like peasants or trapped in Plato’s cave.

Americanized cultures have been dumbed-down, and the least we can do is to recognize that fact for what it is. We should just admit we’d rather watch interviews than a competitive intellectual exchange of ideas that reveals the objective truth in all its indifference to our vain preferences. We should concede we’d rather listen to a platitudinous speech than to a genuine, radical and prophetic poem that fearlessly and creatively aims to enlighten or to speak truth to power.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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