There Was No Poem At Biden’s Inauguration

How prose is passed off as poetry in an infantilized society

Benjamin Cain


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…



Benjamin Cain

Ph.D. in philosophy / Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. / / benjamincain8@gmailDOTcom