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The American poet Amanda Gorman recently made headlines with her poem at Joe Biden’s inauguration. ...
2021-07-14 09:00:00

A Poetic Hurricane
The Ascent of Amanda Gorman

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from Washington D.C., United States (CC BY 2.0)
A Poetic Hurricane
A Poetic Hurricane

She made headlines after performing a poem during Joe Biden’s inauguration. But it would be remiss to call Amanda Gorman a one-hit wonder.

Read in 8 minutes

The poetic manifesto by the then 22-year-old Amanda Gorman that accompanied the inauguration of the Biden-Harris presidency in mid-January was one of the most frequently cited and commented on cultural texts in the first quarter of 2021. The Booker Prize-winning author Bernardine Evaristo called her hypnotizing rendition a communal event: “A triumph for black women worldwide.” Lauren K. Alleyne, a published poet and Assistant Director of Furious Flower – the first academic centre for Black poetry in the US – expressed a similar sentiment on her Facebook page. She observed that “The Hill We Climb” is written “in the tradition of occasional poems including the five previous,” before adding that “sometimes the priority ain’t the poem, but the moment...”.

Already during the swearing-in of the President and Vice President, as her premiere performance of “The Hill We Climb” was in full swing, the recognizability of Amanda Gorman skyrocketed, reaching an unprecedented level – as far as poetry is concerned. The English-speaking internet was finally engulfed by a literary viral sensation, rather than by the virus that 2020 made us all too aware of. The rapidly circulated and instantly trendsetting recording of the Washington ceremony also served as an antidote to the events of 6th January 2021, when supporters of Donald Trump, in defiance of the election results, stormed the Capitol.

A poem as a show

The poet took the stage wearing a gorgeous canary yellow coat. Her performance was a meticulously prepared spectacle – artistic, visual and political. The event came down as a symbol of a new opening for the US, both internally and externally. The line-up included Garth Brooks, a superstar of a musical genre associated with the conservative South. Also on the bill was Jennifer Lopez, a singer of Puerto Rican ancestry, personally endorsing the campaign for turning this Caribbean island and unincorporated territory of the US into the 51st state. A message of accord, an attempt to unite the country from the East Coast to the West, from Florida to Alaska (not excluding Hawaii) was the leitmotif of all the acts of the 2021 inauguration.

Gorman was among her equals on the stage overlooking Washington. She was invited at the behest of Jill Biden, the First Lady and a long-time educator. The poet, a Harvard sociology major, had worked her way up. In her interviews, she frequently recalls that literature has been part and parcel of her life ever since she can remember. She stumbled upon poetry thanks to the prose of Ray Bradbury, a writer associated with science fiction and noted for his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. Read by Gorman’s teacher, a fragment of Bradbury’s coming-of-age novel Dandelion Wine made the future poet hear – and discover for her own use – the ample metaphorical capabilities of speech. She writes, as emphasized by Evaristo, in a reader-friendly way: “Gorman had a message to convey that could easily be heard by everyone, including those who are barely literate.”

As a child, Amanda Gorman battled auditory processing disorder and a speech impediment. She overcame these challenges with the help of therapy, the assistance of her mother (an English teacher) and her own determination. As part of her learning process, she relied on songs and performance poetry. She practised, among others, rap vocals from Hamilton, the Broadway box-office hit musical created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, echoes of which are discernible in “The Hill We Climb”. Spoken word traditions and the ‘edutainment’ factor are constant features of both her poetry and literary activism. In 2016, she established One Pen One Page, an organization that aims to popularize reading and creative writing skills among children and teenagers. There, youngsters learn how to employ language and make use of the media to contribute to social change.

Her stage practice references the storytelling art of Western African griots. Gorman draws, too, on the oratorical heritage of African American preachers and on slam poetry stylings. Maya Angelou, a civil rights advocate and fellow inaugural poet, whose “On the Pulse of Morning” graced the inauguration of Bill Clinton, is one of her role models.

Although Gorman’s career follows a clear-cut ‘before’ and ‘after’ dichotomy, it would be unfair to call her a one-hit wonder. To her, it seems, it is not always the poem that counts, but the moment of its dissemination. In 2019, commissioned by CBS, Gorman wrote a text commemorating Independence Day. Her “The Believer’s Hymn for the Republic” enters dialogue with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, a pro-Union song dating back to the American Civil War. Julia Ward Howe, the song’s lyricist, was an abolitionist and a women’s rights activist. Accompanied by the Boston Pops Orchestra under Keith Lockhart, Gorman premiered the composition on the day of the 243rd anniversary of the country’s statehood. The same year, in creative partnership with pianist and arranger Jon Batiste, she wrote “The Republic Rising”. This is a narrative poem celebrating 90 years of one of New York’s architectural landmarks: the Empire State Building. From the Great Depression following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, to the bebop era, to the hope for the years to come, the building is an example of the unshakeable belief in the exceptionalism of the – still undivided – US.

The Black renaissance

Social change remains Gorman’s signature concern. Topical matters are her daily bread. “In This Place (An American Lyric)” (2017) tackles the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville organized by the alt-right. “Earthrise” (2018) discusses the pressing necessity of climate justice, while “We Rise”, also known as “Vital Voices” (2019), is a response to the patriarchy. In “Chorus of the Captains” (2021), Gorman celebrates educator Trimaine Davis, nurse Suzie Dorner and former marine James Martin – a trio of essential workers, community organizers and local leaders supporting their fellow Americans during the pandemic.

Gorman also accepted a commission from Nike. “BHM” (2020), as her tweet reads, is a “manifesto in celebration of Black athletes everywhere”, which not only treats February as Black History Month, but initiates a year-long Black History Movement. It is an act of textual solidarity with “Black Olympians in 1936 Berlin & Black athletes who are taking a knee today”, such as Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback and activist who, back in 2016, popularized the silent kneeling protest during the playing of the US national anthem as a pre-game routine. Unsurprisingly, it is also a form of active subscription to the worldwide Black Lives Matter movement.

Critics may say that this is mere PR and marketing gimmickry aimed at capitalizing on thorny social issues. But Gorman is no Kendall Jenner, a celebrity notorious for her participation in the infamous (and immediately withdrawn) Pepsi advertisement in which the influencer, as a casual if big-name street protester, treats a police officer to a fizzy drink and gains his favour in return. Accusing Gorman of building a community on the foundation of approachable maxims, if not platitudes, might be justified if the artist did not state loud and clear her desire to reach out to mass audiences. After all, she does not contest capitalist democracy. She considers poetry as her life choice and career path. She is one of the authors that consciously strives towrads mainstream poetry.

Correspondingly, Amanda Gorman is aware of being enmeshed in contemporary visual culture, which values her voice, facial expressions, gesticulation, attire and energetic enthusiasm. She has entered the realm of dramatized literature, poetry performed on- and offstage. Last February, she looked at us from the front page of Time, having become the face of “The Black Renaissance”, the cover story curated on the pages of the magazine by Ibram X. Kendi. As a result, the poet has joined the all-star pantheon of increasingly more visible and influential African American creatives. In this way, as she makes plain in her conversation with Michelle Obama, she also addresses how unjustly Black women are judged: “For Black women, there’s also the politics of respectability – despite our best attempts, we are criticized for never being put-together enough; but when we do, we’re too showy.”

In this regard, she seems like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who – invited by Vogue – used the template of a morning make-up tutorial (and her own status as a prominent politician) to discuss systemic injustice, and to draw her audience’s attention (over three-and-a-half million views and counting) to the exclusion, stereotypes, aesthetic demands and ingrained sexism that women experience daily – on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

America did not spare Amanda Gorman a spate of racial profiling, either. “A security guard tailed me on my walk home tonight,” she tweeted in early March. The guard requested that she prove her home address as she “look[ed] suspicious.

“I showed my keys & buzzed myself into my building. He left, no apology. This is the reality of black girls: One day you’re called an icon, the next day, a threat.

“In a sense, he was right. I AM A THREAT: a threat to injustice, to inequality, to ignorance. Anyone who speaks the truth and walks with hope is an obvious and fatal danger to the powers that be.”

Changing the world with poetry

Gorman’s inaugural poem resets the imagined permanence of authority, the immutability of power. The poet envisions collective work along with radical empathy and demands respect. She speaks of the US, not turning her gaze away from us, in every corner of the world. At this point, may we all be reminded that Bianka Nwolisa’s placard, which – through the intermediary of Rafał Milach’s photograph – made media waves in Poland last year, did not contain a plea. The hand-written slogan ‘Stop Calling Me Murzyn’ [in Polish, the word Murzyn refers to a Black person. In the 21st century, use of the word has been widely discussed and debated, as it is often considered pejorative. An English equivalent could be ‘Negro’ – ed. note] was an imperative that expressed resistance to reactionary cognitive and linguistic habits. It did not represent, as some detractors claimed, cancel culture, but a culture of care. And so does Gorman. In her flagship poem, she unfolds a vision of the US of the future. She mentions the American Dream, which may come true thanks to a concerted, collective effort. She also speaks of democracy and of the attempt to delay it, if not to defeat it, undertaken on the fateful January day at the Capitol.

Even if Gorman’s poetic project turns out to be an ironic gesture of emancipation, then it has already proved not to be “this eternal irony that undermines the meaning of action, fears commitment and runs away from responsibility”, which Aldona Kopkiewicz tackles in her essay “On Changing the World with Poetry” (trans. Joanna Figiel). The ardency of Gorman’s verse is well preserved in the Polish translation of “The Hill We Climb” (trans. Jakub Głuszak; with the help of Magda Kleszczewska, Paweł Kozioł, Natalia Malek). The translators shied away from the directness of the original and focused on the message, which – if I were to provide a synthesis – is an invitation to “raise this wounded world into a wondrous one”. This is by no means a far cry from the title phrase of a poem by the late Adam Zagajewski: “Try to praise the mutilated world” (trans. Clare Cavanagh).

Gorman rises to contemporary challenges with her timing and her dual credibility – in the community and on social media. These will not suffice in the long run, though. “Neither extreme individualism,” warns Kopkiewicz, “nor good faith in the community can therefore provide a solution. We need intermediary forms, new concepts and practices and, most of all, intellectual vigilance: our hopes better be bitter and critical, because beautiful slogans will quickly lead us to the traps that the counterculture has already fallen for.”

What will her first, standalone, full-length book bring? Come September 2021, we will know. We will wait longer still for confirmation of whether, as she has suggested for a while now, she indeed decides to run for the office of President in 2036. She has already chosen her punning hashtag #CamandaInChief – a play on words referring to her first name (Amanda) and the presidential prerogative as leader of the armed forces (Commander-in-chief). Until that time, we must take for granted the words she exchanged with Michelle Obama in her Time interview: “I am the hurricane that comes every single year, and you can expect to see me again soon.”

Daniel Mróz – drawing from the archives (no. 1454/1973)
Daniel Mróz – drawing from the archives (no. 1454/1973)

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