Wednesday, January 20, 2021

On the Inaugural Poem

 I didn't watch most of the Inauguration, but I did watch Amanda Gorman's reading of her Inaugural poem, "The Hill We Climb" (which is found here), which is the fifth Inauguration poem to be delivered. I commented rather critically on the last one, Richard Blanco's wordy "One Today" in 2013. So how does Gorman's poem measure up?

Like many Inaugural Poems it would benefit from being more concise.  And it shares with "One Today" a tendency to jumble images in a way that saps their force. Consider the opening:

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 just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it

The chain of sensory images we have here is: day comes -- never-ending shade -- carried loss -- sea -- belly of the beast -- quiet -- dawn.  The move from dawn to dawn is excellent, but it's difficult to get anything out of the movement here, image-wise. Mixing metaphors is perfectly fine if the metaphors carry each other forward; but we start with a shade that is never-ending even though the poem goes on to tell us later that it is not. The shade -- or perhaps the lack of light in it -- is a loss we are carrying; we can make sense of that, but we could make more sense of it if more were done with it. Instead we move immediately to a sea, something very deep and impassible; this perhaps gives us a conceit about 'never-ending light', which is good, but we find that this sea is one that we wade, which is what you do with something shallow, not deep. Something could be done with this. The poem overall is a description of a particular kind of situation -- we seem to be faced with inextricable trouble but this is only when we look at it in a partial way -- that is nicely suited to being captured in paradox. So we can have shade that is actually dawn (thus not shade), a sea that we are actually wading (thus not sea), etc. But it's all jumbled together here, meaning that the relevant images are not reinforcing each other. From the sea that we are wading we find we have been in the belly of the beast. It makes sense to have a beast whose belly we must brave if we are in the sea, but 'wade' cuts against this, too.

Metaphors can be jumbled in a powerful way (we see this in Shakespeare all the time), but you have to do it in such a way that the images strengthen each other. This is difficult to do, and I think it's clear that the opening falls down on this point. The ending is much, much better. The ending is so far superior in getting its images in alignment, in fact, that the best I can handwave for the beginning on this point is that we start with confusion and end in clarity. Again, as with the paradox, this is something that could be done with the poem, but the poem's structure doesn't lend itself easily to such a reading.

However, this is far from the whole story. This is a more vigorous poem than Inaugural poems have tended to be; it has a declamatory character, and in service to this makes some excellent use of alliteration: "To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man", while not the best alliteration in the work, shows the skill with which it is done -- that is a lot of alliteration extended over a long line yet in such a way that it sounds fairly natural to the ear. 

The just is / justice play in the beginning could in another context be very clunky, but given the overall declamatory tone, I think it actually gives the poem a coffeehouse-ish character that works well for making a comment on a political event. One of the continual problems with Inaugural poems is that Inaugurations are not great political events. Inaugural poems have to mark an occasion that's quite abstract and whose importance is wholly abstract -- not much actually changes in an Inauguration, since it's a purely formal change-over, the only essential component of which is the actual swearing-in. That's one reason why prayers have always worked well and poems haven't -- a poem has to mark the occasion as important, but a prayer can be for making the occasion important. You can easily pray that this purely formal, abstract event will be something we can see later as also a substantive turning-point. That's the sort of thing people pray about all the time. But it's not the sort of thing they write poems about all the time. So how do we mark in a vivid way the importance of this purely formal, abstract event, one that is only really important if you can see what the end results are (which we don't, yet)?

Poetry is built out of solutions to problems.  The most obvious way to handle this one is to write about something else. The most successful Inaugural poem (and I think it is so still) is Robert Frost's "The Gift Outright", and it works so well because it is not an Inaugural poem. Frost actually wrote an Inaugural poem that he never delivered because he couldn't read it when the time came, so he instead recited one of his old poems that he knew Kennedy liked. It's a poem that runs through, very quickly and in general terms, the history of how the United States came to be and then briefly looks to the future. It's short, well-constructed, the images are clear; it fits the situation of an Inauguration despite not being about one. We made the United States, discovered it in ourselves, so to speak, which tells us how we got here; we then don't have to put emphasis on the Inauguration itself -- it just happens to be where 'here' is -- and we can continue on from here in continuing what we started when we began this journey. It's about as perfect a solution as you can come up with, even if Frost did stumble into it by a sort of accident.

Gorman goes a very different route. Her poem is explicitly, very explicitly, about the Inauguration. So if we're not going to take the path Frost took by good fortune, what options are there? In a sense we have to argue our point -- we have to give reasons for thinking that there is more to the Inauguration than just a formal transitional ceremony. They don't have to be rigorously logical in organization or even rhetorically persuasive -- going this route makes your poem a propaganda poem, and propaganda doesn't need to prove or persuade, it just needs to establish a particular way of looking at things so that this way of looking at things is now part of our environment. But propaganda does need to provide reasons of a kind; it needs to show that this way of looking at things hangs together, to give reasons for thinking it not chimerical but a substantive view. We'd need a form of poem that would be suitable for this. I think Gorman has chosen her form very well; if your poem has to argue, a looser, declamatory form is often a good idea. The poetic figures you choose need to be able to function as rhetorical figures -- alliteration, repetition, and the like. And Gorman's poem is reasonably successful in this way. It's far from perfectly so. The image-jumbling weakens it, and the argument gets flabby in the middle (a common problem with poems of this length, however well constructed otherwise). The entire section about democracy is just not very good, which is unfortunate because it is actually a major component of the argument:

We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy
And this effort very nearly succeeded
But while democracy can be periodically delayed
it can never be permanently defeated

This sits badly in its context, with several long prose-y lines clumped together right where the argument needs to be hammering home a point in a concise and vivid way. This is the one part of the poem where the alliteration trips up the flow of thought rather than easing it. Shatter/share works, but then we hit 'destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy', which does not flow quite so easily off the tongue, and what's worse, we keep going with it: succeeded, democracy, periodically delayed, permanently defeated. D-d-d-d-d-d-d, we find ourselves stuttering along with unexpected polysyllables. We've lost the help of images  -- we've a whole series of vague and abstract concepts. And it doesn't even have the justification of telling us clearly what happened -- nobody could guess what is being described if they didn't already know it. That doesn't hurt it as propaganda, but it does hurt it as poem. Thought, imagination, and ear are all tripped up here, and everything in poetry, absolutely everything, needs adequate justification from at least one of the three.

However, for the most part the poem is a good example of what you would do if you wanted a poem to be read aloud rather than, as many poems today are made to be, to be read on a page. Most of the poem is not like the democracy passage, where the propagandizing outpaces the poeticizing; most of the time they are held in fruitful tension. As propaganda poems go, it largely sounds well, and largely reads well, and both count for a great deal in poetry.

There are some things that are arguably not the best choice for an Inaugural poem in general. Introducing autobiography is a bad sign, but it's a sign of Gorman's skill that this is less of a problem here than it would usually be -- it's certainly the case that her handling of it is better and smoother than Blanco's. At one point, she has a passage that seems in poor taste for an Inaugural poem:

And yes we are far from polished
far from pristine
but that doesn’t mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect
We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man
Forming a more perfect union is one of the explicit purposes of the Constitution, and here we find it rejected as inconsistent with the goals of America under the Biden Administration, which I can only imagine was not really what was intended to be conveyed. 'Perfect' in the Preamble, of course, means 'complete'; what seems clearly to have happened here was that the phrase gets tangled up with the meaning of 'perfect' as associated with 'polished' and 'pristine', and no thought was taken to how the tangle of the phrase with 'perfect' in another sense would mess up the meaning. And it is likewise a problem to devote an entire section of your Inaugural poem to how a bunch of people are your enemies. The poem ends with some beautiful, resounding We's; but it turns out not to be We in the sense of all of us, but We in the sense of the ones who are opposed to those other people whom the poem characterizes as destructive forces of darkness. But none of these problems with the poem as Inaugural are handled in a way that cause problems for the poem as a poem. Nor, for that matter, do any of them cause problems for its being a propaganda poem in particular.

So all things told, I think it ends up being a reasonable success. It's still not on the level of "The Gift Outright". Maya Angelou's "On the Pulse of the Morning" involves much, much more skillful use of imagery, but Gorman's poem is a much better fit to the occasion, and much more successful in a number of other ways. I think I would put it somewhat ahead of Angelou's poem. Since "The Gift Outright" and "On the Pulse of the Morning" were far and away the best Inaugural poems so far, "The Hill We Climb" is of course better poetry than the others -- Blanco's "One Today", Williams's "Of History and Hope", and Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day, Praise Song for Struggle" -- on a very long list of points. 

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