This post is a slight rant against Amanda Gormon’s poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
Now, I do not want to bash this young woman. She seems perfectly wonderful, and she obviously has more success in her writing than I do. Here I am on a blog, and there she is reading for the President of the United States. She is obviously good at what she does. This isn’t a take-down of politics, a “hidden ideology,” or lots of the other stuff I normally write about. This is literally about poetry, which I like to write in my spare time. So this “rant” is not about her. It’s about what “poetry” is these days.
Yes, this is a blog post about literature and style. It is that level of nerdiness. It is also about why many people hate poetry and just don’t “get it.” So, even though Amanda Gorman is good at the poetry she writes, I am not complaining about her AT ALL. I’m complaining about what “poetry” has become.
I watched the reading, and its presentation had the same tone, tenor, and pace of the “poetry” I’ve seen in many places these days. Here’s my problem with the poem: IT IS NOT POETRY. If you read it at a different pace, it is A SPEECH. In fact, even at the pace she gave, it was a speech.
Now, granted, it is a good speech. It has random rhymes with no real pattern (just like a speech). It has a nice flow, but no real meter (just like a speech). It has poetic metaphors, phrases, and analogy, but no set structure (just like a speech). It is a good speech, but it is a speech. It is not a poem, except for the fact that it has odd spacing when printed.
Below is the text of her speech, taken from the CNN reporting of its contents, which you can find at this link. To demonstrate how the poem is a speech, I have taken the precise text of the speech and reproduced it below. Except that I have taken out the line breaks and capitalization that the line breaks are based on. I will not reflect her reading in the text either. In other words, I’ve removed all of the things that make it LOOK like a poem. Instead, I’ve put it in paragraph form. Press play on the video and read along to see my point.
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, somehow we do it. Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished. We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny black girl — descended from slaves and raised by a single mother — can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.
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.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. We lay down our arms, so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none, and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped. That even as we tired, we tried. That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious — not because we will never again know defeat — but because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid. If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promised glade, the hill we climb — if only we dare.
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit; it’s the past we step into, and how we repair it. 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. In this truth, in this faith, we trust. For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us. This is the era of just redemption we feared at its inception. We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour, but within it we found the power to author a new chapter: to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So while once we asked, “How could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?” Now we assert, “How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?” We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be. A country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free. We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation, because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation. Our blunders become their burdens. But one thing is certain: If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy, and change our children’s birthright.
So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left with. Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest: we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one. We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west! We will rise from the windswept northeast, where our forefathers first realized revolution! We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states! We will rise from the sunbaked south! We will rebuild, reconcile and recover! And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country! Our people — diverse and beautiful — will emerge, battered and beautiful, when day comes. We step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it! For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it
Notice how this merely reads like a very good speech. Why? Because it is one.
To see what’s going on, notice the similarity of her tone and speech patters, which are somewhat deliberately (or maybe subconsciously) modeled after the pattern of speech of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Notice how he speaks in his “I have a dream” speech:
Now let’s get something straight: That is a DARN good way to give a speech, and it is worth emulating (if you can pull it off). But here’s something else to notice. IT IS A SPEECH. Does it have poetic elements? Of course. Every good speech does. But poetry is supposed to be a level up.
So, I once again want to say that this woman DID NOT DO A BAD JOB. In fact, she KILLED IT. It got rave reviews, and she obviously earned her spot on the stage.
My only point is that she earned her spot on the stage as a really good speech giver. She did not earn her spot on the stage as a poet. In the same way, Justin Timberlake earned his spot in the concert as an excellent performer. He did not earn his spot in the concert as an opera singer.
Contrast to Other Poems That Are Actually “Poems.”
To illustrate my point even further, I am going to give the same treatment to a poem by Robert Frost, which has meter and rhyme. I am taking away the spacing and capitalization, but when you read it, you can still see that it is A POEM:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and — sorry — I could not travel both. And be one traveler, long I stood, and looked down one as far as I could, to where it bent in the undergrowth. Then took the other, as just as fair — and having perhaps the better claim because it was grassy and wanted wear. Though as for that, the passing there had worn them really about the same. And both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
Robert Frost is a good comparison, because it is not PERFECT in the meter and rhyme and all, but it is still there. You can still get it. That’s a poem, and no, the rules aren’t set in stone. You don’t have to slavishly follow meter and rhyme. But you can see that there is meter and rhyme. That’s what makes a poem a poem.
Notice what I mean. Look at how Langston Hughes’ poem has the flow while keeping the language and words that are quite “down to earth.” It is difficult to read the following WITHOUT falling into the appropriate rhythm of the poem:
by Langston Hughes
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
That is short, simple, straightforward, and quite good. You can see the style. You can see how it should be read. And that structure remains, even if you change the way you read it. You can add a dramatic pause after each first line of the stanza, and rush through the remaining lines. It works. You could also add a dramatic pause after every line. That works, too. The structure of the poem remains. That doesn’t apply to Ms. Gorman’s poem (even though it was an excellent speech).
And you don’t even need rhyme. As a comparison, note Longfellow’s poem the Song of Hiawatha, perhaps the strongest form of rhythmic poetry that I can find exists. It’s so strong, the lack of rhyme is not noticed, because the attention is completely directed at the inherent “Indian drum” rhythm of the words themselves (not in any strained reading of the words):
SONG OF HIAWATHA (excerpt)
Henry W. Longfellow
Should you ask me, whence these stories?
Whence these legends and traditions,
With the odors of the forest
With the dew and damp of meadows,
With the curling smoke of wigwams,
With the rushing of great rivers,
With their frequent repetitions,
And their wild reverberations
As of thunder in the mountains?
Notice how the words are normally emphasized:
SHOULD you ASK me WHENCE these STORies?
WHENCE these LEgends AND traDItions
WITH the Odors OF the FORest
WITH the DEW and DAMP of MEADows
WITH the CURLing SMOKE of WIGwams
WITH the RUSHing OF great RIVers
WITH their FREquent REPeTItions
AND their WILD reVERBerAtions
AS of THUNder IN the MOUNtains?
It doesn’t rhyme, but it doesn’t need to. That rhythm is preserved for pages and pages and pages and PAGES. It’s quite mesmerizing. When you read it, you can almost picture an Indian dancing to the rhythm, and that’s the point.
What is important is that the rhythm of the poem is not preserved in “the performance” of the poem. It’s preserved in THE WORDS of the poem. The rhythm is inherent. That’s good poetry.
Free Verse Rightly Used
And to be clear, you don’t even need to have an inherent rhythm, either. If you do a good enough job, you can write in free verse. Free verse is poetry without meter or rhyme. The repetition and organization of the lines themselves can give the rhythm. That is legitimate, but it is hard.
Isn’t poetry without meter or rhyme just prose? Usually yes. But if you’re good enough, not so. Take a look at the following poem:
THE SUMMER DAY
by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
As you can see, this poem is structured differently than what we read with Ms. Gorman. Mary Oliver’s writing is descriptive, not a call to action (even though it is). Additionally, notice the repetition and pairing in the poem, which is accented by the spacing on the page. Notice the structure that the reader can pick up on, even without hearing it read:
- “Who, who, who”
- “the one, the one,”
- “who is, who is”
- “Now, Now”
- “I don’t know, I do know”
- how, how how
- Tell me, tell me
Most people go to Free Verse, which is HARD. But people don’t go to free verse because it is hard. They go to it because it is easy. Here’s a good rule for you: If metered poetry is hard, you are not allowed to do free verse poetry. Mary Oliver literally “wrote the book” on metered poetry. I highly recommend it. It is called “The Rules of the Dance,” and she’s earned her right to write free verse.
But that’s about the edge of what can rightly be called “poetry” if that word has any meaning at all.
My Problem With “Spoken Word” Poetry
Almost ALL poetry these days is what would be called “free verse.” I think this is a HUUUUGE problem. And I’m not even talking about the worst offenders. (Looking at you, Rupi Kaur.)
So I’m going to take aim at the main offender in this free verse stuff. This is not the low-hanging fruit. I’m talking about “spoken word” poetry. Now, I don’t exactly have a problem with “spoken word” poetry, per se. It can be quite good. The only problem I have is that it is not “poetry” in any meaningful sense.
Take a look at a typical spoken word performance:
Now, that was good. It’s hard to argue that. But that wasn’t a poem. That was a story. It had the rhythm of a song. It had the energy of a performance. It would have been terrible (or downright confusing) if we saw it in any other medium than that. There was no organization, except that it was modeled after the mind of someone with obsessive compulsive disorder. And that’s the point.
How is that a “poem”?
Here’s another one:
Once again, that’s pretty good. Excellent, in fact. But notice how it is REQUIRED to be a duet. Could such a performance even be written down or read by one person? If it was, wouldn’t it need to take the form of the script of a play rather than the form of a poem? Notice how much acting there was in the “poetry.” Doesn’t that make it a one-act play or some two-person monologue?
How is that poetry?
And this applies to Amanda Gorman’s “poem,” too. It was more “spoken word” than it was a poem. But just like the “spoken word” examples above, it was not poetry.
It was a speech. A good speech? Yes. But poetry is more than a speech. Regardless of the merits of spoken word poetry, it’s something less than true poetry.
And that’s why I didn’t like Amanda Gorman’s poem at the inauguration. It’s nothing against her. At least hers was nice to listen to. My problem is with almost ALL poetry that is produced today. NONE OF THIS STUFF IS POETRY. And for that reason, most of it stinks.
Sometimes poems are more “song” than poem. Sometimes poems are more “performance” than poem. Sometimes poems are more “speech” than “poem.” There is nothing wrong with speeches, performances, or songs. Each has its merits. But we don’t call a photograph a painting. We don’t call a movie a photograph. We don’t call a play a movie.
Though every medium has its merits, you can’t mix the mediums and claim it is something it is not. If you don’t make these distinctions, how do you differentiate between “an excellent impressionist painting” and “a photograph with bad focus”? How do you differentiate between “terrible cinematography” and “a play.” How do you distinguish between “Best supporting actor” and “Best actor”? How do you distinguish between “not realistic at all” and “a great a musical.” You can’t. And that’s the problem.
So, nothing against Amanda Gorman personally (she did great!), but we need to take “poetry” back.
Give it meter. Give it rhyme.
Follow rules, every time.
If by these, you show you’re great,
Then to free verse you graduate.
But careful, child. Don’t be a fool
By thinking broken forms are cool.
Free verse is not a freedom gained.
It mostly leaves the reader pained.