On January 20, a star was born in Washington, DC, during the inauguration of the 46th president of the United States — a 78-year-old white man taking over from a 74-year-old sore loser. Before the swearing-in, an unknown 22-year-old black female strode up to the podium. She embodied the Democratic Party’s commitment to identity politics. With her expressive voice, she recited a rap-influenced poem celebrating the new dawn that would emerge after the nation’s weathering of hurricane Donald. (“Dawn” and “weathered” followed by “belly of the beast” and the metaphor of wading a sea were among the stale images that appeared in the early lines of the poem).
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The art of poetry, long neglected in US culture, has now emerged from the shadows of cultural neglect. On February 7, it reached a pinnacle as the same young poet was invited to occupy the nation’s most prestigious stage and bask in the bright, intense spotlight of the Super Bowl. After starring in President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Amanda Gorman has become the new face and the fluid voice of a newly hopeful America, a nation run by aging white men who demonstrate their youthful spirit by promoting diverse young talents charged with renewing the veneer of political hyperreality.
The Super Bowl halftime show featured a video clip of Gorman performing her poem, “Chorus of the Captains.” Her recital was accompanied by the kind of dramatic orchestral score typical of patriotic political ads. Its emotional crescendo rose to a climax as Gorman spoke these lines:
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
What could be more appropriate than the verb “charge on” for a poem celebrating a sport with a reputation for addling the brains of its players? Americans have largely positive associations with the idea of charging, whether the object charged is the enemy lines or a commodity being purchased. Americans are happy when their iPhones are fully charged and their cars supercharged. On the other hand, being charged with a crime evokes negative associations, unless it’s spectacular enough a crime to propel the subject from obscurity to fame. For many Americans, anything that makes people famous must be good.
The heroes Gorman names are warriors, champions and captains. They have the perfect American profile: assertive and aggressive but kind. They radiate the authority that incites their followers to “carry forth” their “call.” Gorman may have been thinking of former President Donald Trump, whose troops carried forth his call as far as the Senate chambers in January. Gorman recognizes what makes Americans resonate, especially those convinced that what they are doing “is right and just.”
The acts ascribed to Gorman’s heroes convey a spirit of charity, generosity and solidarity. The first is a former Marine who, in all probability, unthinkingly followed the dictates of his government to engage in mortal combat with people he knew nothing about, but, having survived, responded to the needs of his community by “livestreaming football for family and fans.” Super Bowl spectators will be sensitive to the value of this gesture. Like any good entertainer, Gorman clearly understands the profile of her audience.
The second hero is a teacher who does things that help students “succeed in life and in schools.” Nothing is more American than success. It’s a competitive world and everyone is called upon by their captains to pursue success, even though only a few will attain it, and fewer still by the age of 22. Fortunately, it’s a humiliation most Americans courageously learn to live with.
Then Gorman introduces the nurse, whose self-abnegation proves that “even in tragedy, hope is possible.” Actually, speaking as a literary critic, it isn’t. In tragedy, hopes are introduced only to be dashed. Characters in great tragedies who express the conviction that “hope is possible” will be disappointed, unless, as in Macbeth, their hope is that the guilty king will die in the final act. Aristotle taught us that the poignant poetry we associate with tragedy inspires pity and fear, not hope.
Perhaps Gorman thinks the American tragedy is different, as in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “Last Action Hero,” where the film’s hero, a child, hopes that Hamlet will kill his cruel uncle, inherit the throne, remove everything that’s rotten in the state of Denmark (“drain the swamp” as Trump would put it), and stabilize the country for decades to come. That is a “consummation devoutly to be wished,” far better than Hamlet’s submission to the “special providence” he sees “in the fall of a sparrow.” And it avoids having to accept the idea that “the rest is silence.”
Apart from rare examples of epic poetry, from Homer and Virgil to Milton, in which mature poets with powerful voices and incredible stamina produced monumental literary productions for the glory of their nations, poetry has always been a poor man’s art. Even great poets never sought to make a living from poetry. The immensely influential Arthur Rimbaud wrote all his poetry before the age of 20 and then went off to traffic arms in the desert.
For most great poets, writing and eventually publishing poetry required a serious loyalty to the tradition and a radical sense of self-effacement. Poetry is the one literary discipline whose only expected reward was a handful of motivated and respectful readers, one or two of which might be suitably rich, patrons inclined to encourage the poet’s production. “Professional poets, who write beautiful and rhythmic words for a living, almost always have day jobs that pay the bills,” according to Bangladeshi poet Zubair Ahmed. Successful poets, he tells us, “are writing in defiance of market forces, driven by the love of their craft.”
American culture has rarely honored its poets. Walt Whitman was a journalist who made a splash with his poetry by creating verse recognizable as coming from the national voice, distinguishing American poetry from the British tradition. Robert Frost, the closest thing to a professional poet, made his mark as a New England voice. Carl Sandberg was a Chicago poet and Langston Hughes a black Harlem bard. These examples highlight the importance of branding for success or celebrity in the US. T.S. Eliot, arguably the most influential and respected of American poets, chose a more purely aesthetic path and ended up as a British poet, having changed his nationality and found his place in a more broadly European tradition.
Most recognized poets earned their reputations slowly and most often painfully. Amanda Gorman is the product of contemporary celebrity culture, where the talented have no time to waste in their quest to impose their brand. This is the world of “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent” in which budding young talents, strong on well-honed technique, a sense of personal image and the ability to duplicate stylistic features associated with commercially successful standards of quality, compete to be applauded by seasoned professionals. With the right amount of luck, some become immediate cultural commodities.
Gorman may be the first to do it with poetry. Frost was an old man when John F. Kennedy invited him to his presidential inauguration in 1961. Maya Angelou was nearly 65 when Bill Clinton followed Kennedy’s example and invited a poet to his inauguration. Democrats now feel impelled to invite a poet to boost their image as aesthetes, something no Republican president has bothered to do.
Gorman demonstrated her personal self-belief and her commercial acumen by getting a spot at the Super Bowl. She did it in the way any celebrity would do. Jack Coyle, in an article for Associated Press, explains: “Shortly after the inauguration, she signed with IMG Models, an agency that represents supermodels, tennis star Naomi Osaka and playwright Jeremy O. Harris. This week, she covers Time Magazine, in an interview conducted by Michelle Obama.” As a young practitioner of letters, Gorman may have noticed that the initials of “poetry reading” are PR.