Sunday, January 31, 2021

Of "poetry and power," Robert Frost and his inaugural successors have thought big

On that uplifting day of January 20, someone near and dear to me texted for my opinion of

Amanda Gorman causes sensation with "The Hill We Climb"

Amanda Gorman's performance of her poem at the Inauguration, and what I thought of "The Hill We Climb" itself.

I replied that it suited the occasion, yet seemed too oratorical for my taste. I became more aware of its integrity and skill as poetry once I saw the text: The tone is well-measured, intense, and appealing, and the rhymes (ranging from true rhymes through "slant"or para-rhymes, to assonance [matching vowel sounds]) ring out, sometimes in close-order drill, sometimes more spread out. There's alliteration and the line parallelism known in rhetoric as anaphora.

But oratory still seems the main category of discourse in which Gorman's poem takes its historic place. And of course her delivery and poise — her very presence — displayed mastery, a splendor that amounted to more than her bright yellow coat. She put "The Hill We Climb" across expertly, as so much chatter and media coverage over the past ten days have attested.

While it once seemed a compliment to mention that "The Hill We Climb" suited the occasion, I've since decided it really did not. But the same charge could be leveled at all the poems delivered at presidential inaugurations since Robert Frost, with the sun in his eyes, recited  "The Gift Outright." None of what audiences heard from poets at these august ceremonies has addressed the country in terms of the transition to a new presidential term.

Ironically, the poem Frost wrote for the 1961 inauguration of John F. Kennedy and intended to deliver was so focused. You can find it in the much-honored poet's slim final volume, "In the Clearing." That day's blinding sun forced Frost to recite from memory the older poem. 

Crafted expertly in the loose unrhymed iambic pentameter ("blank verse") of which Frost was a master,"The Gift Outright" is a little embarrassing today, as it celebrates ambivalently the America of white settlement and implies that "we" had ownership of the continent without the means of identifying with what we owned and truly knowing what it was  and by implication what we were as a nation. It is an insightful vision from a certain narrow perspective, parenthetically conceding the violence required to oust the land's original inhabitants. The poem oddly makes early Americans seem shy about taking over the land, when in fact the British crown's restrictions on westward settlement are among the complaints in the Declaration of Independence. ("...it was ourselves / We were withholding from our land of living / And forthwith found salvation in surrender.")  I can hear Native Americans' rejoinder: "It was OUR surrender, white man, and you found only YOUR salvation!"

Sixty years ago, Robert Frost struggled to read his new poem as the new president looked on.

That's  enough about "The Gift Outright," which accidentally set a pattern for subsequent words of poetry uttered from the Capitol steps on wintry Washington days.  Frost took a retrospective look, but he presented a vision of America that floated free of the occasion.  In the new, longer poem he intended to deliver, he addressed that occasion quite suitably. "For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration" opens with a deft expression of gratitude for the yoking of politics and poetry that the invitation signaled.  There is a thumbnail sketch of the historical circumstances and the idealism that Americans link to their country, a wry reflection on the Latin phrase on the dollar bill and what it may require of us ("'New order of the ages' did we say? / If it looks none too orderly today, / 'Tis a confusion it was ours to start / So in it have to take courageous part.") An allusion to Kennedy's book "Profiles in Courage" is deftly placed without flattery, and the poem moves to its conclusion acknowledging America's superior place in the family of nations (highly questionable today) and lands squarely on the portent of the ceremony itself, heralding a "golden age of poetry and power / Of which this noonday's the beginning hour.")

Despite hints of the crackerbarrel perspective that endeared him to generations, the poem Frost prepared for Kennedy's inauguration is a sophisticated interweaving of American idealism and the ongoing work of making our national experiment successful, holding up the presidency as the chief exemplar. Look through the inaugural contributions of Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Richard Blanco, Elizabeth Alexander and now Amanda Gorman and you find little sense of what America's Chief Executive is all about, how it is an office that fleshes out our hallowed documents' promises and obligations by putting one man (so far!) in a position of power that almost contradicts the people's sovereignty over all. 

Fourth of July oratory, cast in an array of variable poetic competence, is what six poets across the span of sixty years have offered. Sentiments meant to inspire Americans have been expressed in personal terms six times. I don't mean to say that inaugural poems are mere variations of one another, but they are invariably lofty appeals to our better selves, with the accidental exception of "The Gift Outright,"  which mainly looks backward. "For John F, Kennedy His Inauguration" could have been a model, but circumstances obscured it.

What is the presidency's relationship to the nation? What do we celebrate when we inaugurate a new presidential term? Amanda Gorman makes one allusion to such questions in raising the specter of January 6. For a poet who once told an audience that all poetry is political, in "The Hill We Climb" she turns aside from politics at a time when the institution that brought her to an international stage is endangered more than ever before by the stubborn fantasies of the office's immediately previous occupant.

"There is a call to live a little sterner, / And braver for the earner, learner, yearner,"  Frost writes about our form of government in his undelivered inaugural poem. It's the kind of couplet Gorman could endorse, I suspect, in part for the kind of cheek-by-jowl rhyming she sometimes favors in her own work. Uniquely, Frost puts the president at the apex of this call to live.

For his successors, in contrast, "we" is the hard-working pronoun in all their poems. The better angels of our nature are called upon to flap their wings to a frazzle. Walt Whitman is the bardic spirit behind these effusions. There are new versions of the characteristic Whitman lists and snapshots from the common life of Americans. From the Obama era, they fill up Richard Blanco's "One Day" (2013). and Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day" (2009).

There is the explicit geographic expansiveness from the Good Grey Poet as well as that

Maya Angelou bade us good morning in 1993.

envisioned by Woody Guthrie and  Martin Luther King Jr., (Gorman). There are sermonizing answers to rhetorical questions (Miller Williams, "Of History and Hope," 1997), also a Whitman trait. Maya Angelou, besides Frost perhaps the most widely admired of Gorman's predecessors, draws upon the Psalmist as well as Whitman (especially his roll calls of ethnic diversity) in "On the Pulse of Morning" (1993). Angelou's impressive adaptation of mythology and natural history is weakened at the end by this sappy verse:

Here, on the pulse of this new day

You may have the grace to look up and out

And into your sister's eyes, and into

Your brother's face, your country

And say simply 

Very simply

With hope —

Good morning. 

Gorman similarly tells us what we should do and the grace we may have, though our assignment is only distantly related to government and the chief executive. She abandons the metaphorical meaning of her title (the phrase comes up once in the poem) and sets aside imagery of hill climbing to lift up rising from those very hills (specifically "the gold-limbed [does she mean "limned"?] hills of the west"). 

That line is in a climactic series of anaphoras prophesying emergence from the "never-ending shade" she evoked darkly at the beginning of the poem. "And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it," she informs us, echoing and superseding  Frost's "The land was ours before we were the land's." Possession precedes knowledge, wonderfully enough. But where Frost stakes claims to mere land on our behalf, Gorman boldly asserts our permanent capture of light. She ends her poem so specifically identifying Americans with light that she thumps home shopworn biblical promises ("you are the light of the world") to that effect, "if only we're brave enough to be it." 

This is a form of bravery beyond that which will allow our government to succeed, to "build back better," in the poetically unwelcomed newcomer's phrase. The nation that Gorman has assured us isn't broken, but unfinished, apparently has little to do with how we are governed. In the young poet's view, and in the tradition of inaugural poetry she inherits, it has to do with a kind of grace or wish-fulfillment we seem to have access to through our inherent goodness, the variety of our lives and the promises we make to ourselves. To me, that isn't enough — or in another sense it's too much — to adequately come to grips with the meaning of presidential succession, especially at a time when that is being so ominously challenged and resisted. Like Angelou, the celebrated Amanda Gorman has wished us a gauzy good morning.

 

 

 

 




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