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Does Amanda Gorman’s poem match up to the standards of the best Anglophone poetry by Black poets?

Performance of hope: Amanda Gorman recites a poem during the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

You can read the poem Amanda Gorman recited at President Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony — celebrated by even snooty publications like The New Yorker — simply as a speech. It cannot be faulted there. It is full of the right sentiments and hopes, coming at the end of the long night of Donald Trump’s misrule. It does not come close to the great speeches of history — by Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth or Martin Luther King — but we do not live in an age that sets exacting standards in oratory. If we had, Trump would never have existed.

But Gorman’s text was also presented and read, and acclaimed, as a poem. That is where the trouble starts. Is there a major difference between people who acclaim a political leader despite his bad policies because they agree with his (good or bad) views, and people who acclaim a weak poem because they agree with the poet’s (good) views? This controversy erupted on Twitter, and it ended with the unasked question: If we lower the standards of policy or poetry for a person, adducing age, sex, colour or correct opinion as an excuse, then are we doing any favour to the person or the cause?

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Standard clichés

The question assumes significance due to various attempts to ‘defend’ Gorman’s poem by bringing up the different traditions of Black poetry. If Gorman’s poem is an expression of this tradition at its best, then it’s a good defence. If not, then, to my mind, it does gross injustice to both Gorman as a person, and to Black poetry. The white women who posted on Twitter about Gorman’s elegance and poise seem to me to be indulging in a kind of well-meaning racism: it is a version of the racism that makes coloured people take care to appear well-dressed, refined, suave. That is not what is required of a poem.

Does Gorman’s poem match up to the high standards of the best Anglophone poetry by Black poets? You need not compare her efforts to works like Derek Walcott’s Omeros, for that might be considered too literary an example. Let us compare it to shorter poems that, to my mind, are among the great poems of the English language today. Note, I say the English language, not Black poetry.

 

This is how Gorman’s poem starts: “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.” It is a decent start — for a student’s poem. It is full of standard clichés, none of them redeemed by any twist of phrase or idea. One does not want to be a grammarian and point out that ‘shade’ is not just a cliché, but an inappropriate one, for it can convey repose and rest in sunny climates, such as the American South, and not necessarily ‘night.’ Such problems crop up throughout the poem — as they do in any poem by a talented student. An accomplished poet learns to go beyond them. It is not that clichés cannot be used; it’s how you use them.

Powerful cry

This, for instance, is how John Agard’s great short poem ‘Listen Mr Oxford Don’ starts: “Me not no Oxford don/ me a simple immigrant/ from Clapham Common/ I didn’t graduate/ I immigrate// But listen Mr Oxford don/ I’m a man on de run/ and a man on de run/ is a dangerous one.”

Agard is not shying away from clichés. He even uses the very dangerous social stereotype, common in the U.K. in the 80s when the poem was written, of the Caribbean/ Black man being a ‘mugger’. But as the poem develops, he stands all the clichés on their heads, uttering a powerful cry for the Black voice and ending with these deceptively simple lines: “So mek dem send one big word after me/ I ent serving no jail sentence/ I slashing suffix in self-defence/ I bashing future wit present tense/ and if necessary// I making de Queen’s English accessory to my offence.”

 

Here, the police car is the ‘big word’ of dictionary English, and then there follows a very sly and clever description of what Black English often does, while still using the ‘mugging’ images, and the poem ends with a statement that is both history and manifesto. The “Queen’s English” is “accessory to my offence” because that is what happens in English, and has always happened: it is a language made up of other languages, ranging all the way back to the initial creolisation of Latin, French, Germanic, Celtic and others.

Or let us look at how Louise Bennett uses the clichés of ‘colonisation’ in her excellent ‘Colonisation in Reverse’. Spoken by a woman addressing a ‘Miss Mattie’ in Jamaica, it plays in a tongue-in-cheek manner with white European blather about ‘reverse colonisation’ while also pointing out the role history has played in this. For instance, the ‘motherland’, which in colonial terms was always England: “Dem a pour out a Jamaica/ Everybody future plan/ Is fe get a big-time job/ An settle in de mother lan.”

Damn deep

If the use of words and ideas in Gorman’s poem does not come close to such registers in the best of poetry by Black poets, does the rhythm compensate? To an extent it does, at least in Gorman’s rendition, for she is obviously a good public speaker. But when you look at it on the page, and speak it out aloud, or even compare it to the great extracts of Black poetry, then you are left disappointed. Let us look at the final lines: “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.”

And let us then pose next to it such lines from Linton Kwesi Johnson’s great poem, ‘If I Woz a Tap Natch Poet’ (You can see Johnson performing it on YouTube.): “I would write a poem/ So damn deep/ That it bitter-sweet/ Like a precious/ Memory/ Will make you weep/ Will make you feel incomplete// Like when your lover leaves/ And though defeat you concede/ Still you beg and you plead/ Till you win a reprieve/ And you’re ready for rock steady/ But the music is done already// Still/ In the meantime/ With my rhythm/ With my rhyme/ With my rough base line/ With my own sense of time…”

I am sorry, but Gorman does not come up to these levels. Even if Frederick Douglass had written his great Fourth of July speech as a poem, we would have had to apply these ‘poetry’ standards to him. We are not doing Gorman a favour by extolling her poem much as we might agree with her hopes. Above all, we are not doing Black poetry a favour by setting the bar so low. It is this kind of blithe patronage of hope and difference that Biden’s America has to avoid if it is to prevent a relapse into Trumpid.

The writer is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.

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