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The Day – Amanda Gorman gives poetry ‘a big lift’

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There’s no underestimating the magical, almost laboratory-strength reaction when inspiration and talent collide with opportunity.

On Wednesday, during the inauguration ceremony for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, the country’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, stepped to the podium. With electric grace, Gorman recited “The Hill We Climb,” a poem she largely wrote in real-time on Jan. 6 as she watched the militant assault on the Capitol.

Gorman’s lines and charismatic delivery instantly resonated in a fashion that’s making writers, educators, ordinary citizens and young persons across the country wonder if, indeed, this could trigger a new awareness of and interest in the power of poetry. At the same time, though, there is also a healthy skepticism from some who are wary of similar and well-intentioned events in the past that ultimately failed to sustain momentum.

Classroom discussion

In area schools and young persons’ arts organizations Thursday and Friday, teachers and students throughout the region reacted.

Jake St. John, a published poet who teaches fifth and sixth grade writing and social studies at Voluntown Elementary School, was so moved by Gorman that his first instinct was to share and discuss the work with his students.

“I thought she was exceptional,” said St. John, whose first collection of poetry is called “Lost City Highway.” “Her presentation of ‘The Hill We Climb’ was exactly what it needed to be for the audience — and Amanda was everything America needed at that moment. Her message of a brighter future is something we should all strive for, and she’s a tremendously talented young woman who I hope opens many doors to even younger women and men to discover poetry.”

In classes Thursday, St. John showed a recording of Gorman’s inaugural reading and said he got “really great responses,” many of which revolved around how people shouldn’t be treated differently because of race. St. John quoted one student who said, “Watching her read, I was thinking we can change the world together.”

Quick energy and optimism were quantifiable, but some are taking a more cautious approach.

At Writer’s Block InK in New London, the focus of the Friday evening Block Talk Workshop was on Gorman and her poem. Juanita Wilbur, the organization’s senior director, said that students and Block Ambassadors participating in the meeting were all particularly moved by one stanza of “The Hill We Climb”:

“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.”

“In all, we were inspired by Gorman’s swift eloquence and heavy, thought-provoking words,” Wilbur said, “but the harsh reality of America’s obsession with pretending to address problems and (then) slowly forgetting about them will make others forget the words that resonated with them … Overall, the girls expressed they couldn’t receive the poem the way they wanted because they were so distracted by the reactions it caused.”

Wilbur described the representative threads that went through the workshop. She said, “Dehjah, one of our Black youth, said, ‘I don’t know how else to say it, but it felt like people were over-compensating for their guilt of the racism that we faced.'”

Wilbur added, “Shya, another Black youth, said, ‘People were so focused on (Gorman’s) life and how great she sounded and looked, and even thought they heard her message, I don’t think they heard it the way people like us (artists and activists) heard it.’ And a white youth, Cate, who stands in solidarity, told us, ‘Gorman’s poem was definitely needed, and I thought it was beautiful and passionately spoken, but I feel like if (Donald) Trump had never happened, she probably wouldn’t have been selected to read a poem about overcoming racism.'”

However students react, the fact that the poem and the poet caused such attention is valuable as a conversation starter and a tool for teachers to explore students’ needs, said Joseph Macrino, principal at Oswegatchie Elementary School in Waterford.

“As we all process the world around us,” Macrino said, “the exploration of poetry opens up a forum where students have the opportunity to listen to and present individual perspectives.”

He described walking from a classroom on Thursday, hearing a variety of student and teacher reactions to Gorman and her poem: “It was not about ‘This is what the poem means” but rather ‘What does this line of poetry mean to YOU?'”

“There were no wallflowers in these discussions, and teachers were given a deeper view of how they can support their students on both academic and social/emotional levels. One student said, ‘It’s so cool that one line can have pages of meaning’ and another said, ‘I thought poems express your feelings, but when (Gorman) read, it made me FEEL it.'”

A literary response

Along with student and teacher response, established poets across southeastern Connecticut also weighed in on the strength of the work and possibilities for wide-ranging, sustained effect.

“Amanda Gorman was phenomenal,” said Rhonda Ward, New London poet laureate. “Her poem was a beautiful tribute to who we have been, who we are, and who we can be as a nation.”

Christie Max Williams, a poet/actor who for many years curated the Arts Café Mystic music and poetry series and brought some of the country’s most esteemed poets to the area, said, “Amanda Gorman’s poem had much that I like. There’s a powerful cadence — emphasized by her cadenced reading — and a hint of rhyming that points to the useful legacy of hip hop. She also trusts in rhetoric in the fashion of Martin Luther King Jr.”

“For a poem of occasion, these are strong attributes. Is Amanda’s a great poem? Who knows? We must give it time and consider it on the page. But for the occasion, it was a great poem — inspiring, wise, big-hearted and tough.”

And Margaret Gibson, poet laureate for the state of Connecticut, said, “A poet puts into words what the rest might want to say but don’t know how to. In these times, when lies and fractures have been so prevalent, we were given a poet who is also a truth-teller, who can look beyond the needs and desires of a single self and focus on a nation in a critical time. Amanda’s poem comes to us also out of the rap poetry tradition — the eloquence of its rhythmic plain-talk (was) just right for the occasion.”

Not everyone was as impressed by “The Hill We Climb.” Poet Gray Jacobik, a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship recipient who’s won the Yeats Prize and the Emily Dickinson prize, acknowledged a personal background in and preference for “a different tradition of poetry.”

“I thought Amanda was beautiful, elegant and gracious, and clearly a bright and luminous spirit. And, in terms of presence, she was a glorious vision,” Jacobik said. “However, I found the poem full of abstractions, devoid of imagery, or metaphor, or any other figure of speech … She comes out of the recent tradition of spoken-word or performance poetry that has its origins in the poetry slams of the 1990s. It’s not what I think of as literary poetry … I know I sound like a like a terrible snob, but I come from a completely different tradition. Doubtless the future is with the tradition Amanda hails from …”

A big day for poetry?

Ultimately, then, and remembering the flash-tide of momentum can spontaneously rise through social media, is it reasonable to speculate if the excitement of Gorman’s reading could possibly launch a new and expanded interest in poetry?

“I don’t know whether we experienced a ‘big day’ for poetry, but I can’t help but think Amanda Gorman will be an inspiration in particular for young people,” Gibson said. “It makes me think that programs in Connecticut that work with younger students in the arts have been given a big lift, and I hope that also translates into funding to support education and special programs for the arts.”

Williams enthusiastically said Gorman’s reading will result in a bigger audience for poetry and that he expects kids will want to emulate her.

“Every time poetry is given a big stage, the world takes notice,” he said. “At weddings, funerals and other mighty events, poetry is the only thing that fulfills our yearning to be exalted. I hope Amanda’s poem will unleash poets to presume to speak for us as a people — rather than to belabor poetry as a form of personal therapy. And I hope Amanda’s model will inspire young writers to muster courage in the creation of their voices.”

And Ward, who has worked extensively with young people not only as New London poet laureate but with Writer’s Block InK and the Connecticut Office of the Arts and the national Poetry Out Loud competitions, said, “I’m hopeful that this nation will begin to explore poetry on a more personal level and come to understand that poets represent the voices of the people. I think Miss Gorman’s poem and her presentation will be a catalyst for that. … When we create spaces for young people to explore their creativity, the outcome is Amanda Gorman and so many young poets and creatives — many of whom remain in obscurity but determined in the pursuit of their passions.”

After the Writer’s Block InK workshop, Wilbur said, “(I think we worry) that the obsession over Amanda Gorman and her poem is similar to many public claims from corporations and businesses to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, but also haven’t done anything to contribute to Black individuals, communities or businesses.”

It’s early yet. But maybe Gorman and “The Hill We Climb” will in fact spur a new awareness of and interest in poetry. As Ward said, “The United States is a hurting and divided nation right now. Finding ways to move forward and bring understanding is the responsibility of every American. Poets — and poetry — will play a part in that process.”

r.koster@theday.com

 

The Day is seeking inauguration-inspired youth poetry submissions

To showcase the work of young local poets, we are asking for southeastern Connecticut residents 25 and under to submit video recordings of themselves reading their own original poetry.

We hope you were as inspired as we were by 22-year-old Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s show-stopping recitation of her poem “The Hill We Climb” at Wednesday’s inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. To help us all maintain the momentum of this promising moment, and showcase the work of young local poets, we are asking for poets 25 and under to produce a 30-second video of themselves reciting their own poem of hope. We will feature some of the poetry in our Daybreak section, online and in print. To submit, please send us a short clip of you reciting your poem in one of the following ways:

  • Send us a YouTube, Twitter, Instagram or Facebook video link of your performance.
  • Send us a voice memo recorded on your smartphone.
  • Email us at k.florin@theday.com.





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