On Wednesday night I sat in front of the news, watching the inauguration of the 46th president of the USA. Truthfully, I only had half an eye on it. Then 22-year-old Amanda Gorman stepped up to the microphone and read her stunning poem ‘The Hill We Climb. ’ I was captivated.
That’s when the texts came in. My group chats kicked off. I love it when this happens, when poetry gets a good and proper showcase and people think: “Better text Cecilia”. I don’t often speak about poetry to my mates. I’m usually either reading or writing on my own, trying to pitch to a group of year nines why poetry is so great, or I’m tucking myself away with other die-hard poetry fans during my Monday night writing group (which my boyfriend affectionately calls ‘Geek Fest’.)
The point I’m making is that on Wednesday night, people were reminded of poetry’s power. Poetry, so often kept on a dusty shelf, came screaming into the spotlight saying, “look at me! Look at what I am capable of!”
I’m the current Young People’s Laureate for London. My job, over this next year, is to raise the visibility of poetry for young people. It’s something I’ve always been extremely focussed on, having had my life transformed by my introduction to creative writing.
Raising the visibility of poetry is exactly what Gorman, the former National Youth Poet Laureate of the USA, did on Wednesday. She showed the power of poetry and what it can do. How it can respond to and challenge the world around us, protest and resist. How it can distil a feeling that is impossible to capture with our normal language or with political rhetoric. How it can help us to figure out ourselves and our moment, breed empathy for the lives of others, show what connects us and inspire hope.
Gorman achieved all this as a young black woman – centre stage in front of a sea of mostly white, much older politicians – delivering a charged, tightly-crafted, musical, vivid, accessible and unifying message; a message appealing for change, in front of millions, during a pandemic and a time of intense division. To say it is an achievement is an understatement.
Gorman models what poetry can do, but most importantly, she models that young people, and young black people, or young people from single parent families can do it. That poetry is a space they are entitled to; a space for them to discover themselves and their world, to have their say in their own voice. Seeing someone like yourself on stage, alongside popstars and politicians – having your voice and story valued – that’s empowering. We need more of this so that more young people can experience the benefits of poetry and crucially, the world can hear their stories.
Sadly, I’ve seen on Twitter a somewhat sneering response from some to Gorman’s poem. Some say it’s not a ‘proper’ poem – but this only leads me to wonder what a ‘proper’ poem is, and who gets to police if it meets that standard? Who created that standard in the first place, and why should young poets have to adhere to that?
It strikes me that Gorman’s poem is absolutely perfect for its context; both accessible to a wide audience, as well as beautiful and well-crafted. It may not be ‘difficult’, in the formally poetic sense, but it employed one of poetry’s key faculties: to move. Who says that something has to be oblique to be considered worthy, to have integrity?
I’m not saying poetry needs to be dumbed down for the masses, I don’t think Gorman did that. But she pitched it well, given it was going out to millions, moving away from the niche and towards a well-executed universality.
What do we gain from a negative critique of her poem? I can’t help but feel that if we shrink poetry back down to just one standardised acceptance of what is ‘good’, we will lose a huge amount. After all, poetry is not just one thing, and varying styles and approaches can definitely co-exist.
This poem is a poem of the moment and has lasting value. It may not be to some people’s taste, but to reduce it to being ‘not a poem’, is wrong, snobbish and arguably, full of prejudice. The world of poetry was opened up to me by watching and hearing it online in a way I felt included in. This led to a lifelong love of poetry in its many forms, whether that’s a spoken word theatre show or a poem more at home on the page
And if Gorman’s poem inspires young people who’ve felt excluded from poetry before to engage with poetry, or even pick up a pen, then I’m all for it. It’s rare for poetry to get this platform, this chance to shine. Let’s celebrate it, and the power of the arts. It warms my January heart, like Bernie’s lovely mittens.
Cecilia Knapp is the current Young People's Laureate for London