• By Adam Sedia

Why Amanda Gorman Is Not a Poet

Amanda Gorman became something of a phenomenon, fêted as a celebrity from the moment she read her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” amid the armed guards and razor wire at the 2020 inauguration. Since then, she received book deals and a multimillion-dollar contract as a “brand ambassador” for Estée Lauder, to show how “woke” the billion-dollar corporation was.

But beyond the glitz and the celebrity is a woman who writes what we are told is poetry. Stripping away all the media attention, readers should be able to judge her work on its sheer merit. Reading that work for what it is, it becomes clear what it is not: poetry.

At the outset, it must be stated that this is a difficult essay to write. Singling out a living writer for disparagement might reflect poorly on its author. It may seem to readers uncharitable or even the product of envy. On one hand a misplaced sense of compassion might urge the critic to “go easy” so as not to cause an offense that he would not himself wish to feel. But on the other, truth is truth, and anything less than it is dishonesty. The truth must be told regardless of the consequences. Thus the reader is assured that nothing will cloud the opinions expressed here. They are the honest result of careful judgment according to this author’s genuinely held aesthetic ideals.

To determine whether Gorman is a poet, we must first ask, “What is a poet?” It is a person, for sure. The word derives from ancient Greek ποιέω – “make,” “do,” or “produce.” Thus, a poet is defined by what she makes. And what does a poet make? Poetry, of course. That term is harder to define. Let us turn to masters of the art to tell us what poetry is.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his 1821 essay “A Defence of Poetry,” “Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all . . . .” More succinctly, Shelley defined poetry elsewhere as “the mind at work through the power of analytical imagination upon thoughts produced by the faculty of synthesizing reason.”

Edgar Allen Poe was more technical in his view: “I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as the Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is taste. With the intellect or with the conscience, it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with duty or with truth.”

Matthew Arnold echoed these thoughts. Poetry for him was a matter of sheer aesthetics, “simply the most delightful and perfect form of utterance that human words can reach.”

Robert Frost, by contrast, focused on the meaning behind the words: “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” More famously, he said, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”

All of these definitions are worthy of considering, especially in light of their sources. And while they differ in specifics they contain a core of common themes from which we may construct a working definition of poetry. First, it exists for the sheer aesthetic value of the words. But on another level, a poem expresses a thought, an analytical action of the human mind upon an object. With that working definition, we now may turn to the poem itself.

By any definition, Gorman’s work fails even to qualify as poetry. A harsh assessment? Yes, but a fair one.

Gorman’s chef d’œuvre that catapulted her to fame, “The Hill We Climb,” is emblematic of her work. It embodies all major defects of contemporary mainstream poetry, from complete absence of structural rigor, an abundance of truisms and cliches, numbingly unpoetic language to – most fundamentally – lack of poetic metaphor.[1]

At 53 lines – really, sentences arranged in lines – the poem tends to the shorter side, but is much too tedious to reproduce in its entirety.[2] Instead, a thematic approach with reference to representative excerpts will serve as the best analytical method.

The first few lines give a good flavor of the entire poem’s tone and style:

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 braved the belly of the beast.

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.

Somehow we do it.

Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.

The poet J.V. Cunningham wrote, “Poetry is metrical writing. If it isn’t that I don’t know what it is.” Undoubtedly, there are many fine examples of free verse poems that do manage to "break the rules," but they do so in masterfully poetic and original ways (See Appendix). And while great free verse poems may not have outwardly consistent forms, they contain very structured thoughts and ideas that unfold in naturally organic and richly poetic ways. Gorman's poem attempts neither outward nor inner form, but essentially weaves together a series of prosaic truisms and predictable platitudes – the kinds heard at a political campaign rally or high school graduation. For this reason, the poem’s status as poetry becomes questionable.

Much contemporary free verse – Billy Collins, for example – at least gives the impression of meter through a consistent pattern of line lengths. Gorman, however, does not even attempt this, giving her lines inconsistent and wildly varying lengths. One line contains a mere four words; another is so long it runs onto the next line. Other lines further on in the poem are longer, spilling onto a third line. Such haphazard and jarring transitions between short and long lines eliminates any sense of rhythm or musicality, even according to the generous standards of free verse. The effect is similar to the random frequency distribution of noise, contrasted with the structured distribution of the signal.

Then there is the issue of style. The language is strikingly prosaic, even bland. There is no use of poetic imagery, or of simile or metaphor to evoke an idea with the presentation of an image. It is devoid of effusions of lush sensory description. Instead, the poem flatly states its ideas. It tells without showing. Indeed, the language is not even original. The phrase “belly of the beast” and the contrast of “light” and “shade” are hopelessly cliché.

The most glaring unpoetic feature, however, is the complete absence of metaphor – not a recurring stylistic device within the poem, but an overarching, thematic link between the poetic imagery and the idea they convey. “Metaphor,” from the Greek μεταφέρω, means literally “to transfer.” It is the means by which the poem carries the reader from the sense-impressions described to the intangible realm of ideas they represent. It is, in short, the entire reason poetry exists.

Gorman’s poem not only lacks poetic metaphor, it is incapable of it. First, it presents no poetic images. Instead of description to engage and appeal to the senses, the poem gives a lecture:

We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.

We seek harm to none and harmony for all.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true.

That even as we grieved, we grew.

That even as we hurt, we hoped.

That even as we tired, we tried.

That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.

(Lines 14-20.)

Here, the language makes a half-hearted attempt at poetic style – alliteration in “grieved/grew” and “hurt/hoped,” and the juxtaposition of the two meanings of “arms” and of “harm/harmony” and “tired/tried” – but this is a mere playfulness with words rather than actual poetic metaphor – not the playfulness of a deft wit such as Dryden or a Wilde, but a ham-fisted wordplay more appropriate for television ads and campaign slogans. Indeed, these lines are little more than campaign slogans strung together. Optimistic they are, but in the sense of a campaign rally or locker-room pep talk, not of a poet evoking eternal ideas of hope or harmony.

In the end, the poem is just prose, a series of declarative sentences stacked on top of each other – and not particularly brilliant or insightful prose, at that. It is a campaign speech from a non-candidate, nothing more.

Beyond poetics, the poem’s message conveys an entirely separate set of problems. Immediately after this opening, the poem features this whopper of a line:

We, the successors of a country and a time 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.

Here is a shining display of one of an egregious and singular defect of contemporary poetry: navel-gazing. Only eight lines in, Ms. Gorman places herself at the center of a poem that is ostensibly to celebrate a new government over a nation of 325 million people. Showcasing her background,[3] she establishes her credibility as a voice sufficiently unprivileged to warrant empathy, but then curiously uses it not to laud her country as a place where she could rise to such an honor, but to complain: she wants to be president, not just recite for one. And her complaint is not even logically coherent: if she is describing her own time, how is she its successor?

By inserting herself at the center of the poem like this, Gorman surrenders the poetic voice. The narrative voice of the poem is at once personal and universal. If the ideas a poem conveys are to have any meaning to a different mind reading it, the poem must engage the reader in the experience described. Decoupling the experience from the poet experiencing it achieves this universality. By describing herself explicitly in raw demographic terms, Gorman destroys any chance the poem has of appealing to a universal audience – one reflective of the whole nation – and instead speaks as a member of a tribe.

Then there is the incessant barrage of jabs at the outgoing administration and by extension the 75 million or more people who voted to keep it. Right at the poem’s beginning, it is called “never-ending shade” and “the belly of the beast.” Further on, the poem has this to say.

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.

It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.

We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.

Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.

And this effort very nearly succeeded.

(Lines 25-29.)

We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.

We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation, become the future.

Our blunders become their burdens.

But one thing is certain.

If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.

(Lines 37-41.)

The line between art and propaganda is a fine one, to be delicately tread whenever art assumes a public character. Gorman either never recognizes that line or deliberately and gloatingly stomps over it. This is an example of poor taste, especially for an official function – adding insult to injury, kicking the opponent while he is down.

Lines 37 through 41 are particularly disturbing. They venture well beyond gloating If ever a naked call for political repression existed in poetry, this is it. The “we” is exclusionary: “We will not be turned around or interrupted.” “Mercy” must be “merged” with “might” – a naked call to exercise force against the opposition. “We” represent “right” and “love.” Does the opposition not consequently represent wrong and hatred, which of course must be fought with “might”?

Gorman’s verse is jarringly inconsistent with any unifying message appropriate for a political event, particularly an election in which one side by definition loses. Instead, she insults and all but calls for repression of the political opposition. “Incitement” might be an appropriate word.

The poem, therefore, is a failure on all levels: as a work of art, as an official statement, and as a ceremonial utterance. But beyond that, it is a failure as poetry. Its language is not “the most delightful and perfect form of utterance” as Arnold says – it is not even grammatically correct. It follows no rhythm or meter, as Poe or Cunningham would have it. Indeed, it is prose, written without any visible consideration for the cadence of the words. And, most importantly, it lacks any working of analytical imagination, as Shelley would require. It is blunt, direct – a propaganda speech. Gorman gives no sensory impressions to connect with an abstract ideal; she just tells the world how she feels (entitled, mostly). Thus, it fails to qualify as poetry under any definition. We may wish Gorman success on her new venture with Estée Lauder, but we ought never call her a poet.

[1] I can envision now the ad hominem attacks that this criticism will attract. I assure readers that I bear no ill-will to Ms. Gorman personally. Indeed, I know virtually nothing about her. Proper criticism analyzes a work without passing personal judgment on its creator. I apply this standard to Ms. Gorman’s work, and I hope those who disagree with me will resort to the same standard.

[2] The full text of the poem is available at https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/20/amanda-gormans-inaugural-poem-the-hill-we-climb-full-text.html.

[3] The previous inaugural poet, Richard Blanco, also spends much of his verse showcasing his identity as a homosexual and son of Cuban immigrants.

Adam Sedia (b. 1984) lives in his native Northwest Indiana, with his wife, Ivana, and their two children, and practices law as a civil and appellate litigator. In addition to the Society’s publications, his poems and prose works have appeared in The Chained Muse Review, Indiana Voice Journal, and other literary journals. He is also a composer, and his musical works may be heard on his YouTube channel.

Appendix: A Selection of Fine Free Verse and Other Poems that "Break the Rules"

  1. "Fingers of Light" by Australian poet Caitlin Johnstone

  2. "Will There Be Starlight" by American poet Michael R. Burch

  3. "Dragon Wings & Other Poetry" by Canadian poet Bruce Meyer

  4. "Flight of the Ibis" by American poet Daniel Leach