The Banality of Millennial Poetry
The peculiarity of this week’s inauguration ceremony has already been widely observed. Peculiar that this rite, hailed by the media as the great culmination of the long fight to unseat a dictatorial tyrant, as nothing less than the reinstitution of democracy in America, did not involve the citizenry and required the presence of 15,000 National Guard troops. Peculiar, the uncanny agedness of those elites who did merit an invitation, who sat in social distance amid the cold wind.
But strangest of all was the slam poetry performance by our nation’s first Youth Poet Laureate, a post established in 2017. The poet’s name is Amanda Gorman, age 22, graduate of Harvard University, and her poem is called “The Hill We Climb”.
In a surprise to no one, her reading enchanted the entire mainstream media, most notably CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who interviewed her later in the day, and Masha Gessen of the New Yorker, whose reaction is titled, “Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem Is A Stunning Vision of Our Democracy.” I myself did not watch the inauguration live, preferring, regardless of the party of the incoming president, not to subject myself to the indignity of such monarchical pageantry. But more than a few of my friends, knowing my love of poetry, insisted via text that I, too, must bear witness to this unforgettable spectacle.
So I Googled it.
What I found upon this search was, and is, nothing less than an embarrassment to our country. A caricature of a parody, unworthy of the name of poetry, rising not even to the level of propaganda.
But what made it so bad?
First of all, its emptiness. Its platitudes. The fact that, if presented in prose form and unburdened of its opportunistic rhymes, it might be mistaken for a New York Times op-ed. There appears to be a belief among slam poets that this quasi-rap, pseudo-freestyle, lilting rhythm in which the poems are performed (which spans the entire genre without alteration) is an acceptable substitute for substance. That vacuous wordplay fills the shoes of wit. “What just is,” the poet explains in the opening stanza, “isn’t always justice.” The phrase, of course, means nothing. But because the punniness is clever (is it even that?), it passes muster, and ascends to the level of great, praiseworthy artistic achievement in the eyes of our elites.
Gorman’s poem also seems to lift a line, practically verbatim except to include a rhyme, from the recent Broadway hit “Hamilton.” What’s more, that line (“Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid”) is itself a reference to George Washington’s Farewell Address, which is itself a reference to Scripture (Micah 4:4, Kings 4:25, Zechariah 3:10). The irony of the fact that, at an inaugural recitation for the oldest ever American president, more advanced in years than all his living predecessors, reference is made to our first president’s Farewell Address, in which he wistfully anticipates his restful retirement, is too much to bear. In fact, it demonstrates the poet’s unfamiliarity with her material, and thus smacks more of plagiarism than of reverential reference (although I’m sure she reveres Lin-Manuel Miranda very much).
Relatedly, the poem displays a perverse kind of Burkeanism. A contract between the dead, the living, and the unborn is similarly imagined as the basis of our social project: “Because being American is more than a pride we inherit; it’s the past we step into and how we repair it”; “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.” But instead of the benevolent passage of the torch from the old to the young, this poem imagines the promise of that contract to be the severance of ourselves from our collective past, either by the forward march of progress or, if that fails, by the revision of the historical narrative itself.
This actually bodes very well for conservatives in the long run. As a member of the same generation as Ms. Gorman, I can say that this poem truly embodies the Millennial and Gen-Z left. That cunning rhetoric, no matter how sophistic, is all it takes to convince. That their sense of an artistic—or any—tradition stretches back only as far as their memory of the latest trends in the pop anti-culture. And that their political mission amounts, simply, to a total dissociation from and dissolution of the bonds of our national past. That mission, like Gorman’s poem, is as self-defeating as it is empty.
Malcolm Salovaara is a New Jersey farmer. He is a graduate of St. Paul’s School.