Virginia Jackson and Meredith Martin in Avidly:
On January 20, 2021, American poetry in public came back in style. We do not mean that poetry came back into fashion. We mean that its return was stylish, personified as it was by the young poet Amanda Gorman, wearing a bright yellow Prada coat that nobody can stop talking about. Gorman gave a performance of “The Hill We Climb,” the poem she composed for the occasion, and her performance rivaled those of Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez. More poetry performances by Amanda Gorman were circulated in the days after the Inauguration than were news and images of the former president–or even of the current one. This is good news for poetry. It is also surprising in a country in which poetry doesn’t get much attention, especially not poetry spoken out loud — in person, in public. As two scholars of poetics who have thought a lot about how and when and where poetry goes public, we began to wonder why Gorman’s performance struck such a chord.
We love the women’s culture aspect of this poetic event, and it matters for how the poetry happened. Gorman’s performance was a part of how the inauguration of another (much better than the last) White man was supported (as usual) by a network of women with an eye for fabrics and accessories with political significance. Some details: Oprah bought Gorman a ring symbolizing Maya Angelou’s singing caged bird, as she had bought Angelou’s coat and gloves for Clinton’s inaugural; J.Lo wore the suffragist white worn in the past by Shirley Chisholm and Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris; Harris wore purple for Chisholm, and so both Gorman and Harris invoked the suffragist associations of both yellow and purple; Gorman’s red headband turned her ensemble into a rhyme for Chisolm’s red and yellow campaign buttons, to which Harris’s campaign buttons also alluded. All of this styling served to frame Gorman as she emerged as a new representative of a very old set of genres more often honored in the breach than in the observance: the heretofore minor or obsolete genres of poetry as public speech. It is these genres that Gorman brought back into style —or really, that her performance remixed into a new genre.