For many, the highlight of Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony was Amanda Gorman’s stirring poem, “The Hill We Climb.” Gorman, the National Youth Poet Laureate, performed a poem that was both stirring and sincere — one that “set the tone for the hopeful future our nation desperately needs,” as Deseret News opinion writer Aubrey Eyre said.
I spoke with Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal the day following the inauguration. Rekdal, a professor of English at the University of Utah, was named the state’s poet laureate in 2017. Now entering the final year of her term, she’s launched a number of statewide projects, including Mapping Literary Utah, an online hub for work from Utah poets, fiction writers and performers.
Her main purpose, though, is to help Utahns see the value in good poetry — a mission that was aided by Gorman’s powerful poem Wednesday.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Samuel Benson: The highlight of the inauguration ceremony Wednesday, for me, was Amanda Gorman’s poem. What was your initial reaction when you heard it?
Paisley Rekdal: I just thought she was amazing. I thought she did such a great job throughout the entire performance. I’d heard interviews with her before, so I knew she had a speech impediment, and I knew she had to write a poem pretty quickly. She had to think both realistically, as well as hopefully, about our current moment. It takes a lot of work to write after the Capitol siege, trying to come up with a poem that could give people hope, but also recognize all of the many historical stresses that we’ve been under. And she did it perfectly.
She was poised and dynamic. Everyone I know just loved the performance. I have a lot of friends who aren’t poets, and many of them never really liked poetry readings, but they were electrified by hers. And now they do like poetry readings. Not only did she do a great job speaking to this moment in time, but I think she won poetry fans over.
SB: It seemed Gorman’s poem was more than just a poem — it was a performance. What is the role of that kind of performance in poetry?
PR: Well, this is one of the reasons she was such a good pick. She comes out of what we call the “slam,” or the performance poetry, world. And most poets that come from an academic background read from a piece of paper — we don’t memorize our work. And we certainly don’t have bodily gestures attached to it.
But when you come out of the slam scene, you’re selling an entire performance. You act. You emote. You get people invested in you as a character and a voice. And so I think that’s what really came through Wednesday on stage. She was able to take her background and use it to the best effect to get people to really be sucked into that poem.
SB: Do you think that was choreographed? Or were her gestures and rhythms instinctual?
PR: You could tell some part of it was choreographed. Some of the hand movements, in fact, went very well with some of the words that she chose. One of my friends who’s deaf noticed that she actually signed one of the words very quickly as she said it. So she had been thinking very much about how she would use gestures as a kind of physical punctuation mark.
It’s a way of also grabbing the listeners’ attention. She recognized that people around the world would be watching this, so we were able to see her emote in these sudden ways that would bring us back into the public. She was covering a lot of complex subjects and a lot of ways, and sometimes with poetry, it’s easy to drift off. And so these little moments, these pauses, like rhyme — and the poem itself had moments of rhyme, too — are a way of drawing us back in to the physicality of a poem.
SB: What stood out to you in her use of internal rhyme and other literary techniques?
PR: One of the things I noticed is exactly what you noticed: there’s a lot of internal rhyme. And one of the things that I noticed, too, is that oftentimes, those internal rhymes worked on words that were extremely important. Obviously, one example is the play on “justice” versus “just is.”
That use of rhyme is really effective in getting us to pay attention to the more important concepts, because we hear them rhyme. Poems are basically patterns, and the ear is set up to expect a pattern. And sometimes we pay more attention to when that pattern gets changed or disrupted, as well as when that pattern comes to fruition. We’re always looking for things that match up. So these clusters of sound, once we hear a lot of alliteration, and then she switches it up and moves to another consonantal or assonantal sound, suddenly we recognize something is changed. We can hear that and we register it in our bodies.
SB: It’s been noted that Gorman drew on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, President Obama and the musical “Hamilton.” Did you notice any influence from other writers or poets in her poem?
PR: She also references Frederick Douglass as one of the writers that she went to. She was influenced by rhetorical masters. They understand the power of an extended simile. They understand the power of repetition, even if they don’t necessarily use metaphor and rhyme in the ways that poets will do. And I think that that’s one of the things that really came out to me in the poem — it was a very rhetorical piece of writing.
On my Facebook and Twitter feeds, there’s been a couple of poets that have griped a little bit by saying, “Well, that feels like more of a speech than a poem.” And I think what they’re referring to is the rhetorical gestures of the poem. But that said, sonnets are highly rhetorical, too. They’re structured around an argument. And this is a poem that was structured around a particular kind of argument. It was trying to get the audience to see themselves not just celebrating this moment, but moving forward and participating in a democracy, so that we’re all guaranteeing the kind of America we want.
SB: What differentiates a speech from a poem?
PR: That’s a great question. Generally, what we mean by a poem is a very high attention paid to metaphor and that patterning I talked about — very conventional or consistent rhymes. We tend to think of poems in that sense as very lyric. They tend to be outside of time. And I think one of the reasons her poem felt like a speech to a lot of people was it was so located in a time. She was referencing events that all of us could recognize, because we’ve all lived through them very recently.
And the poem makes an argument. I think a lot of people think of poems as riddles, places where the reader goes to figure out what he or she thinks about a thing via the poet’s own thinking. But Gorman really laid out her thinking very clearly. And I think that was sort of surprising to people.
“Oftentimes, we devalue the arts, because it ... doesn’t make any money. But that’s not what it’s for. And I think her performance reminded us of that. It’s about hope.” — Paisley Rekdal
But poems do a lot of different types of work. For me, it’s not really a problem if it leaves the territory of a conventional poem and moves into something a little bit more like kind of public speech that uses poetic elements. In an inauguration, we’re not there for a conventional artistic experience. We’re there to feel ourselves together in a moment, to see ourselves reflected back in a powerful way in this language. And I think that she gave us the language and the rhythms and the experience that the the occasion required.
SB: Poetry, and poetry recited by the poet laureate, has a long history in our inaugurations. But what made this one different?
PR: I’ve been trying to figure this out, as well. I’ve read every inaugural poem that has been written. And I think one of the things I would say about all of the previous ones was those were poems were written with physical publication in mind. They could imagine these poems in books. And that’s not to say that Gorman’s poem won’t end up in a book. I think it absolutely will be. But I don’t think she wrote it specifically to be imagined for a book.
I think she imagined it specifically as an oral performance. And the oral performance is just a more intimate kind of experience, in a strange way. Because she’s already anticipating how to move people emotionally, I think it was a more direct and powerful expression in some respects. That’s why people are responding to it so much.
There is a real value in the fact that it was memorized. Some of the other poets did not memorize their poems — they were too long. But Gorman was making eye contact, she was making these gestures. She was not distanced from us in any way. It’s so helpful to see somebody performing like that and saying those things at that level, at her age.
SB: What effect will Ms. Gorman’s poem have on poetry going forward in the U.S.?
PR: I don’t know. I hope it encourages more people to look poetry up. I would hope, as well, that people understand there are so many different types of poems out there. If you liked her poem, and the way that she presented it, you might want to go towards more performance poets. If you go from her poetry, and then you think, “Well, I’m just going to pick up John Keats,” you might be disappointed.
But I also hope that this reminds people that we actually do have lots of programs out there. We have Poetry Out Loud in schools across the country, which gets students to read, recite and perform poems. Amanda Gorman became Amanda Gorman because she came out of that kind of background with that kind of practice. I hope people visit MappingLiteraryUtah.org and see the talented poets here in Utah. And I hope it reminds people that poetry is something that people are still writing, still reading, still responding to. To see the power of art in these kinds of public moments is just an incredibly community building act. I think people really love these things.
Oftentimes, we devalue the arts, because it doesn’t make anything happen. It doesn’t make any money. But that’s not what it’s for. And I think her performance reminded us of that. It’s about hope. It’s about feeling connected to other people. And it’s about being charmed and amazed by language.