The musical power of poetry


The inauguration of Joe Biden seems a long time ago in American politics. Overshadowed, perhaps, by the events that have since unfolded – the investigation into the Capitol attack, the ongoing Trump carnival, the early wheel-greasing ahead of next year’s presidential race.

Still, if there is a moment that has lingered from that day in January 2021, the ceremony muted by covid restriction, the afternoon charged by cold winds and snow flurries, it is the electrifying performance by Amanda Gorman reciting her poem The Hill We Climb – a call for unity, collaboration and togetherness in a fractured nation.

At 22, Gorman was the youngest inaugural poet. She had been the first national youth poet laureate in the United States, and her presence on the podium that day, a furiously talented young black woman in yellow blazer and red hairband, seemed a glimpse of a future that was hopeful, bright, inclusive.

Gorman’s presence on the podium reminded us of the power of language and rhythm and oratory

It reminded us, too, of the power of language and rhythm and oratory, the importance of sound in national identity. For the four long years of Trump’s presidency, we had grown accustomed to a leader who spoke in grunts and squeals, to a stunted vocabulary, and circinate sentence structure; to a governance marked by the frustration of ineloquence.

Two terms after Gorman, the US youth poet laureate was Kara Jackson, then a 19-year-old from Oak Park, Illinois, who wrote about young womanhood, Midwesternness, Southern roots. In one poem, she writes an anthem for her own full belly. Another she titles The world is about to end and my grandparents are in love.

Last autumn, I saw Jackson perform a short set at Winfield House, the US ambassador’s residence in London. In a nod to the mighty Langston Hughes (and before him, Whitman), the event was titled I, Too, Sing America, although the work that evening was not solely American; Jackson had invited a selection of young UK poets to join her, their work speaking to the chosen theme of ‘poetry and power’.

Jackson read too, but she also sang – preparing the ground for the release of her first album, Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love? The record came out this past spring, and the songs are spare and folky, introspective and playful and tender, while the voice that sings them is a deep, slightly silty sound that seems to cling to the banks of whatever she writes.

The same week as Jackson’s album release, the British poet laureate, Simon Armitage, published a collection of song lyrics, Never Good With Horses. Alongside his work as a poet, Armitage is the frontman of the band LYR, who release their second album this summer, and in the book’s introduction he wrote of what divides poetry and song: “Song lyrics are not poems and poems are not song lyrics” was his opening take.

Their difference, Armitage argued, lay in that “indefinable and inexplicable element called music” that was capable of transforming language from the mundane into something remarkable. But the lines were blurry, he conceded, and he had become increasingly interested in “that occluded territory where songs and poems demonstrate their interconnectedness”.

When he writes a poem, Armitage said, he is conscious of the deliberate omission of ideas – “ideas that will be supplied by a reader”. When he writes a song lyric, the omissions tend to be emotional rather than intellectual – leaving room for the “notes, chords, instruments” to fill in the feeling.

It is true that poems are not song lyrics, and yet, to hear poetry aloud in certain settings –Amanda Gorman reading at the inauguration, say, feels something like standing directly in that occluded space, somewhere between reader and listener, supplying ideas, filling in feelings, demonstrating our own interconnectedness. Being part of a nation singing itself.

This week, Gorman took to social media in dismay. The Hill We Climb, she said, had been banned from a school in Florida following a complaint from a lone parent, who had argued that the poem was “not educational and have indirectly hate messages”.

It’s hard not to feast upon the incoherence of that half-sentence. To note how in seven short words the protesting parent gives us a flicker of how an America under DeSantis or Trump might sound: grunting and squealing, stunted and circinate; lost to its own music, to its own interconnectedness.

Laura Barton is a writer and broadcaster. Her book, “Sad Songs” is out now

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Arts & Culture, June 2023, Music

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