Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Amanda Gorman and Twenty-First Century American Poetry

Timothy Yu

If you had told me a year ago that a poem would be read at the beginning of the Super Bowl, I wouldn’t have believed you. I would have been even more astonished to learn that the reader was a young Black woman fresh off a star-making poetry performance at a presidential inauguration. The remarkable rise to fame of Amanda Gorman is, I think, a distinctly twenty-first-century American poetic phenomenon, one that reflects some of the unique historical and cultural conditions of our current era.

Consider, for instance, the (relatively short) tradition of the American inaugural poet. When John F. Kennedy invited Robert Frost to read at his 1961 inauguration, the young president was invoking the cultural authority of the nation’s most revered poet, a twentieth-century icon who bridged tradition and modernity. But no other president followed Kennedy’s lead for over 30 years, until another youthful president, Bill Clinton, called on Maya Angelou to read. Since then, the inaugural poem has continued as a partisan tradition, followed by Democrats but not by Republicans. For Democratic presidents, the inaugural poem arguably fills many of the same functions it did for Kennedy: it signals support for the arts, lends cultural capital and gravitas to the occasion, and speaks to the party’s well-educated and increasingly diverse base.

Yet no previous inaugural poet truly stole the show the way Gorman did. Shortly after the inauguration, it was Gorman, not Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, who was featured on the cover of TIME. Previous poets had mostly been established literary figures like Frost, Angelou, or Elizabeth Alexander; Gorman, in contrast, was just 22 years old and a former National Youth Poet Laureate. While Gorman nodded to tradition, both in her poem’s intertextual references and in accessories that referenced Angelou’s “caged bird,” her poem “The Hill We Climb” was far more direct than any of her predecessors’ in its address to contemporary political events, most notably in its reference to the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. And her poem’s striking internal rhymes, its sharply articulated cadences, and its assured, powerful delivery reflected the influence of spoken word performance on American poetry in recent decades. Gorman’s poem, in short, challenged many of our usual twentieth-century paradigms of poetry—not least through its remarkable popularity, which launched her as-yet-unpublished debut books onto bestseller lists and gained her millions of social media followers overnight.

As editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Twenty-First-Century American Poetry, I see the Gorman phenomenon as evidence for the main claim behind the collection: that we need new frameworks for understanding American poetry in this new century. These frameworks should place writers of color at the center of poetic discourse, rather than at the margins of a historically white canon. The collection’s contributors recognize the distinct traditions in which Black, Asian American, Latinx, and Native poets work, while understanding that these traditions themselves have also undergone substantial change in the past few decades. New performance styles and new media have brought poetry to potentially vast new audiences, from Def Poetry Jam in the early 2000s to the bestselling poets of Instagram; the collection highlights both the possibilities and the perils of contemporary poetry’s new relationships with the market and with cultural and academic institutions.

Gorman’s poem, like any significant art, leaves criticism scrambling to keep up in its wake. Merely praising her performance, or marveling at her mastery of occasional poetry, can’t account for her poem’s ability to speak to our historical and political moment. The new Cambridge Companion will serve, I hope, as one set of contributions to a new conversation about what American poetry can do in the twenty-first century—a conversation that does not attempt to fit work like Gorman’s into outdated narratives, but instead takes it on its own terms, open to the new possibilities it illuminates.

About The Author

Timothy Yu

Timothy Yu is author of Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry since 1965, editor of Nests and Strangers: On Asian American Women Poets, and author of a p...

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