Man oh man! Holy cow! Jeepers creepers! Good golly, Miss Molly! Wow and wow again! If you have not yet heard Amanda Gorman read her poem for President Biden’s Inauguration Day, stop doing what you are doing and find it on the internet. I doubt if you have ever, ever heard someone read a poem quite like Gorman did on Jan. 20.
English teachers, get on your knees and thank God almighty. You will never have to motivate your students again to read or write a poem. Just have them listen to and watch Gorman recite her poem. That’s all the motivation you will need.
Poetry has never been a favorite form of entertainment for most of us. I doubt if 5% of the people in the United States even own a poetry book, not counting the Bible with its Book of Psalms. Too often poetry is just something we tolerate. We don’t really get into it in depth. We don’t often say, "I think I will sit down and read a poem."
Few writers of poetry make a decent living at it. We don’t go out of the way to buy a poetry book. We may buy one to give as a gift just because it’s kind of special. Yes, poetry is special and it takes someone like Gorman to remind us of how special it can be.
I remember when Maya Angelou read a poem for Bill Clinton’s inauguration. It was not an easy poem to understand and I doubt if many of us even remember her reading it. In order to really understand poetry, we have to think. We have to work at understanding what the poet is saying. What is the purpose? What should we glean from this? How does it make us feel? Does it change us in any way?
How popular did Gorman become after her appearance at the inauguration? The two books she had written surged to the top of Amazon's best-selling list less than a day after she became the youngest known inaugural poet in history.
When Gorman read her poem, she not only read it, she lived it. Although you couldn’t tell the expressions on people’s faces due to the masks, I think people were stunned and in awe. She not only read it, she performed it. What a presence on stage. Let me repeat that, "What a presence on stage."
There are very few speakers who have a presence. It’s not artificial, it’s not conjured up, it’s not just ordinary but when you have presence, you have your audience hanging on every word. Think of your favorite public speaker. That person is your favorite speaker because he or she has presence. You can’t teach presence, you either have it or you don’t. It’s even hard to define. It’s like someone who possesses grace. What is it? How do you define it?
Presence has to do with the way you act, the way you look, your voice tone, your mannerisms, but most of all, it’s one’s magical attitude that captivates your listeners. Jackie Kennedy, Princess Diana, Walter Cronkite, Barack and Michelle Obama, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Mark Twain, Morgan Freeman all have possessed a quality that made them who they are. How would you define it? I can’t. It just exists. It’s presence. Gorman had presence the moment she uttered her first word. You knew you were in for a treat.
I wrote on several occasions about my favorite poet, James Whitcomb Riley. I have dozens of his books and, yes, I do read them often. I also have a collection of antique poetry books of Longfellow, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, Burns, Whittier—I enjoy them all. My most recent poetry book purchase is by Langston Hughes.
I am not writing this to boast but to tell you that reading poetry has a quieting effect on one’s being. Poems can alleviate stress, lower your blood pressure, and take you to places you never have been or imagined. And, believe it or not, reading poetry boosts your self-confidence. This is why it’s so important for students to be exposed to poetry, especially students who are struggling.
Gorman was born in 1999 and is a graduate of Harvard with a major in sociology. Her mother teaches sixth grade in Los Angeles. Like President Biden, Gorman also had a speech impediment to overcome in her early years. She is the first person to be named the National Youth Poet Laureate. She is an activist who wants to be president in 2036.
It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t quote a few of the lines from her poem, "The Hill We Climb."
"We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
I will be looking for the name of Amanda Gorman on the presidential ballot of 2036.
Riddle: What is this poem about? "Often talked of, never seen, Ever coming, never been, Daily looked for, never here, Still approaching, coming near, Thousands for its visit wait, But alas for their fate, Tho’ they expect me to appear, They will never find me here." (Answer: Tomorrow) Make it a point to read a poem today and tomorrow.
It’s more difficult to believe in tomorrow when a young person chooses today to leave school early. Think of the poems they will not have been introduced to. Can poetry help keep young people in school? Yes.
John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.