Amanda Gorman’s Gown and the Smithsonian

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Linda and I had a zoom dinner with Alexis and Jim Fancher yesterday evening; politics, the pandemic, and culture took up most of the conversation. At one point, we began talking about Amanda Gorman’s national television debut as Youth Poet Laureate. Alexis said that she has heard reports of a serious uptick of interest in poetry. At the very least, people were at least disabused of the immediate association of poetry and poverty.

In fact, after a few minutes of conversation about Ms. Gorman’s stunning outfit, I suddenly remembered hearing that there will be a break in tradition this year: Jill Biden, the First Lady, would normally donate her Inaugural Ball gown to the Smithsonian, but there was not an Inaugural Ball this year. However, I suggested to my dinner companions, what if the Youth Poet Laureate were to donate her outfit to the Smithsonian. It’s without doubt the best sartorial presentation of any poet who has served the role at that quadrennial ceremony.

Alexis and Linda thought it was a great idea, and urged me to post it in my blog, in the unlikely event that someone might notice and follow up on it. I do hope that someone who knows how to organize a petition drive gets one going.

For the record, I thought Gorman’s poem was a superb example of performance poem attuned to a didactic theme. I myself would preferred that Biden had asked either Tracy K. Smith, Yusef Komunyakaa, Natasha Trethewey, Will Alexander, Rita Dove, or Terrance Hayes. He decided that he needed to acknowledge the youth who have made such an impact on this past year’s protests and instead chose Amanda Gorman. My two favorite lines were:

Being American is more than a pride we inherit;
It is the past we step into, and how we repair it.

I would note how the emotion of pride is not passive in her formulation; it is only earned as an active agent in the mending of a flawed legacy.

We have more repair work to do than we want to admit, not just in terms of the chaos distilled by Trump, but all the accumulated damage done by the failure to provide reparations for slavery and manifest destiny.

I would note by the way that there is an echo of an earlier poem read at an inauguration in Gorman’s poem: “And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.” This proleptic image reminded me of the first line of Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright,” which he read (but did not compose specifically for Kennedy’s inauguration): “The land was ours before we were the land’s.” This was one of the superior moments in Gorman’s poem, for if any element behooves this particular literary ritual in America’s public poetry, it is the ability to detect the intrinsic presence of the prefatory in the redemptive utterance. I only wish that Gorman’s subsequent line had been stronger. Regardless, redemption is needed, especially when one considers that the only poem that should ever be written about Trump deserves the title, “The Grift Outright.”