On Inaugural Poet—Amanda Gorman
E. Ethelbert Miller | April 2021
E. Ethelbert Miller
January 22, 2021
Too often when Black poets read their work in workshops or on the stage the attention tends to focus on their sound. How often in my early years did I hear a person say, “I like your voice, I like how you read.” No attention is given to the work unless the voice is one of protest and the work is red, black, and green—political, shall we say. Then the focus shifts to what the poet said and politics seduces the personal.
Poetry is very popular these days. Maybe becoming even more so, with virtual readings following all the open mics and slams, the many cafes and classrooms exploding with couplets and rhyme. When Maya Angelou said, “Good Morning,” her words were perhaps clearer than those recited by Robert Frost trying to avoid the sun in his eyes.
Poets are not always prophets, and what we say doesn’t always matter.
What does matter is that we not confuse our glitter for the glow. That we live one day at a time with meaning, kindness, and purpose. That our words not injure or destroy, that our words become blueprints with measurements, that they provide and offer equipment for living. Direction for salvation.
What is a good poem? When is a poem needed? What is the function and role of the poet? When must words dance and perform? When must they be something we return to; how much comfort and warmth can they provide; how much light?
Something wounded almost died these last four years. Freedom? Democracy? Decency? Our nation became Lazarus with almost no hope of rising to greatness again.
We are a country in need of believers in truth. And so a woman takes center stage and recites a poem. We first see her Blackness and then her age. She is standing on sacred ground and so her words are holy. She has climbed to this height so that we might not simply see, but listen.
Our nation divided once again. Our soldiers standing before us. She is our Whitman now, our witness to our ugliness, but believing in our beauty.
What was given to us this week was nourishment and words we should return to. Words we should read and inhale.
It is poetry that instructs the heart, how to breathe, and love. When words inspire, we should simply peel and taste the fruit, taste the sweetness of this paradise yet to be called America. But for now a place that must be.
Thank you, Amanda Gorman.
E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist and author of two memoirs and several poetry collections. He was awarded the 2016 AWP George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature. Miller’s latest book If God Invented Baseball was awarded the 2019 Literary Award for poetry by the American Library Association’s Black Caucus.