What Does it Mean to Have an Inaugural Poet?

It comes down to how the party in power approaches multiple truths.

Not having a secure sense of self and place in the world is incredibly disorienting. Improvements in equality have upended many white Americans’ psychological crutch in their presumed racial or gender superiority. To have mainstream culture slowly stop reflecting the idea that we are innately “on top” because of our race or gender can seem incredibly devastating.

While the racial wealth disparity is still greater, many white Americans are also suffering from the inequities of American capitalism. And when these Americans can’t make sense of that in addition to why their race is no longer upheld as “supreme,” many have lashed out in all different forms — from Facebook, to the ballet box, to the US Capitol insurrection of January 6th.

When the falsehood of white racial superiority is exposed, white Americans can either choose to reach a new understanding or sit in perpetual frustration.

In recent history, one American political party has captured the disoriented by feeding them much simpler lies.

And the other American political party, while not perfect, at least has inaugural poets.

How I Came To Understand Multiple Truths

I know about the frustrations of white America from experience — both inward and from observing my community. What allowed me to make better sense of my world was books and other art forms. I benefited, too, from a solid education that forced me to grapple with multiple truths and ideas. When I asked the question, my grandparents had hard lives, and they were white — so then, what is white privilege?, I also had the tools to answer it. I was able to find answers both through literature and in conversations late into the night. I could rethink what I previously held true and mold a new paradigm.

Literature, art, poetry, film — they were all avenues for me to build a new understanding.

Now I’m able to hold the two truths in my mind: white people can have difficult lives but racism still exists. Not being able to comprehend this duality breeds chaos in white people’s minds that often gets released in anger or frustration. I’ve seen it very close to home. It’s not an excuse but an explanation.

From my observations, the need for a simple, angry outlet is what drew many people in my community to Trump and other Republicans. They threw out complexity and instead offered and consumed simple lies.

Art captures complexity — makes sense of it — and without it, we are left in a state of mental chaos that is harnessed by rulers who feed off of it. Like a positive feed back cycle, they use that lack of understanding to drum up fear and hate in order to stay in power.

Poetry Captures Complexity

First and foremost, the United States needs policy change that addresses root issues like systemic racism. Even if it “frustrates” people.

But secondly, I ask, how could we solve a problem like systemic racism if it couldn’t be collectively exposed, understood, and defined?

Art uplifts the soul because it brings forth experience and gives it shape — both personally and collectively. It’s not only beautiful. In terms of collective policy change, art can be an avenue for organizing around truth. Art can give order to truth.

Poetry captures complexity and makes it simple. And there’s a lot of complexity to make sense of in the world; hardly anything can be fully understood from one angle. Being so, a poem with only one layer is usually dull. When I read a poem, I want to see what I feel and observe put into words that I’d never imagine myself. It should seem both striking and familiar.

Recently I read An American Sunrise: Poems by Native American musician, playwright, author, and US Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo. In my head, I understood my country’s treatment of Native Americans, but it wasn’t until I read Harjo’s poetry collection did I start to feel that knowledge at bone level. The pages of An American Sunrise weave and connect tribal history with Harjo’s personal and ancestral story, evoking earth, memory, and song. The lines are rich with joy and love, but they also show trauma embedded in generational memory and a culture stifled by colonial law — and yet, through these poems, Harojo shows how Native memory and song persevere.

Laying claim to being heard, Harjo writes for Natives to “call out even in a whisper” (Directions to You) while pointing to a tension within her medium itself: “there is no word in this trade language, no words with enough power / to hold all this we have become — ”(Exile of Memory).

Through poetry, Harjo reveals layered truths that don’t compete with each other. While reading, you don’t have to chose between one truth or another because they are all encompassed within one another.

And that’s a much deeper education than facts and dates alone can provide.

Emotional Understanding Begets Full Understanding

Many things I can understand intellectually, but art allows me to also make sense of them emotionally or psychologically. For example, you might ask, how can I be both happy and sad at the same time? And poetry can answer it. Or — even more complex — you might wonder, how can I be personally frustrated by something in the moment but simultaneously understand its larger societal implications? And literature can help you work through that duality, too. These answers might not be explicitly direct, but instead shown through imagery, allegory, and many other devices. It’s an emotional understanding if not only an intellectual one.

In fact, in my experience, most of our reactions to the world have to be processed emotionally before they can be processed logically. For example, does it make any rational sense to question the results of the 2020 presidential election? No, of course not. But have you ever tried to reason with someone that is emotionally stunted? If you have, you’d know that there is no reasoning with them until they can master emotional dualities and calm the chaos of their mind.

And that’s the value in art; it’s a way to understand something on an emotional level even if it’s not yet clear on an intellectual one. Or, it brings a richer understanding to surface-level knowledge. A poet, for example, has the ability to capture and show deep dualities — just look at Maggie Smith’s poem, “Good Bones” (film version), that went viral in 2016. It was published coincidentally the same week as the June 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting and has gone viral following several other major tragedies including the May 2017 Manchester suicide bombing and the October 2017 Last Vegas massacre. In only 17 lines, it somehow captures the truths of both hopelessness and hope. This combined emotional truth reminded me that there is potential for the world to be better even in the midst of great tragedy.

For Trump’s inauguration in 2017, there was no inaugural poet — maybe Smith’s poem wouldn’t have been quite right for an inaugural ceremony, but nonetheless her words still spoke for much of the country. “Good Bones” helped many of us — me included — make sense of the sharp contrast between good and evil that we were facing.

Why Don’t Republicans Have Inaugural Poets?

Having an inaugural poet, as of yet, has been a partisan affair, but is also a rather recent tradition. The only other presidents to have a poet speak at inauguration have been Kennedy (Robert Frost), Clinton (Maya Angelou), and Obama (Elizabeth Alexander, Richard Blanco). Immediately upon learning this, I knew it was telling of a major difference between the Democrats and current Republicans in power.

When a segment of the populace doesn’t comprehend their emotional selves, or lives in hatred regardless, those in power can use that to their political advantage. For many people, there’s a strong inclination to take the easy way out when it comes to reconciling psychological distress or disorientation caused by multiple truths. Those with authoritarian tendencies want a solid answer to soothe their discontentment. And those in power with authoritarian tendencies will provide it. That’s why so many Americans — in the past and present — have gravitated towards simple but fear-mongering answers: being gay is bad, immigrants are “illegal”, etc.

Not only did Trump not have an inaugural poet, but he also tried multiple times to defund the National Endowment of the Arts. He harnessed mental chaos by creating fear. He took peoples’ emotional disorientation and drummed up their anger. In fact, it seemed his entire election strategy was to say, “hey, vote for me — I’m the guy to reflect and uphold your most disjointed selves.”

If you want to support society’s ability to make sense of its multiple truths, then you must uplift your artists. It’s not a direct salve to problems, but it can bring understanding to those problems. The only thing worse than chaos, is chaos you don’t understand; because if you can’t make sense of it, then you can’t move forward as a society. If you don’t support art — as Trump didn’t — then you don’t support progress.

Amanda Gorman, Inaugural Poet 2021

This inauguration’s poet, Amanda Gorman, is the youngest ever inaugural poet in the United States at age 22. As reported by the New York Times, she finished the second half of her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” on the night of the January 6th insurrection. On composing it, Gorman said:

“We have to confront these realities if we’re going to move forward, so that’s also an important touchstone of the poem. There is space for grief and horror and hope and unity, and I also hope that there is a breath for joy in the poem, because I do think we have a lot to celebrate at this inauguration.”

While watching her perform “The Hill We Climb” today, I became emotional. I understood it from my bones. As an artist, she gave more than just her words, though they were phenomenal. Her bright yellow coat, her poise, her delivery — all of it felt like hope. The rhythm of it was perfect and seamless, and it wasn’t until I read a transcript did I realize how well she employed alliteration. At the time, I was fully engulfed in the poem as a whole.

Gorman balanced a forward looking ethos with the acknowledgement of our dark chapter — and to be frank, other darker chapters (or whole books) throughout American history. When I wanted so much want to call this country shattered, Gorman supplied the better words, describing the United States as “a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.”

And that’s what poetry does; it gives us a better way to define our world.

While the Trump era Republicans harness mental chaos by stowing fear and division, the Democrats should actively support the artists who help us define ourselves. Our country’s art and a collective understanding of our multiple truths can allow us to change policy for the better. In short, art gives us a collective grasp on our complex lived experiences.

Supporting art is more than allowing it to be free and uncensored. It also means uplifting art, it means funding art, it means making sure current and future artists have access to healthcare.

And that’s what it means to be the party with an inaugural poet.

slow living + observations | find me @ twitter.com/_ktmar10

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