Trevor Noah recently asked the extraordinary young poet Amanda Gorman: “So, you’re 22 years old, stole the show at the Presidential Inauguration and are invited to read your poetry in the Super Bowl. Where can you go from here?”
Thinking on her feet, she gave a decent answer, but if I were her and had time to prepare, here’s what I would say:
“In order to answer that, we have to understand the territory in which poetry lives. ‘The Hill I Climb’ is not the mountain of fame and fortune. It has nothing to do with the number of likes on Facebook or the number of talk show invitations. It’s the one that offers that spectacular view that you can’t see down in the lowlands. The poet makes an uphill effort, feels with a rock-climber’s mind where the next needed word is that will support the weight of the poem. Once at the top, her responsibility and pleasure is to report to others what she sees. To encourage them to ascend and see for themselves. That’s one of poetry’s possibilities and there’s always another mountain out there.
And the poet is also a deep-sea diver, descending down into the watery depths of sorrow and grief and then rising up from those waters with a poem that has the power to give someone a hug who cannot be touched (especially in these pandemic times) in their hour of need, a poem that has the physicality of an embrace coiled in the muscle of language. There is no bottom to that sea and no end to those waters.
The poet is also a miner, looking for the glimmer of gold hidden in the folds of the hard rock of our armored human heart and coaxing it out. Or panning for it in the streams of our flowing lives, trying to stratify the merely mundane and separate it from our extraordinary possibility.
What lies ahead? The full measure of a human life with all its complexities, triumphs and tribulations. The challenge to keep climbing the mountains, diving into the seas, excavating the hidden gold and write something lasting and memorable that brings comfort or inspiration to people I will never meet. The hope to stumble upon something that is at once timely and timeless, particular and universal, something that appears to someone as if the poem was written precisely for them, for what they’re going through, what they need to hear, what they wanted to say but couldn’t find the words.
At the same time that the Inauguration and Super Bowl is an extraordinary moment of fame thrust upon me, one that allows me to reach millions more than the 20 people in a poetry reading, that opens doors and gives opportunities for more poems to be shared, there is also a great danger. I could get lost in the glitz and glamour of a rock-star culture, the one that prefers to adore and idolize and grab the coattails of the rich and famous rather than do the work themselves to shine their own light.
Poetry is not a halftime show at the Super Bowl nor a touchdown run with a “look what I did!” end-zone dance. It’s not about entertainment and let’s get on with the show, but about finding the needed words for any occasion that bring healing, solace and light. It’s not about how awesome and amazing I am, but how vulnerable and wounded and beautiful we all are and can be.
That’s where I think I need to go from here.”