Thursday, January 28, 2021

Style Points



We're all Joe Biden now.

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."

— Joe Biden, describing fellow candidate Barack Obama. The remark was made the same day Biden filed the official paperwork to launch his presidential campaign. Biden later apologized and said the remark was taken out of context.



After Amanda Gorman recited her poem, "The Hill We Climb," at the presidential inauguration on January 20

The Obamas both responded Wednesday afternoon with the former president posting, "On a day for the history books, [Amanda Gorman] delivered a poem that more than met the moment. Young people like her are proof that 'there is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it; if only we're brave enough to be it.'" Michelle praised Gorman's "strong and poignant words" for serving as a reminder of the power "we each hold in upholding" democracy. "Keep shining, Amanda! I can't wait to see what you do next."

The Obamas were only two in a huge chorus lavishing praise upon the 22-year old. Mr. and Mrs.Clinton were overcome with excitement, with the former President calling the poem "just stunning." In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Georgetown University English instructor Seth Perlow noted "a great delivery can imbue words with conviction, even a sense of spontaneity" and recognized

Despite the cliches, Gorman distinguished herself by performing with remarkable dynamism and grace. Instead of merely reading her poem from the page, she brought the language to life. Her delivery made poetry a more vital, stirring part of the ceremony than it usually is.

Gorman drew upon the contemporary style of spoken-word poetry, which emphasizes the rhythms and rhymes of the poet’s voice as she speaks. Spoken-word poets treat poems as performances, rather than texts for silent contemplation. Many people learn in school to read poems like regular prose, without pausing at line breaks or stressing the rhymes, but spoken-word poets do the opposite, foregrounding the rhythmical, musical qualities of language. This approach works perfectly for an inauguration: It makes a poem an event in itself, something we experience together....

Presumably (and understandably) intent on maintaining employment in academia, Perlow would never admit it. But his applause for Gorman differentiated sharply from that of the Obamas and the innumerable others who celebrated the poem. Almost surreptitiously in his piece lavishly praising the young woman, Perlow notes lines which "sound almost cloying when we read them silently."

There is no need for the adverb "almost." Some lines were cloying and as a piece of written material, the poem was simply not good.

That's irrelevant, of course. Perlow realizes "the younger poet's performance clearly stands out" among poets at earlier inaugurations because "while her predecessors read in a staid, academic style, Gorman animated the language, more like a preacher or, indeed, a politician."

He adds "Gorman says she intends to run for president in 2036."  The ambition is reasonable, with Hillary tweeting a selfie with Bill and herself while remarking "I for one can't wait (for Gorman's presidential run."

She should know. Her husband was a spectacular orator who became President 28 years ago partly on the strength of his remarkable delivery.  Without his spellbinding- albeit dishonest, bigoted, hateful, and belligerent- speeches, Donald Trump never would have sniffed the presidency.

And that brings us around to Joe Biden and the extremely eloquent President he loyally served.  Before Biden bowed out of the presidential race in 2008, he labeled Barack Obama articulate, bright, clean, and nice-looking.

How, without personal examination, Biden could conclude that Obama- or anyone- was "clean" was unclear. However, Biden's meaning was clear: a "mainstream" African-American who is all those things is "a storybook, man." He was variously accused of uttering a racist statement or ridiculed, the latter my reaction.

Whether because the poetess is merely 22-years-old or because she's black (spoiler alert: mostly the latter),  Amanda Gorman is being heralded as someone so awesome she may even become President.

"More like a preacher, indeed a politician," Perlow writes, because he understands the dynamic.  He observed "the spoken-word performance style draws upon multiple African American traditions, including hip hop and church orator." Whatever its content, Gorman's poem as recited was eloquent, stirring, and inspirational which, not coincidentally, characterizes weekly sermons of Protestant African-American preachers throughout the nation.

Gorman's recitation was extremely powerful. However, our elation- because of the speaker's age, race, or anything else- over the brilliance of the presentation should not propel us into a state of ecstasy about poem or poet.  If we do, we will not be unlike 2007 Joe Biden with his archaic perception of the limitation of others, consigned to the fate of eventually being elected President of the United States of America.



 


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