Dressed in vibrant shades of red and gold, Amanda Gorman’s lightweight figure stepped onto the catwalk during President Biden’s inauguration in January and within moments captured the hearts of millions of Americans. What the audience saw that day was the new face of poetry. With a bold and unwavering voice, Gorman delivered his poem, “The Hill We Climb”, which rang with the exhilarating theme of goodwill and national unity.
We seek harm to no one and harmony for all
Let the globe, at the very least, say it’s true:
That even crying we grew
That even though we were tired we tried
That we’ll be forever bound together, victorious
Not because we’ll never know defeat again
but because we will never sow division again
Gorman follows a historically rich line of inaugural poets, including Robert Frost (1961) and Maya Angelou (1993). At just 22 years old, Gorman is just one example of how the use of oral poetry has sparked appreciation for verse, especially among young writers. Poets like Native Indians, Native Canadians Rupi kaur, 28, San Diego Rudy francisco, 38, and the Colombian American Carlos Andrés Gomez, 39, are some of the poets whose award-winning works and captivating performances arouse the greatest interest.
“There has been an increase in the popularity of poetry,” says the Smithsonian’s Tulani Salahu-Din, museologist at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which holds a number of online workshops this month, animated by the poet Anthony McPherson, in honor of the 25th anniversary of National Poetry Month.
Historically, poetry had uplifted and emphasized black and Latino voices. From the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement to oral creation, people of color have been strongly present in poetry.
“We always use poetry as a platform to express our ideas, our concerned interests, our pains, our struggles, our joys, our victories,” says Salahu-Din. “Because of its brevity, poetry easily conforms to the immediacy of all struggles. It responds to immediacy.
And right now, that immediacy includes Black Lives Matter, environmentalism, feminism, and other transcendent conversations of the day that call for an artistic response. Poetry, which has always been a part of culture and history, says Salahu-Din, is “just more visible in the digital age.”
The continued growth of hip-hop culture and the influence it exerts on art, fashion, dance and language reflects the growth of spoken poetry. Social media and internet culture, according to Salahu-Din, are also contributing factors, especially among younger generations. Individuals can learn about literary history and find nearby poetry workshops within minutes. Technology also allows writers to publish or self-publish; YouTube has become a great platform for slam poetry.
Poetry, McPherson says, has long been reserved for academia, limiting involvement and accessibility. But the popularity of performance-based poetry slams presents an opportunity for more interest and participation. The shift in interest and attention to detail in poetry performances has opened up the industry to more individuals, who may have looked beyond before. He keeps the hope of an even more stable flow of viewers and an involvement in poetry. “Maybe dignity increases, but when it comes to popularity, we need more consistent voices,” he says.
Originally from Oklahoma, McPherson moved to New York City and discovered his interest in poetry after a roommate brought him to the Nuyorican Poets Café to perform. McPherson writes on racism, sexism and transphobia; subjects that he “really can’t understand are still a problem beyond 1980”. But he also intends to express hope for the future through his words. His work was featured in the film Love beats rhymes, the Emmy-winning documentary Frames and other poetry platforms, like Button Poetry. “I had never really written poems or read poems in high school. It wasn’t until I moved to New York, and literally stumbled across it, that I finally got access, ”says McPherson. “The slam is the driving force. “
Coming from a theatrical background, McPherson has often been exposed to well-known white writers like Neil Simon and Tennessee Williams. The lack of diversity that McPherson witnessed was one obstacle that slam overcame.
“[Slam] allows writers and creators to get around that and tell their story directly, ”he says. “From there people tend to turn to things like films, film production, screenplay, writing, dramaturgy and so on.
Salahu-Din hopes to bridge the gap between speech and written poetry through the museum’s programs and events. “I want people to understand that all of these writings are part of a historical and literary continuum, and therefore, they really are one.”
McPherson’s online workshops this month teach personal poetry, pastoral poetry, ekphrastic poetry, but also “black excellence, black history, black future and black greatness,” he says. “Poetry is in this very interesting place where it’s either hyper academic or just very grounded in truth,” he says. “There are no rules, really. It’s just that easy avenue to tell your story as truthfully as possible.
Upcoming online events for the National Museum of African American History and Culture include: “Poetry workshop: Pastoral poetry + Highwaymen”, Wednesday April 21 from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. a Virtual poetry slam, Friday April 24, 10 a.m. “Poetry workshop: ekphrastic poetry + Angela Davis”, Wednesday April 28, from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Poetry workshop: Golden Shovel + Marsha P. Johnson, Wednesday May 5, 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.