"You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose" is a memorable Mario Cuomo quote that took an added dimension after Amanda Gorman's gorgeous poem, "The Hill We Climb," captured this week's inaugural inflection point between two presidencies.
The poem, concurrently introspective and inspiring, spoke to a dispirited nation that has careened from crises ranging from a raging pandemic, to rage in cities, to an attack on the democratic process that culminated in the inauguration itself. Read radiantly by the poised, 22-year-old national youth poet laureate, Americans paid unusual attention to poetry — and more profoundly, the real state of the nation — right from these opening stanzas:
"When day comes, we ask ourselves/Where can we find light/In this never-ending shade?/The loss we carry; a sea we must wade./We've braved the belly of the beast./We've learned that quiet isn't always peace./And the norms and notions of what 'just is'/isn't always justice./And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it./Somehow we do it./Somehow we've weathered and witnessed/a nation that isn't broken, but simply unfinished."
It was "a fantastic reading and the perfect poem for the occasion," said Kathryn Nuernberger, an assistant professor of creative writing in the University of Minnesota's English Department.
Nuernberger, a professor and practitioner of poetry, added that "the challenge a poet would have at an event like this is how do you tell the truth about power at an event that is all about power?"
Gorman "managed to be honest and truthful and respectful," Nuernberger said, while still acknowledging "that the nation has this really troubled history; that there is so much work to be done while still maintaining the spirit of hope and celebration that was an important part of [the inauguration]."
The young poet's words, Nuernberger said, "remind us that there is a way of writing poems that can be deeply resonant in the moment."
Add to that recency a relatability — of the poet and her poem. "The Hill We Climb" isn't on a rhetorical mountaintop but grounded in everyday understanding.
"There is some poetry that is elusive for people who are not familiar with the art form, and yet I thought her poem was so accessible and the meaning was not elusive, which was really wonderful for the occasion because it's not meant to be something that can only be experienced by the initiated," said Daniel Slager, the publisher and CEO of Minneapolis-based Milkweed Editions, whose poetry volumes consistently compete for major awards.
Poetry, Slager said, "has been having a moment in America recently."
Indeed. In October, American poet Louise Glück was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. And overall, Slager said, sales have surged (albeit from a low base). And compared to any base of any genre, this generation's new literary star was confirmed when Gorman's upcoming two books shot to the top of Amazon's bestseller list right after the inauguration, even though they won't be available until the fall.
It's all part of a more transcendent trend of more young people of color breaking through to broader audiences. People like Gorman, who said in her poem:
"We, the successors of a country and a time,/Where a skinny Black girl,/Descended from slaves and raised by a single mother,/Can dream of becoming president,/Only to find herself reciting for one."
The one she was reciting for appreciates poetry, too. Particularly Irish poets like Seamus Heaney, whose line about hope and history rhyming has been frequently repeated by Biden, including as he accepted the nomination at the Democratic National Convention.
Biden's ties to his ancestral homeland's poets goes way back. As a boy he recited William Butler Yeats' words in the mirror as he worked to overcome his stutter.
"My colleagues always kid me about quoting Irish poets all the time," Biden said when he was still vice president. "They think I do it because I'm Irish. I do it because they're the best poets."
Slager said "it's probably not a coincidence that Biden is reaching for a couple of Ireland's greatest products as poets. I suspect it's authentic and a very hopeful sign because I think poets are uniquely capable of articulating the human experience."
Poems, Nuernberger said, "offer difficult truths. They don't offer us easy answers ever, and I want my leaders to be struggling with what is right and just."
Gorman offered her own difficult truths, including these words about the insurrection that preceded the presidential inauguration by a fortnight:
"We've seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,/Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy./And this effort nearly succeeded./But while democracy can be periodically delayed,/It can never be permanently denied."
While no president can preside fully in poetry and not prose, Slager said the nation has actually had two "poet presidents" — Abraham Lincoln, whose "best oratory is very poetic and very lyrical," and Barack Obama, whom Slager described as "a gorgeous writer who has a sense of poetry; you can hear the poetic cadence when he speaks."
But Obama's poetic appeal was more as a candidate, Slager said. "That quality of inspiration doesn't always translate perfectly well to governing." In fact, he said, "there are times when one wants a president like LBJ, of whom there was nothing poetic but very good governance."
Biden is unlikely to emulate the tough-talkin' Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson or the lyrical Lincoln. "But the fact that he's open to [poetry] and has expressed respect for the form of human expression is really incredibly promising and refreshing," Slager said.
Cuomo's construct of campaigning in poetry and governing in prose may be a case of the former New York governor underestimating poetry itself, Nuernberger said. "It seems he's adopting a definition of poetry that imagines poetry as being very idealistic and ethereal and lofty and maybe even a little impossible, and saying prose is more practical. And that paradigm isn't the one I have when I think about poetry. I would think governing in poetry, like living in poetry, would be about accepting complicated truths and struggling with that."
There's promise in that approach, as Gorman concluded in her era-defining poem:
"We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover,/In every known nook of our nation,/in every corner called our country,/Our people diverse and dutiful./We'll emerge, battered, but beautiful.
"When day comes, we step out of the shade,/Aflame and unafraid./The new dawn blooms as we free it,/For there is always light,/If only we're brave enough to see it,/If only we're brave enough to be it."
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.