My educational trek featured a UMass poetry class. It was a jittery leap. The presiding poet was from Kashmir, and my classmates half the age of yours truly.
A welcoming Shahid Ali wrote the King’s English with a clarity we could only aspire to. I’d written poetry for years, but taking an Master of Fine Arts workshop was a dream. My assignment: Bring a new poem each week; read it to be critiqued by peers and professor. It’s said, humility is a virtue that defeats the sin of pride. I learned my lesson.
It was the 1990s. UMass fostered a young African American poet, Natasha Trethewey. In a few years she would win a Pulitzer Prize for her Civil War-themed book, “Native Guard.” The book relates how badly Black troops were treated by Union generals. She gave examples of Blacks being shot at by their fellow troops. In battle, the dead were denied their existence and a decent burial by a Union commanding officer. It’s an American story that lives on, right on up to the murder of George Floyd and counting.
Natasha was later named poet laureate of the United States, twice!
I just reread my May 1996 Gazette column, which spoke to the impact of poetry on people lives. In a recent New York Times article, “Thank God for the Poets,” writer Margaret Renkl, took up our cause in defense of April’s National Poetry Month: “Many Americans, probably a vast majority of Americans, feel they can get along just fine without poetry. But tragedy — a breakup, a cancer diagnosis, a sudden death — can change their minds.”
America sure had a breakup with the Trump boondoggle. Given that truth, poetry of the finest kind was called forth to heal a fractured nation.
On Jan. 20, 2021 following President Joe Biden’s inauguration, we were mesmerized when a 22-year-old poet stood tall in a bright yellow coat to read her poem: “The Hill We Climb.”
It was 60 years to the day that poet Robert Frost braved the cold and wind to recite, “The Gift Outright,” at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural. Frost was the first poet to speak at the inauguration of a president. I remember.
Amanda Gorman’s “Hill” traverses more recent history because she was working on the poem the day that our Capitol was attacked by Trump-supporting white supremacists. Who of us were not shaken to see this foul American insurrection, history, not in books but here, in our time?
Harking back to Frost, he summed up our nation’s beginnings as a gift from a higher power, its destiny left for frail humans to complete.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still un-storied, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she will become.
Frost’s appearance exemplified Kennedy’s intention to bring forward a renewed appreciation for the arts in America. Sixty years onward we live in that new America, an America of many colors, replacing the old white-man model as seen in newsreels and movies. More aware now, with filmic sensitivities like veins on an operating table, wide-eyed, we shudder at the racism we hardly noticed. Hollywood’s ignoble take on black servicemen in World War II films — as ship’s wardroom waiters, or troops hauling materiel to the front — are background scenery at best, expendable at the worst.
Black lives did not matter.
At Biden’s inaugural, Black poet Amanda Gorman mattered a lot. Amanda mattered because she found a way to remind her fellow Americans that words matter. Her youth contains a clarity of eyesight alien to seniors. In the folktale, it was a child who spoke up to reveal the hubris of a naked emperor and his foolish followers. In Gorman’s words:
This is the era of just redemption.
We feared it at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
Of such a terrifying hour.
But within it we found the power
To author a new chapter,
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
I admired President Kennedy for wearing his Harvard education lightly as he worked on race issues. Kennedy recognized that for African Americans the Civil War wasn’t over. Ninety-five years was a long time, but not long enough to wean out prejudice.
This year, along comes another Harvard grad with an expanded view of our country and the resilience of its people. Democracy is formed of, by and for responsible citizens. Amanda:
When day comes, we step out of the
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.Columnist and poet, Jim Cahillane, lives in Williamsburg. His elegy, “London Wedding,” is in “NEVER FORGOTTEN 100 Poets Remember 9/11” by North Sea Poetry Scene Press, Southampton NY. (2020). He is a member of the Florence Poets Society.