Dressed in vibrant shades of red and gold, Amanda Gorman’s slight frame stepped up to the podium at President Biden’s January inauguration 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, unwavering voice, Gorman delivered her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” that rang with the uplifting theme of goodwill and national unity.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we tired, we tried
That we'll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division
Gorman follows a historically rich line of inaugural poets, including Robert Frost (1961) and Maya Angelou (1993). At just 22 years old, Gorman is only one example of how the use of spoken word poetry has awakened an appreciation of verse, especially among younger writers. Poets like the Indian-born, Canadian-based Rupi Kaur, 28, San Diego’s Rudy Francisco, 38, and the Colombian American Carlos Andrés Gómez, 39, are some of the poets whose award-winning works and captivating performances are driving greater interest.
“There has been an increase in the popularity of poetry,” says the Smithsonian’s Tulani Salahu-Din, a museum specialist at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which is holding a number of online workshops this month, hosted by poet Anthony McPherson, in honor of the 25th anniversary of National Poetry Month.
Historically, poetry had elevated and highlighted Black and Latino voices. From the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement to spoken word, people of color have held a strong presence in poetry.
“We're always using poetry as a platform to articulate our ideas, our concerned interests, pains, our struggles, our joys, our victories,” says Salahu-Din. “Because of its brevity, poetry easily conforms to the immediacy of all of the struggles. It responds to the immediacy.”
And in this current moment, that immediacy includes Black Lives Matter, environmentalism, feminism and other transcendent conversations of the day that are calling for an artistic response. Poetry, which has always been a part of the culture and a part of the history, says Salahu-Din, is “just more visible in the digital age.”
The continuous growth of hip-hop culture, and the influence it holds across art, fashion, dance and language, mirrors the growth in spoken word poetry. Social media and internet culture, says 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, says McPherson, 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 of interest and attention to detail in poetry performances has opened up the industry to more individuals, who may have looked past it before. He is holding out hope for an even steadier stream of viewership and involvement in poetry. “Maybe the dignity is rising, but as far as popularity, we need some more constant voices,” he says.
Originally from Oklahoma, McPherson moved to New York City and discovered his interest in poetry after a roommate had brought him to the Nuyorican Poets Café to perform. McPherson writes about racism, sexism and transphobia; topics he “really can't fathom are still an issue beyond 1980.” But he also aims to express hope for the future through his words. His work has been featured in the film Love Beats Rhymes, the Emmy-winning documentary Frameworks 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 into it, that I finally got access,” says McPherson. “Slam is the driving force.”
Coming from a theatre background, McPherson was often exposed to well-known white writers like Neil Simon and Tennessee Williams. The lack of diversity McPherson witnessed posed a hinderance that slam overcomes.
“[Slam] allows for writers and creators to bypass that and just tell their story directly,” he says. “From there, people tend to branch out to things like movies, movie production, screenplay, writing, playwriting et cetera.”
Salahu-Din hopes to bridge the gap between spoken word 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 so, they are really one.”
McPherson’s online workshops this month, teach about persona 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 it is just very much embedded in truth,” he says. “There's no rules, really. It’s just this easy avenue to tell your story as truthful as possible.”
Upcoming online events from the National Museum of African American History & Culture include: “Poetry Workshop: Pastoral Poetry + The Highwaymen,” Wednesday, April 21, 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.; a Virtual Poetry Slam, Friday, April 24, 10 a.m.; “Poetry Workshop: Ekphrastic Poetry + Angela Davis,” Wednesday, April 28, 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.; Poetry Workshop: Golden Shovel + Marsha P. Johnson, Wednesday, May 5, 12:30 to 1:30 p.m..