Jonathan Van-Tam has a way with metaphors. The Deputy Chief Medical Officer’s clear football analogies for tackling Covid-19 are a refreshing change from the war imagery rife elsewhere. Equally refreshing is Amanda Gorman’s choice of a topographical image for ‘The Hill We Climb’: her five-minute poem for the 46th US President’s Inauguration. For most UK viewers Gorman burst onto our screens a fully-formed 22-year-old poet laureate. Brought up by a single mother, her personal hill included childhood speech and hearing impediments, but ‘If I choose not to speak out of fear,’ she told students in a 2019 TED talk, ‘then there is no one that my silence is standing for.’
It is a brave poet who writes a five-minute poem, let alone performs it on a palpably tense world stage. This she did, to 33.8 million people – many no doubt averse to poetry if not to the speaker herself. The form is aphoristic and hortatory, laced with rhyme and assonance, and not dependent on lineation which newsprint can mangle. Completed after witnessing the siege on the Capitol, by the end it becomes an incantation.
Her call for national cohesion has, however, sparked a worldwide row about who should translate it. Publishers’ first contracts went to white translators and/or men. Gorman approved these, but wasn’t offered any choices. When made aware of this, some candidates graciously stepped down. Others sought to distinguish between translation and politics, seemingly unaware of one of Gorman’s consistent themes – that language as poetry is politics: the two are inseparable. While the film industry’s wheels-within-wheels are being overhauled, publishing’s, it seems, grind on. No one is saying, I hope, that translators shouldn’t come from all backgrounds, or denying that disparate partnerings don’t bring dividends, just that if ever there was a time for circumspection it might have been now, with this particular poem.
Gorman followed Maya Angelou and Elizabeth Alexander to the Washington platform, plus centuries of black women writers who paved the way. Voices like the slave Phillis Wheatley, who caught George Washington’s ear, Harriet E Wilson, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Effie Lee Newsome, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove and scores more whose work speaks to everyone and deserves to be better known. Perhaps it soon will be. Gorman, a Harvard sociologist, intends to run for president in 2036. If successful she will join a select few who have gone from being unacknowledged to acknowledged legislators of the world. From scoring points, that is, to scoring goals.
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