A Brief Look at Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem

The first thing to say is that any Elizabethan Rhetorician who saw or heard Amanda Gorman’s poem would immediately, and with a broad smile and nod of recognition, recognize it as a species of Euphuism. The euphusitic style of writing comes from John Lyly’s play Euphues and, for a time, was all the rage in Elizabethan poetry and prose. As of this month, February 2021, Wikipedia opens their article on Euphuism with the following:

Euphuism is a peculiar mannered style of English prose. It takes its name from a prose romance by John Lyly. It consists of a preciously ornate and sophisticated style, employing a deliberate excess of literary devices such as antitheses, alliterations, repetitions and rhetorical questions. Classical learning and remote knowledge of all kinds are displayed. Euphuism was fashionable in the 1580s, especially in the Elizabethan court.

And goes further to describe the principles of the euphuistic prose style:

The euphuistic sentence followed principles of balance and antithesis to their extremes, purposely using the latter regardless of sense. John Lyly set up three basic structural principles:

  1. phrases of equal length that appear in succession;
  2. the balance of key verbal elements in successive sentences;
  3. the correspondence of sounds and syllables, especially between words that are already balanced against each other.

Now one might object that Gorman’s “Poem” is not prose. But it is. A while back I coined a name for verse like hers called Syntactic Verse. Syntactic Verse is simply prose that has been lineated according to its syntactic and/or rhetorical units. I would wager a guess that the majority of free verse is syntactic verse. It’s easy to write and it provides a quick and ready rationale by which to lineate. One could take any of Lyly’s prose and lineate it according to its syntactic and rhetorical units and you would end up with a poem that looked just like Gorman’s and, apart from 400 years of English, would sound identical. All this is to say that Gorman’s verse is verse on paper only. If you didn’t know that she had lineated her prose or that she called it a poem, and listened only to her reading, you would have no reason to think it wasn’t especially euphuistic prose (though you might not know the term you would recognize the patterning). It’s the sort of rhetorical patterning that public speakers from the pulpit to the soapbox have availed themselves of since ancient Rome—though they never took it to the extremes of Lyly or Gorman. None of this, by the way, is meant to denigrate Gorman’s poem or poetry. It’s simply a description of what she’s doing and why there’s no difference between her writing and that of Lyly. They are both playing exactly the same game.

For example, lineated Lyly:

But alas Euphues, 
what truth can there be found in a traveller? 
What stay in a stranger? 
Whose words and bodies 
both watch 
but for a wind, 
whose feet are ever fleeting, 
whose faith plighted on the shore, 
is turned to perjury when they hoist sail

And Amanda Gorman:

but that doesn't mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect
We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside

The passages are so strikingly alike that they could almost be performed on the same stage with little disjunction. Both writers use the same rhetorical figures to the same ends: consonance, alliteration, conduplicatio, isocolon, paramoiosis, etc… And both John Lyly and Amanda Gorman weirdly share a predilection for the consonant ‘w’ sounds. Both engage in rhetorical questions. And neither has an alliteration off-switch. The last twenty or so lines of Gorman’s poem is a traffic-stopping crescendo of alliteration. If Gorman had deliberately set out to imitate the euphuistic style of the 16th century, she couldn’t have done a better job.

And here is The Hill We Climb in all it’s euphuistic glory:

My markings aren’t exhaustive and I know I’ve missed some rhetorical figures, but you get the idea. A prose passage by John Lyly would look exactly the same.

It will be rightly pointed out that her style of poetry is influenced by rap and hip-hop rather than John Lyly, but it’s also fair to say that she’s re-invented/rediscovered a style of writing that is nevertheless indistinguishable from the euphuistic Elizabethan style (just as Elizabethan writers re-invented Iambic Pentameter after Chaucer). Lyly’s style was popular for its time, but after a point it became an easy target for satire. As Wikipedia notes:

Many critics did not appreciate Lyly’s deliberate excesses. Philip Sidney and Gabriel Harvey castigated his style.

Lyly’s style, however[clarification needed], influenced Shakespeare, who satirised[clarification needed] it in speeches by Polonius in Hamlet and the florid language of the courtly lovers in Love’s Labour’s Lost; Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing also made use of it, as did Richard and Lady Anne in Richard III. It was taken up by the Elizabethan writers Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge and Barnabe Rich. Walter Scott satirised it in the character of Sir Piercie Shafton in The Monastery, while Charles Kingsley defended Euphues in Westward Ho!Wikipedia on Euphuism

While I thought that Gorman’s poem wasn’t one for the ages, it was perfect for the occasion; and it was perfect because it exploited so many of the rhetorical strategies that every public speaker, from Cicero to Shakespeare’s soliloquies, used to persuade and ingratiate themselves with the crowd. Another poet might have written a poem with such unimpeachable academic poise and restraint as to be generic, like Elizabeth Alexander’s exquisitely forgettable inaugural poem—Praise Song for the Day. Not Gorman. All that alliteration at the close of the poem was like an explosion of confetti, faerie dust and birthday glitter. Irresistible. She knows how to bring down the house.

I only wonder how hard Gorman will ride this horse. Her later Super Bowl recitation, Chorus of the Captains, shows her to be in full gallop:

Let us walk with these warriors,
Charge on with these champions,
And carry forth the call of our captains!
We celebrate them by acting
With courage and compassion,
By doing what is right and just.

The poem—In this Place (An American Lyric)—likewise rhapsodically hails readers with an alliterative piling on of sloganeering. It will wear thin or she’ll be forever asked to write the kinds of poems one belts out before the battle of Agincourt (it’s no coincidence her poetry was featured before the Super Bowl). Hers is stylistically the poetry of public declamation. But she’s young, talented, and deservedly successful. Time will tell and I wish her all the best.

upinVermont ❦ February 12 2021

7 responses

  1. I’m glad you liked that poem. To be frank, though, (and because I’m sure she will never read this), that poem gave me a stomachache.

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    • Ah I see… I was a bit blinded by anger. I wrote a screed soon after. I’m going to post it here since I can put it nowhere else and I need to get it out. I’m cooled down now though.

      Thought is diffused so subtly through the poem’s splayed out limbs that you could hardly tell it was there; but it certainly makes up for it by dazzling fire-sticks in front of our eyes of every color, shape, temperature, width, sound so as to continue pumping down the stultifying, sticky-sweet cliches down our throats—stick a “Buy One Get One Free!” in there… or a “Click it or Ticket!” or a “Don’t Eat Out, Get Takeout!” and nobody will hear the difference – maybe it will even be more honest and confessional? It doesn’t even lack thought: it kills, stultifies, suffocates thought—it’s a sentimental overture for the liberal hegemony. And just like Trump is the president we deserve, she is the poet we deserve. Look at this place we have made for ourselves: we pervert our land with ugly, crass, tacky monuments and pervert ourselves by scraping, scraping, scraping away at whatever we have left.

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    • Yeah, but she’s 22/23 years old. She’s a “youth poet”. I’m willing to give her a break. You should have seen the stuff I was writing when I was that age—sentimental any? She’s okay. If she’s still writing like this 20 years from now, then I’ll revisit. :)

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  2. Wow! I knew there was a word for what I was hearing, and dug through some of my old textbooks to figure it out to no avail. Thanks for clearing that up for me!

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  3. Yes, right for the occasion, but right for the person? If I wrote a poem with this much baseless clanging I’d be referred for a thought disorder. True, there are circumstances under which tactful encouragement of efforts like these is indicated—were she in middle school, say, or facing the challenges of a developmental disability or mood disorder. But–egads!–she just graduated from Harvard! If you suspect sour grapes here or the ax-grinding of an unreconstructed crypto-confederate, I actually feel very sorry for her that pop celebrity is locking her into this leitmotif—an especially fraught captivity for (usually) female poets. She deserves the leeway to write like an Elizabeth Alexander, whose poem “Praise Song for the Day” I actually thought quite good.

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