What Good is the Gift of Poetry?

Topps Trading Card - Amanda Gorman, poet

Tim Van Schmidt | New SCENE


One of my holiday gifts this year was a book of poetry. I know, many people would rather get a lump of coal than to have to read some poetry.

But I was curious about the work of “#1 New York Times Bestselling Author”, Amanda Gorman. A “bestselling” poet is rare indeed. Gorman was even on her own Topps trading card in 2021. A poet on a trading card?

You’ll recognize her as the young poet who delivered some stirring words at President Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021 — performing her own poem, “The Hill We Climb”.

The book I received as a gift in December was Gorman’s newly published collection of poems titled “Call Us What We Carry”, 228 pages of verse aimed at a wide swath of personal and social issues, all amplified by an empowered and confident voice.

I didn’t want to just reread “The Hill We Climb” — which sounded great to me when she delivered it on the Capitol steps a year ago — but I wanted to hear what else she had to say.

Call Us What We Carry by Amanda Gorman

“Call Us What We Carry” is a full collection of work, challenging not just the ear, but the eye as well with some creative visual typography. But what comes through isn’t so much the answers to the numerous issues, but an intense willingness to confront them, face first, even with a mask on.

Gorman’s work is poetry of our times. Here, the virus pandemic is as powerful as the horror of racism — and young people like Gorman are stuck in the middle of all of this while just trying to have a life.

Gorman holds up a mirror to the times. But then again, that is what poetry does in general — to mirror deep thinking and feelings.

Poets say things that others wish they could say if they had the same command of words and the confidence to deliver them. And it is the poet’s job to say them, especially at emotionally charged events such as Biden’s inauguration.

By performing that day, Gorman put contemporary American poetry into the international spotlight and ably spoke to the moment as only a poet can.

Why is poetry so hard to understand? Well, you need to look at a poem as a piece of sculpture — the words are chiseled down. Poems are art works in words — they can be direct and yet open to the wildest tangent of thought and vocabulary — but somewhere in the syllables flowing from line to line is the attempt to really understand something, to make gems out of moments and thoughts. Sometimes those gems work for everyone.

I have recently experienced how the power of poetry also works on a more personal basis to mark an occasion of deep reflection — and how it even enhanced it. In fact, I was the poet. Or rather, I was the reader of a poem by Robert Service.

The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service

The poem was a longish one titled “The Cremation of Sam McGee” — first published in 1907 — and it’s a long way away from Gorman’s intense, personal poetry of the 21st Century. Rather, it’s a sing-songy and even comedic story of a musher in the Yukon who takes on the burden of cremating a colleague after he dies one night on the trail.

The occasion was a gathering to memorialize a friend — a Loveland sculptor — who specifically asked that the Service poem be read at his memorial. It was an honor to be asked to read the poem, but I didn’t know what I was getting into — I had to turn myself into a man carrying a corpse around on his sled for days until just the right situation occurred to fulfill his grisly promise.

My friend chose his poem well. There was just enough balance between darkness and humor to at once entertain listeners, teasing them with the rhythm of the language and a riveting story, and to make them shake their heads at oblivion.

As I read the poem, I looked around and saw numerous people mouthing the words to themselves. Later, I learned that this was a piece a lot of people had to memorize in school.

But those who didn’t know the words were listening with rapt attention. They laughed together at the funny bits and followed the rhyming lines with relish. It was a moment I will remember for a long time — everyone was in the same “space” thanks to this poetry.

It was an excellent way to honor our friend.

In her book, “Call Us What We Carry”, Gorman’s poetry invites us to listen together and to speak together. My friend’s memorial poem did something similar — it encouraged people to remember together.

This is what poetry is good for — to add a voice that says something beautiful and meaningful at just the right time, just the right place.

When words really matter, the gift of poetry is much better than a lump of coal.

Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. See his channel on YouTube at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt”. Also, see his “Rockin’ 2022 Window Show” at Cups Community Coffee, located at 1033 S Taft Hill in Fort Collins, thru January 31.

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