A court poet hard at work. (Photo by PATRICK SEMANSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

February 17, 2021   6 mins

My first proper boyfriend wooed me on a damp campsite in northern France, with bad red wine and a reading of The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. I must have already been a TS Eliot fan for his technique to work, as Prufrock isn’t really a romantic poem.

Despite my own susceptibility to poetry, I had always imagined that, in this age of mass media, it was as niche a phenomenon as lepidopterology or flag-collecting. Imagine my surprise, then, in 2016, when I was given a copy of Hollie McNish’s collection of poems about motherhood, Nobody Told Me. Her short, intense pieces about motherhood spoke to me as a new mum. But here, too, was proof that poetry could be a best-seller in the 21st century, and poets could hold sell-out gigs and be venerated on Mumsnet 

If McNish is now a cult figure among mothers, poetry has climbed to still giddier heights since Nobody Told Me was published, most recently with the central role played by 22-year-old “slam poet” Amanda Gorman at the inauguration of Joe Biden as US President. Gorman’s poem (and her person, her attire, her youth and even her allegedly very empowering headband) have made her the subject of fevered discourse since her performance.

One can only imagine what Plato would have thought. In the Republic, Plato argued that by virtue of mirroring the messy temporal world, rather than the ideal one of metaphysical Forms, poetry drew human eyes away from contemplating the Good. Far from making poets a central part of presidential inaugurations, Plato thought they should be banned from his ideal republic.

His disciple Aristotle disagreed, though, arguing that poetry can in fact reveal better versions of the world we live in, helping us to direct our search for that Good. And whether or not you like Gorman’s style, it’s idealistic writing in its most unabashedly Aristotelian form.

Impressionistic and kinetic, The Hill We Climb tells a story of American democracy as something incomplete, whose pursuit is a task that falls on the shoulders of every new American generation. It captures perfectly the progressive ideal: a sense of utopia that constantly needs renewal. Society is threatened by “a force that would shatter our nation/rather than share it”. But, says Gorman, this opposition is destined to be defeated, by the determination of the faithful to “raise this wounded world into a wondrous one”.

Gorman is not the first poet to read verse at a presidential inauguration. But the response to her performance reveals a shift in 21st century Western politics, as well as in our relationship to poetry. That shift takes us away from the rationalistic style that’s been our norm for centuries, and back toward one that pre-dates the founding of America itself: the age of Elizabeth I.

In 1595, as a member of Elizabeth’s court, Sir Phillip Sidney made the first self-conscious modern move away from the Platonic aversion to verse. In A Defense of Poesie, Sidney argued for the improving power of poetry; far from being something toxic that should be banned from politics, Sidney suggested, the aim of poetry should be “to teach and delight”.

That is, it’s not just legitimate to gift-wrap moral messages in art, in the interests of the greater good. It’s something all artists should be aiming to do across their creative work. It sounds high-minded, but in practice it led to the increasingly deliberate use of literature and performance as propaganda.

The court in which Sidney operated, both as a writer and politician, was a place in which theatricality and power merged in ways that are difficult to imagine today. Masques, poems, allegories and theatrical performances were inseparable from political influence. And for Elizabeth, performing as a queen was impossible to separate from actually being queen.

During nearly every summer of her 44-year reign, she would stage a spectacular Queen’s Progress in which she’d travel slowly across her realm, elaborately dressed and surrounded by thousands of guards, animals, carts, servants and flunkeys. And while no one since Elizabeth has fused power and theatre with such skill and impact, theatre carved a deep groove through the politics of the age that followed.

It wasn’t until after 1688, when the Glorious Revolution put paid to all the drama — by ending absolute monarchy in favour of a purely ceremonial role — that poetry gradually freed itself from propagandising for the ruling class. Poets took advantage of the blossoming publishing revolution, and gave up aristocratic patronage for earning a living in print. The most famous poets of the subsequent era, the Romantics, wafted around largely detached from real centres of political power while describing themselves — in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous words of 1821 — as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”.

Yet the manipulative potential of storytelling didn’t go away. Instead, it migrated to the parallel domains of political propaganda and commercial advertising, whose pioneers were often one and the same. One such was Edward Bernays, whose description in 1928 of the propagandist as an “an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country” echoes almost word-for-word Shelley’s characterisation of the poet.

Fast-forward another century and a new publishing revolution — the digital one — has largely scuppered the income stream that freed the Romantics from the need to seek patronage. The result has been a new class of court poet, whether it’s George the Poet offering corporate presentations in poetic form or Pam Ayres writing advertising doggerel. Hollie McNish, justifying her decision to do a voiceover for an energy supplier, explained: “I think anyone who entirely berates an artist for doing corporate work has likely never been in the financial position to find it hard to turn down.”

But the internet has also had profound consequences for those other inheritors of Aristotle and Sidney: the worlds of advertising and propaganda. Thanks to the internet, we’re no longer passive recipients of messages from TV, print and the press. Instead, we’re all in control of the means (and memes) of symbolic production. Just as Elizabeth I treated her rule as a deadly serious form of LARPing, whenever we pause to take and post a selfie we’re adding to our very own online Queen’s Progress: each of us engaged in never-ending dramatisation of our idealised selves.

And the power of the new online propaganda free-for-all has driven us back into the arms of Elizabethan-style rhetoric, too. Wordplay such as puns and alliteration were part of the rhetorical stock-in-trade for an Elizabethan wordsmith. And while such fancy verbal footwork was frowned upon in the Age of Reason, perhaps it’s only natural that it once again finds a home in a new progressiveness that dismisses objectivity, truth and linear thinking as “whiteness”.

And indeed, in Gorman’s work, her plain-English style gains a “poetic” feeling in speech via rhymes, resonance and puns. “What just is/Isn’t always justice”, as she writes. The slickness of the wordplay makes it seem a done deal, smuggling the revolutionary desire to dynamite all existing norms — including what we understand as ‘justice’ – past the listener, on a tide of verbal showboating.

If there’s a difference today, it’s that unlike the Elizabethan court, the digital-era update of “slam poetry” seeks to purge language of any reference to literary tradition. Elizabethan poets mingled Biblical references with classical ones in a dazzling range of allusions. But today, even superficially innocent areas of literary and cultural study are coded alongside objectivity as problematic repositories of whiteness.

A modern court rhetoric capable of being both persuasive and inclusive must be purged of any dangerous nods to tradition. Such apparent plainness, blending wordplay with a stubborn refusal to be overtly “literary”, has prompted attacks on Hollie McNish and other “Instapoets” for producing “consumer-driven content”. It’s a style that also infuriates conservative critics of Gorman’s work. One characterised it (accurately) as the perfect embodiment of a politics that “amounts, simply, to a total dissociation from and dissolution of the bonds of our national past”.

What such critics miss, though, is that what we’re seeing here is the birth of a new, broadly popular court literary style that’s the perfect complement to the mode of government emerging worldwide in the wake of the pandemic: a media-saturated regime based not on shared social norms but the pure exercise of power to enforce its own vision — even as counterfactually as abolishing the legal standing of biological sex.

Its moral register is love hearts on the White House lawn, and the hygienic language of “empowerment” and “communities”, beloved of the (slam-poetry-loving, naturally) Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Its modus operandi is a mixture of therapeutic language and coercive force, backed by surveillance and censorship where necessary. Gorman herself characterises this new hybrid regime more charitably than perhaps I could:

“If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy,
and change our children’s birthright.”

It’s the perfect sentiment for an event that swapped a human audience for placeholder flags and surrounded a celebration of democracy with concrete barriers and 15,000 National Guardsman brought in to defend democracy from the demos.

If we’re alternately intrigued and creeped out by the wordsmiths who’ve found the magic formula to “teach and delight” in a world that no longer values reasoned argument, it’s because something decisive has shifted. The Age of Reason is over. Rhetoric is back. The new court poets are jostling for patronage.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.