Occasional poetry is verse written to be read or declaimed aloud: for instance, at a wedding, a funeral, a graduation, a coronation–or an inauguration.
Several genres won’t work for these purposes. For instance, the audience probably doesn’t have time for an epic or a ballad. Satire is not what the patron expects, at least not at a funeral or an inauguration.
Lyric verse is also problematic. Lyric poetry since the Romantic period has often aspired to authenticity: the author’s distinctive personality becomes concrete in words. But an occasion is not about the poet. If the poet’s sincere emotion happens to be completely aligned with the event, lyric can work. That can happen at a wedding or a funeral if the poet is a dear friend. But politics is less personal. How many poets are fully committed, to the bottom of their souls, to the presidency of Joseph R. Biden Jr.?
Another major direction has been irony and indirection. A lyric poem doesn’t plainly say what the author thinks; it demands intense interpretive work from the audience. But that won’t work for an occasion, especially a mass event dominated by speeches. The last thing we want at an inauguration is any text that is easy to misinterpret by careless or hostile listeners. Clarity is essential. Although lyric verse can be impressively clear about the concrete objects that it describes, it is rarely clear about the implications.
Some styles of lyric poetry do work well for occasional purposes. For example, in the era of Dryden and Pope, English lyric poetry did not usually aim for authenticity, originality, or ambiguity. Poetry was more often an art of elegant expression. Many poems stated conventional opinions, but with excellent use of formal properties that listeners were prepared to appreciate–clever rhymes and classical rhetorical devices.
Thus (Royall Sir,) to see you landed here Was cause enough of triumph for a year: Nor would your care those glorious joyes repeat Till they at once might be sure and great... Dryden, "To His Sacred Majesty: A Panegyric on his Coronation" (1662)
According to Elliott Colla, “Occasional poetry remains … more central in non-Western traditions such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Japanese, Korean and Chinese.” But in English, the neoclassicism of Dryden and Pope has been little admired. Some astute critics recognize its quality, but very few active poets aspire to write in that vein.
In fact, Romantic and modern lyric poetry is anti-occasional, in the sense that it is written by an autonomous individual for the private consumption of other private individuals, dispersed in time and place. When it seems occasional, it fails (except if that appearance is ironic.)
Most of the previous poems at US presidential inaugurations have dissatisfied me in one of two ways. Some have been genuine lyric poems that fell flat when delivered through a microphone to a mass audience. Robert Frost prepared a somewhat wry commentary in verse about occasional poetry but couldn’t see his text in the bright sunlight and declaimed a lyric instead. Others have essentially been speeches with irregular line breaks. But it is not clear why a poet is qualified to give a speech at a major political event. The poet is a formal craftsperson, not an expert on policy.
One exception was Maya Angelou, who spoke as a leading public intellectual as much as a poet. I thought her poem was basically a speech, albeit with more of a fictional narrative spine. In any case, she enriched the 1993 inauguration.
Amanda Gorman has the advantage of working in the tradition of spoken word poetry: verse written for public performance and usually drawing on oral genres, from folk stories to hip hop. Spoken word is occasional verse; it is written to be performed at events.
Gorman didn’t give a prose speech, because her words were carefully chosen for rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance:
This is the era of just redemption We feared at its inception We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour but within it we found the power
She accentuated those formal properties in her performance. Indeed, her performance was much better than the words on the page, and that is intrinsic to the genre. (In contrast, T.S. Eliot does a poor job reciting his poems.)
Gorman wrote for the occasion–words that would be useful for Biden and Harris and for Americans of good will who were watching the event. She didn’t necessarily disclose all that she believes about the new administration or the country. (I have no basis to speculate about her full beliefs.) Nevertheless, she was authentic as a performer, much as Lady Gaga gave an authentic performance of the “Star Spangled Banner” or Anya Taylor-Joy poured herself into the role of Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. Each of these people chose to support the event at which they starred.
This is not to doubt Gorman’s words, but to take them as “occasional” in the best sense of the word. What the nation needed on this occasion was to hear this particular person reassure us that:
Somehow we do it Somehow we've weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken but simply unfinished ...