Poetry

Amanda Gorman: “The Hill We Climb”

 

President Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021, put poetry back on the map (again) when Amanda Gorman read her poem, “The Hill We Climb”. At 22, Gorman is the youngest poet recruited to commemorate a U.S. presidential inauguration, an honor she shares with a small but celebrated group of poets: Robert FrostMaya AngelouMiller WilliamsElizabeth Alexander, and Richard Blanco. No U.S. Republican president thus far has included an inauguration poet.

The 2021 inauguration event also featured actor Lin-Manuel Miranda reciting excerpts from Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure of Troy,” a poem often quoted by President Biden, especially the lines “It means once in a lifetime / That justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme.” You can listen to Miranda here, joined by President Biden’s voice at the end. All and all, it was a good day for poetry in America.

I was not able to secure permission to reprint the text of “The Hill We Climb”, but it’s widely available online, such as here. Even better, you can watch the live reading of the poem here and at many other sites.

Los Angeles poet Amanda Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history as well as the first National Youth Poet Laureate of the U.S. A cum laude graduate of Harvard University, she published her first poetry book, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, in 2015 and has three books forthcoming with Penguin Random House. An activist as well as a poet, Gorman founded One Pen One Page, a nonprofit that works with youth to develop writing and leadership skills.

Gorman used writing at an early age to cope with speech impediment and auditory processing challenges, and she draws inspiration from “My great great great grandmother . . . a slave named Amanda who could neither read nor write.” At 14, she joined WriteGirl, an L.A.-based nonprofit organization that helps empower teenage girls through creative writing. Writing was Gorman’s way of navigating her speech impediment and making sure her voice could be heard. [Sources here and here. ] For more information, visit www.theamandagorman.com.

Gorman was reportedly very conscious of following in the footsteps of poets like Angelou, Alexander, Blanco, Frost, and Williams when she composed “The Hill We Climb” for the inauguration. She says she was also inspired by orators including Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King, Jr., telling NPR she studied those speakers to learn how “rhetoric has been used for good.” Over the period of just a few weeks, Gorman composed a poem that manages both to acknowledge the disastrous final failings of our previous administration and to express hope for better with the new one. [Sources here and here.]

Gorman admits it was a “daunting” task, saying that writing the poem was “a hill I had to climb in itself” but a good “opportunity to unite the people of the United States and focus our gaze on the future, and the ways in which we can collaborate and move forward together.” To me, it is remarkable that any 22-year-old had the courage and confidence to take on this task, and the poise to pull it off without a hitch.

Since January 20, I’ve been thinking about how when I first got serious about writing poetry about 12 years ago, it was commonplace to encounter essays and even entire books about “whether poetry matters.” Everyone was engaged in earnest discussions (and sometimes raging debates) about it: Was formal poetry defunct? Was all poetry dead as an art form? Had poetry ever been relevant to any but a very small group of tweedy English guys with walking sticks tramping around on the English moors?

Poets and commentators in the late 1990’s wrung their hands over the way America in general disses its poets, or how young people did not seem interested in it, or how poetry was, in various ways, no longer relevant to our culture. New poets, however, were beginning to reframe the “Does Poetry Matter” question, asking instead, “Does this kind of poetry still matter?” or even “Do these particular poets and what they are talking about matter?” Meanwhile, rap, hip-hop, and performance (Spoken Word) poetry were already well on the rise in this country and elsewhere. [This article discusses performance poetry and traces its origins to poetry’s spoken-aloud origins.] The same time frame saw a growing representation of poets from historically marginalized groups—women, BIPOC, LGBTQ, etc.—simply bypassing the debate altogether to begin very prolifically to write and publish their own highly relevant and necessary poems.

Performance poetry had already gotten a boost from the beat poets in the sixties (though it was briefly given a very bad name when William Shatner cringingly released his own Spoken Word album). In fact, it goes back to poetry’s earliest roots as an aural tradition. The Iliad and The Odyssey were Spoken Word poems, related by itinerant bards. On another continent, it is possible to “trace the current spoken-word boom back through the Black Arts Movement, the Beat Generation, the Harlem Renaissance, deeper and deeper into history” to the griot [source here].

In the aftermath of 9/11, when Gorman was only a toddler, America witnessed a dramatic resurgence of public interest in all kinds of poetry as our nation grappled with its shock and grief and the means to express it. At the same time, the new movements in poetry were beginning to go mainstream as young rappers, hip-hop artists, and spoken-word poets continued to do what poets have always done: gather in bars, bookstores, the streets—and increasingly, online—to speak their truth. For the first time since Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, Americans heard from inauguration poets again: Richard Blanco in 2008 and Elizabeth Alexander in 2012. The question of whether poetry mattered began, well, to just not matter as much. Poetry was clearly relevant, and moreover, was relevant to a whole new, younger, and more culturally diverse demographic. If mainstream published poetry was still dominated by the demographic that defines the traditional Western canon, well, the times they were a changin’.

The 2016 election sparked another poetry resurgence along with an uptick in conversations and articles about political, activist, and resistance poetry. Journalists got in on the action, offering anthologies of poems for the political moment, for example, “18 Compassionate Poems To Help You Weather Uncertain Times” (here). The mood about the state of poetry in America changed from elegiac and despairing to celebratory and fierce. More poems began to show up on YouTube and other sites, sometimes going viral, like Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke”. Social media gained traction, and younger audiences flocked to the new online forums to post and read poetry. Twitter poems became a thing. Poets like Rupi Kaur began to use pre-established social media influence as a way to enlarge their audiences; last time I checked, Kaur had 240,000-plus Twitter followers, several magnitudes larger than the numbers we typically talk about when discussing poetry audiences.

Gorman’s poem’s audience was the entire world. It is very much of this new/old aural tradition, showing the elements that earmark it as Spoken Word or Performance poetry: a piece meant to be performed—and performed with certain elements of drama (and often, music and dance), spoken in a cadence that sometimes mimics ordinary speech and sometimes gathers momentum and emphasis through repetition and rhyme. According to the Poetry Foundation, Spoken Word is “characterized by rhyme, repetition, improvisation, and word play,” and such poems “frequently refer to issues of social justice, politics, race, and community.” [Source here.] The point, mainly, is to connect with audiences around social-justice themes in an artful, compelling way that involves the audience.

Besides being a Spoken Word poem, “The Hill We Climb” is also something else: an “occasional poem” whose raison d’etre—in this case, President Biden’s inauguration—is the occasion at which it was planned to first be delivered. Writing an occasional poem, be it for your sister’s wedding or the unveiling of a new library, is a tall order in any circumstances; in fact, just writing any poem “on demand” is tough. Add the pressure of a global audience and the critical political juncture, following an unsuccessful insurrection attempt, and you have a project that would paralyze many poets, certainly including me.

In this task, Gorman took courage from something Richard Blanco told her: “It’s just not one of us up there, it’s a representation of American poetry.” [Source here.] To be representative of American poetry, such a poem has, first and foremost, to be able to be understood, and indeed, accessibility is a feature of most occasional poems. (Imagine for a moment how a recitation of an avant-garde L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem would have gone down on January 20—or at your sister’s wedding.) Some poets confuse accessibility with simplistic or boring. Not so—the best poems offer complexity and mystery without opacity. Robert Frost was a master at writing poems that incorporate meaning in layered interpretations that could be appreciated by less formally educated readers (such as my own mother, or Frost’s beloved farmers) as well as the Harvard and Yale types who write reviews for The New York Times.

Gorman says her goal was to write a poem that would inspire hope and foster a sense of collective purpose at a time when Americans most need it, reeling now from a deadly pandemic, angry partisan division, and a recent deadly attack on the US Capitol. “In my poem, I’m not going to in any way gloss over what we’ve seen over the past few weeks and, dare I say, the past few years. But what I really aspire to do in the poem is to be able to use my words to envision a way in which our country can still come together and can still heal.” [Source]

Early reviews were glowing. (An example is this Washington Post piece, “What made Amanda Gorman’s poem so much better than other inaugural verse.”) On Twitter, former President Barack Obama lauded her for writing “a poem that more than met the moment.” Other social-media accolades came from the poet Jericho Brown as well as Oprah Winfrey and Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose musical “Hamilton” Gorman says provided inspiration for her poem.

The criticism on social media was not far behind. Some poets sniffed that Gorman’s poem, at least on the page, was not accomplished, was too prosy, and relied too heavily on cliché. Others reacted by calling those critics “racist.” The by-now classic social-media shitstorm ensued, with most poets rushing to defend Gorman’s poem and others remaining firmly perched, as one defender put it, “on poetry’s high horse.”

What I think about all this is—ho-hum. Any time the light of public attention shines brightly on any poem, there will be detractors. Often it stems from sour grapes, a fruit that has puckered my own mouth from time to time. Sometimes the criticism is valid. Sometimes it is defensive—poets anxious to show they are smart or discerning, or eager to explain why it is that their poetry has not received similar attention and accolades. My take is that Gorman’s poem was a very strong occasional poem—with all the limitations inherent in that form—that achieved an astonishing degree of success on January 20. More success will surely follow her reading—a  poem honoring three COVID-19 heroes—during the Super Bowl that is happening the weekend I am writing this.

“The Hill We Climb” is an example of an occasional poem that exceeded itself by happening to be the perfect message at the perfect time and place, delivered by the perfect messenger. I loved the poem, both on the page and in its performance, but I loved it most at the moment it was first uttered on live TV, fourteen days after a mob of self-styled “patriots” attacked our government and sacked one of its most potent and sacred symbols. Those images haunted the inauguration event, and they will haunt America forever. In that context, the joyousness and determination of Gorman’s poem feels almost miraculous to me. Gorman was the antithesis of that mob in just about every imaginable way. Her performance of “The Hill We Climb” offers our nation a much-needed foil and balm for those terrible images and a way to “repair it,” our shattered trust. In my view, it was a triumph and a pinnacle moment of hope for our country’s future.

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