As evidenced by Amanda Gorman’s recently published book of “The Hill We Climb” topping number 1 on USA TODAY’s bestseller list, we have not forgotten her moving performance at the Biden-Harris Inauguration.
In fact, we have had repeat chills reading her social media posts that honor Black lives, the fight for justice, and the power of poetry.
And we have delighted in seeing her meteoric rise, from the Superbowl to becoming the first poet ever to grace the cover of Vogue.
Indeed, twenty-two-year-old poet Amanda Gorman shined in her command of the language at the Biden-Harris Inauguration. Her poem pinged all the finest devices in poetry’s arsenal: end rhyme, slant rhyme, surprising language, personification, repetition, and alliteration. Such sound of syllables resonating on the steps of Capitol Hill — the very place a traumatizing incident had just occurred — was just the song we needed. Listeners’ hearts were filled, not just because the poem was well-crafted and emoted, but because we pine for medicine for the soul. This balm is one of poetry’s premier roles.
But, as we can all remember, Gorman did more than that. Not only did she fuel our healing, but she also recharged Hope through her prowess with language. She embodied Hope via her aural and physical presence (read about her fashion here). Her understanding of the tradition of inaugural poems was clear: elements of Maya Angelou, Richard Blanco, and Elizabeth Alexander were present; even more influential is the less public, non-inaugural work of Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again.” And certainly, the topical, spoken word form is her superpower. Gorman’s passion (and hints at her own life) hit anthemic notes. Through these forms and tropes of poetry, Gorman restored the heaving of Hope in our hearts.
So indeed, an inaugural poet certainly is as important as any of the pomp and circumstance of the rest of Inauguration day. And yet, there have only been a handful of poets to do so. When there was no poet chosen in 2016, I knew the nation’s soul was cooked. But now, a brilliant young woman —and already accomplished poet — took to the podium and claimed her place in the tradition.
In Gorman’s opening lines, the poet immediately asks us the pertinent question: “Where can we find light/ In this never-ending shade?
And she is right to ask this us. She is coming of age in the “shade” of Late Capitalism in a country built on (and recently ruled by) white supremacy. Additionally, Gorman has overcome verbal auditory challenges — she has trudged through her own shade. In this way, she mirrors President Biden’s victory over his stutter. Biden, who retrained his stutter with the help of poetry memorization, was quoted in PBS, “it is interesting how a poem can creep into your soul.” Certainly, the shade is also the current state of affairs: the darkness of a post-truth world, white supremacy, and destruction of Democracy through hate and misinformation. “The loss we carry” is the loss of lives due to racism, as well as 400,000 lives unnecessarily due to Covid. The loss is so significant it is a “sea we must wade.” Rather than relying on a commonly used poetic trope of dawn = a new day, the poetic language works harder. It doesn’t bypass pain: the journey is, indeed, uphill. The fight for justice is always uphill in a less-than-just system. Gorman deftly inspires while acknowledging the work ahead.
Doctor Biden — educator that she is — saw a young poet’s power to transform a listener. And Penguin-Random House saw to publish it. And what a blessing. Poetic communication adjusts one’s temperature, can alter the subconscious, can chill the skin. It can scrub us in a manner less direct than political speech.
People reached out to me all day, heavily affected. As a poet of occasional poems, I was thrilled to see friends’ feeds repost her recitation. I witnessed the masses brimming with inspiration, recounting various quotes, and responding with joy. My friend, Rebecca, wrote: “She is amazing. She is amazing. She is the light. She is hope. She is the America I love.” Friends from all over texted me excitedly, even as if suddenly understanding why I have devoted so much time to poetry. And professor Jnan Blau quipped: “In one day, millions of us became enthralled by the priestess that is Amanda Gorman.” And he is right.
We are enthralled because, through the channels of language, we witnessed her light. We saw what one person’s light — vocalized, amplified, resplendent —could do. We heard words in relation to each other that weren’t a word salad. What a relief! We listened to the use of “we.” The rhyming of “hour” with “power” and then the slant rhyme into “chapter.” In these lines, we felt a progression toward authoring our new chapter, able to seize back the soul of America.
Gorman’s poignancy is perfect, especially the final phrasing: “The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light/ if only we’re brave enough to see it/ If only we’re brave enough to be it.” They’re not just beautiful lines that include the surprise of being “the light.” As if we are now empowered to release the new day, to begin anew. Gorman also managed to make the word “light” sound fresh. She chants us onward to meet the light, stirring our national soul. It is a call to action to be brave enough. To do right.
Even more brilliant is the clever titling of her poem, “The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country.” Instantly, it reclaims the word “hill” by introducing another idea of the “hill;” For the Capitol Hill that was (all too recently) stormed by hate-filled domestic terrorists becomes a metaphoric “hill.” Voila! She restores the word and Capitol Hill in one act of title.
Highlighted, then, is the overall idea of Unity: The hill is one we climb together. Albeit challenging at times, we can only trudge on. Luckily, poetry ignites and extracts unity through the power of sound and image. A good poet offers a takeover of the imagination to envision a better future. That is the right kind of takeover: to have the bath of performed language wash over us, to cleanse us whole — and to gift us a much-needed reset.
Katherine Factor is the author of Choose Your Own Adventure SPIES: Spy for Cleopatra. Her poetry book, “A Sybil Society,” is the winner of Interim Poetic’s TEST SITE Poetry Prize and will be out this fall from the University of Nevada Press.