The View from “The Hill We Climb”
This time four years ago, Washington D.C. was overwhelmed with inaugural activities, especially those engaging in protest, and yes, poetry. As a DC poet, I remember choosing from a plethora of events where I could listen to and share poems to help collectively process the beginning of the Trump administration. In fact, much of the last four years has reinforced the local poetry scene into one that makes space to question, defend and redefine American values.
Last week, Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” succeeded by doing just this. In front of one of the largest audiences an American poet can be afforded, her poetry invoked a shared vision for the kind of people we are and can be.
Just a few blocks from where I live stood some of the 26,000 National Guardsmen manning the wide perimeter around the Capitol. “We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.” Barricades, masks — the physical nature of how the events on January 20th, 2021 unfolded demonstrate what changed during the Trump administration.
Poetry, on the other hand, offers us a lodestar for what hasn’t. It can show us what is possible, can augur a new chapter. At its best, poetry inspires us to rise above and meet the moment. “While democracy can be periodically delayed / it can never be permanently defeated.”
Even without the throngs of people, in the middle of a pandemic, and under the shadow of a violent insurrection, tradition prevailed. One small, but vital piece of that tradition that Biden chose to continue is inviting an inaugural poet, only the sixth time a president has done so (all Democrats, for some reason). It’s a good thing he did. 22 year-old Gorman, to the eyes and ears of many, stole the show.
“I think I just watched a future President of the United States,” my dad texted me after Gorman stepped away from the microphone. Indeed, Gorman hopes she will be. Not long after Trump’s 2017 inauguration, Gorman told the LA Times that she wants to run for president in 2036. There were echoes of Barack Obama’s 2004 DNC keynote address — “We, the successors of a country and a time, where a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting to one.”
In line with Biden’s theme of unity, “The Hill We Climb” elevated the prose of Biden’s inaugural address into the lyric. People are hungry for words they can sing together. (Literally. Lin Manuel-Miranda and Gorman have now famously exchanged multiple messages on Twitter and national TV, acknowledging the borrowed lines from the musical Hamilton).Quotes from Gorman’s poem almost immediately appeared all over social media. “For there was always light. / If only we’re brave enough to see it. / If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
“The Hill We Climb” is a dramatic departure from the inaugural poems of the past precisely because it is dramatic. With hand motions, facial reactions, and pauses, Gorman’s poem was a true performance. Her internal and end-line rhymes, her attention to assonance and consonance, and use of pentameter and hexameter, make her lyrics closer to that of song. The closest precedent was Maya Angelou, whom Gorman calls a “spiritual grandmother,” and whose 1993 inaugural poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” won her a Grammy award.
Listening to Gorman perform the poem, it’s clear that a big part of what has us sitting on the edge of our seats is how she delivers her lines. It’s tricky to scan “The Hill We Climb” (what poets call identifying the rhythm and meter of a poem) when an official version of the text won’t become available until March. So let’s listen instead for how she uses rhyme (line breaks are my own best guesses).
Gorman creates couplets then repeats that end-rhyme in the middle of the next line (in bold): “…Where can we find light in this never-ending shade? / The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. / We’ve braved the belly of the beast…” and then quickly links a new rhyme (in italics): “We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.”
Or even more effectively, she’ll repeat the beginning of a line and create a couplet using two words that don’t quite rhyme, but sound close enough alike that heard together earn fresh poignancy (again, paired rhymes in bold and italics) “And yes we are far from polished, far from pristine/ but that doesn’t mean we are striving to forge a union that is perfect. / We are striving to forge a union with purpose.”
Gorman’s poem sounds both natural and lyrical because she doesn’t stick to strict rules. She creates enough mini-patterns of rhyme and rhythm that has us leaning in, trying to anticipate what she’ll say next and, happily, failing.
Gorman is currently the face of what has already been called the future of poetry. 18–35 year-olds, people of color, and social media have contributed to an unprecedented growth of poetry readership in the U.S. Performance poetry (or what many would consider “spoken word”) is one of the more important manifestations of poetry today, especially among young people. Rather than write for the page alone, these poets write to be heard. Gorman is a digital native who has embraced the visual and performative nature of her work. Her Instagram account, which offers fans intimate video and photo access to her work, has gained over three million new followers in the week since her inaugural performance. Even more impressive (especially for a poet): she is the #1, 2 and 4 bestselling author on all of Amazon.
D.C. has a rich historyof diverse poetry gatherings. Spit Dat, the longest-running open mic series, as well as venues, most notably Busboys and Poets, regularly host poetry events. But in keeping with those readership trends, poetry and spoken word are especially vibrant in classrooms and youth leadership programs, like Split this Rock, home of the DC Youth Slam Team, and DC Scores, host of the annual event Our City, Our Words. The D.C. area is a region that is sowing impressive poets, especially in the performative space.
This means both that there are many opportunities for locals to listen to poetry, and also to support it. An Amanda Gorman is possible because of the countless teachers and mentors who not only encouraged and guided her, but literally created opportunities for her to perform poems for larger and non-literary audiences. Before Gorman was inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate, she was the first Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. D.C. has a Youth Poet Laureate, too — currently Marjan Naderi (strangely, D.C. has no “non-youth” Poet Laureate, although most states do). These municipal and national youth laureate titles are the efforts of a network of youth literary programs and educators all over the country.
Gorman has successfully augured this new chapter in American history with hope and unity. I predict she is also auguring poetry’s closer integration with public spaces. Indeed, we just learned Gorman will be the first poet to perform at the Super Bowl. Tradition has us turning to poems at special occasions, like weddings or funerals. But this is a unique moment to invite poets into unconventional, everyday spaces, too.
As a poet who hosts an open mic series, “The Hill We Climb” is the kind of poem I want people to think of when they hear the word “poetry.” It’s a model that shows how poetry can be for everyone, can give us words we didn’t know we needed, can allow us to sing to, and with, each other.