American poet laureate Amanda Gorman was a hit when she read her poem The Hill We Climb at the President Biden’s inauguration this January. Gorman’s words serve as a message of hope, with a strong emphasis on healing and rebuilding. I would implore you to watch the footage of Gorman reciting her words, as whatever I write cannot capture the effortless rhymes or the steady, but also lilting rhythm of the poem. Or just watch it for the look of pride on her face when she addresses ‘Madame Vice-President’, and the caged bird ring that she wears, referencing Maya Angelou who recited in Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. That being said, I must try to capture the most important elements of this poem and some of Gorman’s achievements, otherwise, there would be no article.
The Hill We Climb is both personal and political. Gorman in fact adapted the words of her poem to address the storming of the Capitol building early this year. She addresses the fact that there are people who ‘would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy’. Yet she presents a strong sense of faith in democracy, following this by writing ‘but while democracy can be periodically delayed, /it can never be permanently defeated.’ Gorman talks collectively about this faith in democracy but also about her political involvement on a personal level. She expresses her “dream of becoming president” in 2036 in no uncertain terms and she is writing about the world she lives in, and one that she wishes to see.
When speaking about her hopes for the future, Gorman is not writing about a passive desire for things to get better. Nor is she writing about simply waiting for someone or something to come and save America. Instead, she speaks of the steps that Americans need to take in order to rebuild their country, particularly creating unity in order to go forwards. Gorman refocuses the American Dream in her writing, really focusing on that idea of anyone from any culture being able to achieve their goals in America, if everyone is united in their progress. Gorman writes ideas that transcend time; the fight for equality and hope for a better future are applicable to any moment in time, even though the open reference to the storming of the Capitol roots The Hill We Climb firmly in January of 2021.
These ideas are not only present in The Hill We Climb. Throughout all of Gorman’s work we can see themes such as anti-racism, feminism and the fight for equality. They are present in her earlier works such as In This Place (An American Lyric), a poem written in the aftermath of the Charlottesville attack, which inspired Dr Jill Biden to recommend Gorman for the inaugural reading. This was written while Gorman was studying for her BA in Sociology at Harvard University. During this time (2017), Gorman became the first person to ever be named National Youth Poet Laureate. This accolade came after being named Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles in 2014, and publishing her first collection of poetry, The One for Whom Food is Not Enough, in 2015.
Gorman’s determination to create change has also featured in aspects of her life away from poetry. In 2013 she was a youth delegate for the United Nations, showing her commitment as an activist. In 2016 she started a non-profit organisation, One Pen One Page, which is a youth writing and leadership programme.
Gorman’s latest collection, including its eponymous poem The Hill We Climb, will be released in September 2021, so we will have to wait to see what other moving and complex poetry she has coming. However, this poem was incredibly fitting to Biden’s inauguration, and even outside of the United States, we can all try to live the final lines of her poem. ‘For there is always light, /if only we’re brave enough to see it. /If only we’re brave enough to be it.’
Image: Peter Stevens via Flickr