Hope and History; or, The inaugural poetics of Amanda Gorman

“She was exactly what we’d been waiting for, this “skinny Black girl, descended from slaves,” showing us our true selves, our human heritage, our heart … As her words washed over us, they healed our wounds and resurrected our spirits” – Oprah Winfrey in her foreword to Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb (Viking, 2021), Gorman the sixth and at twenty-two America’s youngest presidential inaugural poet

As we look at the printed version of Amanda Gorman’s poem, The Hill We Climb, delivered on the occasion of the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice-president of the United States of America on 20 January 2021, we may be looking in the wrong direction.

It is a poem steeped in American and African American history, past and present, using or alluding to the rhetoric found in foundational documents of American democracy like the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence of July 4th 1776. And central to Gorman’s poem is the notion of “A nation that isn’t broken, but simply/ unfinished,” a clear reference to the preamble to the Constitution’s “… in Order to form a more perfect Union.” 

It begins: “Where can we find light/ In this never-ending shade?” It ends: “There is always light,/ If only we’re brave enough to see it,/ If only we’re brave enough to be it.” It is a willed hopefulness (“In this truth, in this faith, we trust”) in the face of history that would sometimes seem to deny it.

The hill of the poem and its play with light/shade goes back all the way to the Bible: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” In an American context it goes back to Puritan settlers in Boston in 1630 committing themselves to build “a Citty upon a Hill,” in modern times a metaphor that has been used by presidents as different as Kennedy, Reagan, and Obama.

Or Gorman’s poem may make you think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic speech I Have a Dream at the Lincoln Memorial on the occasion of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

But the true meaning of Amanda Gorman’s poem lies not in its text but in its context. There she was, described in a  Danish newspaper as “a modern Nefertiti,” herself the embodiment of the American Dream, with her youth, her poise in a yellow coat and a red headband, her flawless delivery giving resonance to the poem’s text, her eloquent fingers shaping her words in the air.

For there had also been Capitol Hill, January 6, and a mob attacking the US Congress, the electoral process and democracy itself: “We did not feel prepared to be the heirs/ Of such a terrifying hour.” The inaugural poetics of Amanda Gorman was just what America and the world needed to counter-  balance the infamous images of “a force that would shatter our/ nation rather than share it.”

And while we are discussing around the world, Denmark included, the poem’s merit as a poem-on-paper, and who can – and who should – translate what, the young poet Amanda Gorman with The Hill We Climb has already created what seems destined to become one of the truly rhetorically remarkable inaugural poetry-performances of the century. It is no small achievement.