Sometimes a piece of art captures the moment so perfectly, it burrows into the collective conscience and emerges with something so resonant it thrums. Amanda Gorman’s poem 'The Hill We Climb', recited at Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony, was one of those moments.
Delivering a reading in the midst of a global pandemic, and in the wake of a presidency that has split the US in two, is no mean feat. But Gorman did so with poise, hands ebbing and flowing with her every word, a pleasing visual punctuation. Much of the five minute-long poem was written on January 6th, the day of the US Capitol riots, and inspired by tweets that came out in response. But it was not revolutionary or laden with hard truths. Rather, it was a stirring call to unity in line with President Biden’s own message of healing and hope. Nor was it lofty or overly literary. Rather, Gorman’s plain-spoken verse invited everyone in, from the gold-limbed hills of the west to the sunbaked south, to rally round.
22-year-old Gorman, who became the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017, and was the youngest inaugural poet in history, is no stranger to patriotic prose. Her poem 'Believers Hymn for the Republic' marked America’s 243rd Independence Day in 2019, and was recited atop an orchestral rendition of 'Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory'. Her 2017 reading of 'In This Place' (An American Lyric) caught Jill Biden's attention, who contacted her about the inauguration ceremony as a result.
To the ears of a cynical Brit, the poet’s unwavering optimism and fervent flag-waving is laid on a bit thick. Her poem echoes the striding sentiment of 'We Shall Overcome', and she makes obvious references to the musical Hamilton, which explores another discordant chapter in US history. Gorman reminds us that she is a living embodiment of the American dream:
Somehow we've weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn't broken,
but simply unfinished.
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 for one
But after a period of fear mongering and fake news, death and division, her gentle reminder of “real American values” is, reviews suggest, just what the doctor ordered.
And if her prose were optimistic, her outfit was positively ebullient. Gorman wore a satin red headband and canary yellow coat by Prada. The latter was a nod to Jill Biden, who had complimented Gorman’s yellow dress the first time she saw her perform. Both were gifted by Oprah, who also gave Maya Angelou an outfit for her 1993 inaugural recitation. Gorman accessorised with a pair of gold hoops and a bird cage ring – another nod to Angelou and her iconic work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
In the days since her reading, both of Gorman’s upcoming books have topped Amazon’s bestseller list; a collection of poetry titled The Hill We Climb at number one, and a children’s book titled Change Sings at number two. Plus, she has received high praise from the likes of Bernice King (Martin Luther King’s daughter), and Michelle Obama, who tweeted: “With her strong and poignant words, @TheAmandaGorman reminds us of the power we each hold in upholding our democracy. Keep shining, Amanda! I can’t wait to see what you do next.”
The closing lines of Gorman’s poem extend the “out of darkness comes light” metaphor: When day comes we step out of the shade / aflame and unafraid / 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. Sometimes a piece of art captures the moment, and with her poem, it seems Gorman has captured the attention of a nation, and of the world.