Amanda Gorman’s soaring inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” opens with an expression of yearning, a quiet recognition that America is enduring a time of darkness. “When day comes we ask ourselves / where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”
Gorman answered her question. Her performance was a ray of vivid yellow light. It captivated the nation’s attention and reignited interest in poetry as art and inspiration.
As Gorman approached the podium, to read before an audience of millions, she walked toward a place in history where titans like Robert Frost, Miller Williams, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Alexander, and Richard Blanco have read. She did so with the added pressure of the historic inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris and a valid concern that the inauguration might be disrupted by domestic terrorists. Against that backdrop, her patience and poise in reminding us “we are striving to form a union with purpose” were inspirational.
“The Hill We Climb” is moving because it is honest in recognizing America’s past and present faults. When Gorman writes “...being American is more than a pride we inherit / it’s the past we step into and how we repair it / We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation / rather than share it…” her candor provided a stark contrast to manufactured ideas of American greatness and recent efforts to erase difficult truths about how America was formed and how the violence and racism that prevented us from living up to national ideals in the 17th century frustrate us still today.
Her words were also hopeful. In the same poem, Gorman goes on to define this moment in American history as “...the era of just redemption,” a time when we might abandon ideas like white supremacy in favor of ideals like equal justice for all.
As a poem “The Hill We Climb” is rooted in performance tradition. It’s built around rhythm, and it flows naturally. It features end rhyme, or rhyme at the end of phrases, and interior rhyme, or rhymes within phrases. In deference to an appealing rhetorical device, ideas are sometimes presented in series of three, “Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:” Gorman says “that even as we grieved, we grew / that even as we hurt, we hoped / that even as we tired, we tried…” repeating sounds and letters and making anagrams to amplify ideas and make them more memorable.
All in service to the magnificent ending with Gorman returning to her opening idea, urging us all to “step out of the shade, / aflame and unafraid / The new dawn,” she argues “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.”
Gorman was the right person for the moment, a person who personifies the America we can be, and who, by her words, reminds us that we can embody those ideals too. If you are among the thousands of Americans who were inspired by Gorman’s poem and would like to spend more time with poetry, here are a few recommendations. The writers selected represent American poetry with the power of their voices and remind us that our diverse backgrounds enrich our arts and our nation.
Poets to read on paper
Joy Harjo Gorman is the National Youth Poet Laureate. The United States Poet Laureate is Joy Harjo. Recommended: Harjo’s “An American Sunrise.” It resonates with spiritual gravitas and honors human resilience and survival.
Ross Gay In his work, Gay is wise and vibrant and often presents a layered and multifaceted examination of joy. Recommended: Gay’s “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” a wonderful companion to Gorman’s hopeful inaugural poem.
Ada Limón Limón writes with passion and heart about humanity and place. Recommended: Limón’s most recent collection, “Bright Dead Things,” which encourages us to use our limited time here embracing human connection.
Lucille Clifton As Toni Morrison is to American literary fiction, Lucille Clifton is to American poetry. Recommended “The Collected Works of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010.” Simply put, every home should have this book in it.
Ocean Vuong Vuong’s debut collection, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” is an important reminder that the American story is many stories comprising many different experiences.
Poets to read on social media
Jericho Brown Engaging, fun-loving, funny, and smart; Brown represents the present and future of American poetry and occasionally shares insightful lessons on craft. twitter.com/jerichobrown
Patricia Smith A poet who succeeds on the stage and the page, Smith promotes other poets, posts dog pics, and sometimes hosts epic poetry readings. twitter.com/pswordwoman
Ilya Kaminsky No poet shares more quotes and work by other poets than Kaminsky, a beautiful person and a talented artist. twitter.com/ilya_poet
Nayyirah Waheed Waheed rose to fame sharing her work on Instagram. Her skill and popularity led to the publication of her widely read debut collection, “Salt.” instagram.com/nayyirah.waheed
And a few anthologies to survey American poetry
African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song Edited by Kevin Young. A thoughtfully assembled and fairly comprehensive collection of poetry by Black Americans.
New Poets of Native Nations Edited by Heid Erdrich. A compelling review of Native American poets creating work that expands the art of poetry.
Best American Poetry This annual anthology offers a wonderful and often accessible look at poems worth admiring in a given year as selected by a prominent poet. The 2020 edition, edited by Paisley Rekdal, is a great place to start.
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet, essayist, and book critic. His debut poetry collection, “Worldly Things,” will be published in June.