By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
In January 2021, the 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman achieved a record: she became the youngest person ever to recite a poem at a US President’s inauguration, when Gorman read her poem ‘The Hill We Climb’ at the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
The poem is hopeful while being realistic about the struggles the United States faces – together – during a period of political and medical turmoil, not least because of the various events of 2020.
‘The Hill We Climb’: summary
Gorman begins ‘The Hill We Climb’ by acknowledging the dark times in America’s recent history. Coronavirus, protests, and social and economic inequality all lurk behind the ‘never-ending shade’ that Gorman references in her opening line.
But this shade may only seem never-ending. Even when day comes, it seems to be dark; and life seems like a sea stretching out before us, which we must wade through.
To be proverbially ‘in the belly of the beast’ means to be at the heart of a dangerous situation, the epicentre of danger. The image may have been suggested by the sea in the previous line, summoning the biblical story of Jonah, who in the Old Testament was swallowed by a big fish but survived in its belly.
In this opening stanza, Gorman draws on the idea of the ‘day’ and ‘dawn’, suggesting a new start: a fitting motif for the inauguration of a new President. Gorman is hopeful: she states that the United States is not broken, but merely ‘unfinished’: it’s a work in progress, which can be improved.
As an example, Gorman references her own success: she, an African-American woman who was raised by a single mother and who is descended from black slaves, can (thanks to the first black President, Barack Obama, under whom Biden, incidentally, served as Vice-President) dream of growing up to be President. And in the meantime, here she is, Amanda Gorman, reciting for a President.
In the second stanza of ‘The Hill We Climb’, Gorman acknowledges that, yes, America is a country is not perfect. She differentiates between unrealistic aspiration (forming a country that is ‘perfect’: an unattainable goal) and purposeful improvement (playing nicely upon the similar sounds, and the alliteration, of ‘perfect’ and ‘purpose’: a purposeful swerving away from perfection, we might say).
Talking of alliteration, we get a series of linked C-words in the next line: cultures, colours, characters, and conditions, taking in different faiths, traditions, ethnic identities, individual personalities, and personal circumstances (not least socio-economic conditions).
Gorman states that this purpose lies in facing what’s before Americans – the road to progress – rather than what’s between them (i.e., what divides them, such as those characteristics just mentioned).
Gorman plays on the double meaning of ‘arms’ (both weapons and limbs) in the next line, calling for Americans to lay down their guns and instead reach out their arms to each other to embrace each other.
More alliteration then follows as Gorman offers, through anaphora or initial repetition of a phrase (‘Even as we …, we …’), three alliterative states (grieving and growing; hurting and hoping; tiring and trying). The use of three, too, is a rhetorical device often used in public speaking for persuasive effect.
‘Tried’ then thins down to ‘tied’ in the ensuing line: striving to create a better America will create a strong bond between Americans.
Next, Gorman turns directly to ‘scripture’ and the Bible: the word ‘division’, the last word of the previous line, becomes the empowering verb, ‘envision’. Gorman refers to a phrase from the book of Micah: ‘But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it’ (4:4).
This allusion is, in a sense, a double allusion: it is also strongly associated with George Washington, the inaugural President of the United States of America. Washington often used this phrase, especially in his letters: at one count, he used it some 50 times.
This phrase is about being safe and free from military oppression: living a life free from fear. Victory is not to be achieved through violence or war (back to that military oppression), but through building ‘bridges’ of all kinds between Americans, joining society together. This, Gorman tells us, is ‘the hill we climb’. Americans of today need to acknowledge the past (good and bad) which they ‘inherit’, and ‘repair’ what needs improving.
In the next lines, we get an allusion to recent events in Washington, D. C., the site of the inauguration itself. Although a literary allusion is an indirect reference to something, rather than naming it outright, Gorman’s reference to democracy being ‘periodically delayed’ seems to be a fairly clear nod to the Storming of the United States Capitol on 6 January 2021 – just a few weeks before Gorman recited her poem at Biden’s inauguration.
But democracy cannot be defeated, she tells us. In the ensuing lines, Gorman talks of the need to march onwards, rather than falling backwards to old ways: the country must progress rather than regress from that dark moment. The confident plosives of ‘benevolent but bold’ and the fierce fricatives of ‘fierce and free’ reflect her resolution and conviction.
It is imperative that, for the sake of the generations to come, Americans act now. This is similar to the argument often made in favour of taking action to combat climate change: our generation needs to act today so that our children’s generation will have a tomorrow.
It’s possible that, amongst other things, Gorman’s lines here (and her use of the word ‘inaction’, often used in the context of climate change debates) are referring to global environmental issues as well as domestic social, economic, and political ones.
Gorman concludes ‘The Hill We Climb’ by exhorting her audience of fellow Americans to make the country greater than it currently is, so that they leave America better than they found it. More alliteration follows in the closing lines: ‘breath from my bronze-pounded chest’, ‘wounded world’, ‘wondrous one’.
Although this is a contemporary poem written in free verse, and there are some similarities between Gorman’s rhythms and alliteration and what we find in rap and hip-hop music, her style also harks back to medieval English alliterative verse and Anglo-Saxon poetry, which was similarly unrhymed but used regular patterns of alliteration.
Gorman then refers to the ‘north-east’ of the country where the ‘forefathers’ – the founding fathers of the United States – first made revolution a reality and gained their independence from Britain (with Washington himself, of course, being a key figure in the struggle). Once again, the pattern of three is deployed to great rhetorical effect: ‘rebuild, reconcile, and recover’.
She returns to the image of the ‘shade’ from the opening of the poem, and talks of Americans stepping out from the shade and into the light of day. The light is always there: all it takes is courage to see it and, equally importantly, spread the light oneself, the light of hope, the light of progress.
‘The Hill We Climb’: analysis
‘The Hill We Climb’ is an occasional poem: that is, literally, a poem written for a specific occasion, in this case the Presidential inauguration. And Gorman’s poem fits into this long and august tradition of inauguration poems, which began with Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.
Frost’s poem ‘The Gift Outright’, which he recited on that occasion, looked back to the American Revolution and the founding of the United States, in order to look ahead from that vantage point to the history and culture that the new country would go on to create.
(Curiously, the light of day which plays such an important part in ‘The Hill We Climb’ was also responsible for a fortuitous development at Kennedy’s inauguration: as he prepared to read the poem he had written specially for the occasion, ‘For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration’, Frost found he was unable to read the words of his poem on the paper, so bright was the glare of the sun. So instead, he began to recite one of his earlier poems, from memory.)
Meanwhile, at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, the African-American poet Maya Angelou recited a poem titled ‘On the Pulse of Morning’, which, like Gorman’s, uses the metaphor of the dawn to suggest a brighter day and new beginning for Americans.
With ‘The Hill We Climb’, while in actuality addressing a global audience, Amanda Gorman also succeeds, through rhetorical skill and deft use of biblical and American cultural references, in speaking directly to her fellow Americans and bringing the nation together. Whether the nation will act on her exhortations only time will tell.