By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘In This Place (An American Lyric)’ is a poem by the contemporary American poet Amanda Gorman (born 1998). The poem is an example of what is known as an occasional poem, or a poem written for a specific occasion: Gorman wrote it for the inaugural reading of the US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith at the Library of Congress.
Although the ‘place’ mentioned in the poem’s title starts out as the Library of Congress, it quickly becomes America, and numerous places within the US. You can read ‘In This Place (An American Lyric)’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘In This Place (An American Lyric)’: summary
Gorman begins the poem by declaring that the Library has poetry within its very walls: the sound of the seats as people get up from them in the audience, the beat of the footsteps walking the various halls and corridors, are like the rhythm and metre of a line of verse. At the end of the day, it is within the Library that the whole of America writes a lyric poem that must be spoken softly.
There is a ‘heavy grace’ to the building, with its ‘lined’ frontage which recalls the wrinkled face of an elderly, august person. The Library of Congress had indeed been burned twice: once in 1814 during the war between Britain and the United States, and again in 1851, with many of its collections of books and archives being destroyed.
In the next stanza, Gorman turns from Washington D. C. to a different library: Boston Public Library on Copley Square in Boston, where in April 2013 three people were killed and at least 183 injured during a bomb attack. Gorman underscores the fact that the perpetrators of the attack were ‘the few’, whose hatred for American society is swallowed and engulfed by the love most people feel towards America and each other.
The next stanza moves to Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist group named Unite the Right held a rally in August 2017, using tiki torches to light up the night. Counter-protesters who had showed up to oppose the white supremacist rally were attacked when a man drove a car into the crowd, killing Heather Heyer. Heyer ‘blooms’ within the ‘meadow of resistance’ because she was one of many people using love to oppose the hate of the far-right group at the rally.
The ‘sleeping giant’ referenced in the following stanza is a land formation that resembles a giant man lying in slumber in Lake Superior, which is near Lake Michigan. Gorman views this natural wonder as nature’s poetry, soil frozen and strutting upwards and illuminated strangely.
The bravery of people during natural disasters like hurricanes (and the floods caused by hurricanes, which turn the streets into a network of rivers) is also a kind of poetry. For example, Jesus Contreras, a paramedic in Houston, Texas, helped to fight Hurricane Harvey when it struck that part of the United States in 2017.
Next, Gorman considers Los Angeles, where she was raised by her single mother, Joan Wicks, a 6th-grade English teacher in Watts (a neighbourhood in southern LA). Here, Amanda Gorman credits her mother’s support with making her own poem possible, and by extension, all of her poetry.
Remaining in California, Gorman now considers the anti-Trump protests in the state when students marched through the streets. ‘Rosa’ summons both Rosa Parks, an important black female Civil Rights activist in the 1950s and onwards, and a Latin-American name: Mexican immigrants were notable targets of Trump’s administration. Here, Gorman plays on the fact that ‘Rosa’ means ‘rose’, a flower which will ‘blossom’ even out of the ‘deadlock’ or stasis into which America has been plunged by Trump’s presidency: a time when making progress appears to be impossible.
Gorman states that LA is Rosa’s city, even though Rosa may have been born elsewhere, and the US is ‘your nation’ (su nación). People of all backgrounds, including those who are poor, those who are native to the US and those who have arrived as immigrants, and those of different religious faiths, those who are trans or non-binary, can contribute to creating the ‘poem’ that is modern America.
Gorman emphasises that tyrants and corrupt political dictators fear the poet (because poets speak truth to power and can rouse and galvanise the people), and now that ordinary Americans, who are creating this ‘poem’ together, have realised the power they have, they mustn’t lose heart. They owe it to the world to keep fighting and resisting, and hope is an important quality which Americans fighting the good fight must keep close to their hearts.
In the closing two stanzas of ‘In This Place (An American Lyric)’, Amanda Gorman turns to consider America as a whole nation. Every American has the power to rewrite the story of America and tell their own story which can bring hope to people, a practice which Gorman likens to breathing upon a palimpsest (a blank slate onto which things can be written, then rubbed out and replaced by new writings).
‘In This Place (An American Lyric)’: analysis
The final stanza of Amanda Gorman’s poem ends on a note of hope, with an image of dawn, suggesting a new day or a new beginning. And despite America’s considerable and often turbulent history, the emphasis in ‘In This Place (An American Lyric)’ is overwhelmingly on the future, on the ability of ordinary Americans to inspire others with their message of hope.
And these messages of hope don’t have to be literal poems, like the one Gorman herself has written: they might be the quiet heroism of a paramedic who rushed to the aid of those affected by a violent hurricane, or those who stand in non-violent protest against racism or tyranny. A poem, for Gorman, is anything which can be inspirational and convey a powerful message to others.
‘In This Place (An American Lyric)’ is written in free verse, because it is broadly lacking in any regular rhyme scheme, metre, or line/stanza length. However, at some points, Gorman utilises rhyme, notably in the stanza beginning, ‘Tyrants fear the poet.’ She also utilises half-rhyme or pararhyme at several points (Watts/thoughts, higher/Heyer) and occasional rhyme elsewhere.
But because there is no uniform rhyme scheme, such moments of rhyme act to crystallise the rousing force of Gorman’s message, acting as focal points for her poem’s ‘argument’, especially towards the end of the poem.