By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The American poet Amanda Gorman was born in 1998, and when she was still in her early twenties she was reading her poetry in front of an audience of millions: she has performed her poems at US presidential inaugurations and at the Super Bowl, watched by nearly 100 million people.
Gorman’s poetry is by turns thoughtful, uplifting, and inspirational, without shying away from the harsh realities and ugly truths of the contemporary world. Her poetry lends itself to performance, with its lines of varying lengths and its clever use of rhyme, assonance, and consonance (which also gives her work a contemporary feel, recalling the surprising rhythms of rap and hip-hop).
But what are Amanda Gorman’s greatest poems? Below we select and introduce ten of her very best. If these poems whet your appetite for more, we strongly recommend Gorman’s poetry collection, Call Us What We Carry (Viking Books).
1. ‘In This Place (An American Lyric)’.
Gorman wrote this poem 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.
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.
We have analysed this poem in more detail in a separate post.
2. ‘The Miracle of Morning’.
One of several poems on this list which Gorman wrote during the early stages of the pandemic, ‘The Miracle of Morning’ takes the age-old homophone of morning/mourning and uses it as a hinge on which the poem can turn: mourning the loved ones we may have lost while also looking ahead to the dawning of a new day.
3. ‘There’s No Power Like Home’.
Here’s another poem inspired by the dark days of 2020, when people around the world were commanded to ‘stay home’ to protect themselves and others during the pandemic.
Beginning with a neat subversion of the idea of being ‘home sick’ – which, here, means sick of being at home – the poem then talks about coming home and tearing a face-mask off, with this mask then providing Gorman with another motif with which to explore our perceptions of ourselves, and others, during the pandemic.
This is one of the earliest Amanda Gorman poems on this list: it was written in 2018 for The Climate Reality Project, and talks about the need to protect the world against the effects of climate change.
Conservation, protection, and preservation are all things that we – ordinary citizens who are not politicians – can get involved in and become more aware of. As so often in an Amanda Gorman poem, the light is thrown on human beings as a collective force, rather than on individuals.
This is another poem about climate change, but it’s more urgent than ‘Earthrise’, and views the planet as a ‘dying world’ which is now facing an ‘alert’, hence the (alarming) title of the poem.
The focus here is on the extreme ends of climate change: man becoming a ‘myth’, extinction of living things, and things turning to dust. It could almost be a poem of the apocalypse.
6. ‘We Rise’.
Gorman read this poem at Variety’s Power of Women event presented by Lifetime. At the event, the poet encouraged the women in the audience to rise up and speak their truth to power, in rousing lines which emphasise the collective power of women (much as another poet, Audre Lorde, had some decades before).
Gorman is keen to depict women’s strength: they are victors, rather than victims. They are powerful, but they need to work together to bring about change in the world. Knowing what the future can bring – in a memorable image, she describes this as not knowing the wind, but knowing where it will blow – is key to women’s success in gaining greater justice and equality around the world.
7. ‘Chorus of the Captains’.
This is the poem which Gorman performed at the Super Bowl, in 2021. The poem salutes the work the heroes who had worked hard and helped others during the pandemic, focusing on three ‘captains’ who represent different kinds of American heroes: a ‘warrior’, a teacher, and a nurse who works in ICU.
Gorman celebrates all three as ‘warriors’ who have bravely served their community and put themselves on the line to help others during a time of crisis.
8. ‘School’s Out’.
Many of Gorman’s poems address contemporary issues in American life, and sadly the school shooting is an all-too-regular occurrence in the US. Here, in a poem filled with dramatic tension, Gorman focuses on the incident itself and the impact it has on those children who endured it.
In alluding to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (‘beware the ides of March’), Gorman hints at America’s exceptionalism and belief in itself as a superpower: a belief which can, like Julius Caesar’s vulnerability in a position of power, become the nation’s downfall.
9. ‘New Day’s Lyric’.
This is one of Gorman’s best-known and most popular poems. She has stated that she wrote it, at the end of 2021, to ‘celebrate the new year and honor the hurt and the humanity of the last one.’
The alliteration present in many of the poem’s lines mirrors the poem’s emphasis on bonding and coming together, as two key words in each line are joined together through their shared sounds.
Describing hope for the new year as a ‘portal’ – recalling the origins of the month of January in Janus, the Roman god of doorways – Gorman acknowledges that things may never get back to how they were before the events of 2020-21 but one day, perhaps, we can go beyond the ‘normal’ we used to know.
10. ‘The Hill We Climb’.
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. We have analysed the poem here.
‘The Hill We Climb’ is probably Gorman’s best-known poem. It 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.