Like everyone else, I was introduced to and blown away by Amanda Gorman when she read her poem The Hill We Climb at Biden's presidential inauguration in January 2021. As the first Youth Poet Laureate of the U.S., this book is her first collection of poetry, and includes that inaugural speech.
What I loved...
The poems in this book were largely written in 2020/2021, and so of course they address the issues of the past few years - the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the January 6 insurrection. I imagine that moving forward we will begin to have a lot more Covid-19-related literature, but for me, this was basically the first time I was reading something set so clearly in the present day. I really appreciated the perspective it allowed - a chance to process, a chance to take stock of the past two years, like a momentary intermission (since we know it's not over!).
Gorman eloquently sums up the collective experience of social isolation and grief, of racism and grief, of politics and grief. She is an activist as well as a poet, and her work attempts to shine a light on some of the marginalization, oppression, racism, and misogyny that she has experienced or seen. And yet there is a through-line of hope that exists on each page, which is best represented in the final few lines of The Hill We Climb:
And every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful.
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.
What I didn't love...
Gorman is young, and I felt it in some of the literary experimentation in this book. Many of the poems come across as though they were written in a workshop where the assignment was to play with form. For all the sideways text, and the poems shaped to look like the Capitol building or a mask, and the poems with letters missing, like a game of hangman... her most successful works are when she writes from the heart and let's the text speak for itself. The rest felt gimmicky.
I think Gorman is an amazing talent - an incredible writer and an important new voice - so I'm very much looking forward to reading more from her in the coming years. Hopefully she finds more steady footing within that powerful voice, and needs less reason to rely on experimental devices.
I also think a big part of Gorman's strength is her expertise with spoken-word performance, so some of these poems may be a bit "lost in translation." Gorman plays with puns and double-meanings in a way that I think would be more effective off of the page. I'll listen to the audio version at some point (she reads it herself). For now, I'm content to have savored those poems that spoke to me, and to leave the rest for others to enjoy.
UP NEXT: Stardust, by Neil Gaiman