If there was a ‘winner’ of this year’s Presidential inauguration (besides the President!), it was 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, the United States’ first National Youth Poet Laureate. While Bernie and his mittens became a worthy internet sensation, Gorman’s recitation of her poem ‘The Hill We Climb’ catapulted her into the spotlight.
After watching Gorman’s recitation, I went back through the archives to watch other inaugural poets read their carefully crafted lines. There aren’t many to watch - only four presidents have included poetry in their inaugurations. Back through the years, Richard Blanco, Elizabeth Alexander, Miller Williams, Maya Angelou, and Robert Frost have beckoned in a new presidential term, offering the country an opportunity to reflect, and coaxing it towards a better future. (Let’s actually not include Robert Frost in that - his poem ‘The Gift Outright’ sincerely and therefore grossly glosses over of the history of the US.)
Anyway, Gorman’s poem wasn’t particularly unusual in its message: unite, face the past, work towards a better future - for there is still a hill to be climbed. However, what was unusual were the circumstances in which the poem was written and read. Biden’s inauguration was not the result of a standard transfer of power, but came two weeks after an attack on the Capitol, amid claims of a stolen election, and during a global pandemic. Gorman directly referenced the previous president’s attempts to thwart democracy:
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. And this effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can be periodically delayed, It can never be permanently defeated…
‘The Hill We Climb’ is not simply an ode to a nation still working to actualize the promises on which it was founded, though it certainly is that. It is an immediate reckoning with the moment in which we all find ourselves - whether we are American or not.
For those of us who don’t spend a lot of time thinking about words, asserting their importance can feel like a cliché or an exaggerated claim made by English Literature students (hi!). But last week, Amanda Gorman’s recitation stunned a nation and the world and demonstrated the impact of words in a tangible way. People didn’t just hear her words, they felt her words. That’s what good literature does. That’s what powerful words can do.
Today and well into the future, people across the world will read or hear ‘The Hill We Climb’ and they will share in these emotions. Gorman assembled the moment and arranged it into a series of words and lines, as though bottling it up and preserving it. If I may make the connection, this fascinating quality of literature is what I have tried to demonstrate in my book. The BrexLit texts I analyse are not written for the purpose of becoming historical documents, but that is what they are. Words and stories can function like a time capsule, and by capturing the present, they have the power to shape and change the future.
As Maya Angelou said on the morning of Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993:
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need For this bright morning dawning for you. History, despite its wrenching pain Cannot be unlived, but if faced With courage, need not be lived again.