At President Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman delivered an original poem, “The Hill We Climb.” The Los Angeles resident and Harvard College graduate made history as the youngest known inaugural poet, sparking admiration and conversation in the following weeks.
Her poem isn’t without criticism, however. Some people have taken to the comment sections in newspapers like The Hill to demean her values with matters of technicality. Check out Reddit’s r/Poetry subreddit, a place to share and discuss published poetry, and you’ll find similar sentiments. One user said, “The meter is all over the place. The wordplay is inane. It’s full of patriotic platitudes and contains nothing new or surprising. It wouldn’t inspire anyone at any time except Americans, today.”
So, I am inclined to ask, what makes a good poem? The structure? Its impact? I’ve heard various people commend the artist yet criticize the poem for things such as “clichés” and “frustrating meter.” Additionally, others have praised “The Hill We Climb” for its messages and pacing but question whether it is “technically strong.” Regardless, I think that there is great merit in the work as a piece of art. Art and creativity can be important tools for inspiring people, and Gorman utilized them to do just that. A Forbes article says, “Gorman has produced poetry and studied sociology, so in combining complex social science into an art form, she has developed a unique offering in both fields.” I’d have to agree.
Journalists, teachers and YouTubers alike have begun analyzing Gorman’s piece, noting references to the Bible and other poets’ work. Personally, I hear rhythms and repetitions that remind me of the musical “Hamilton.” There are two references to the musical within the poem, in addition to commentary on current events. The significance? Gorman is purposeful in her words and presentation. The accessibility of her piece, though indifferent to the poem’s technicality, is, bluntly put, incredible. There is still value that can be measured in the conciseness of words and density of thought within it, but the poem’s reach to general audiences should be considered invaluable. The feelings it evoked in countless people, even if only for a moment, have been monumental (just check out the positivity related to #AmandaGorman on Twitter). Gorman’s position as an inaugural poet gave her a platform to deliver a message in a moving way, reaching those who previously wouldn’t have given poetry a second thought. I think this is one area that she succeeds, not just in her poem, but in her empowering execution.
In her delivery, Gorman’s presence exudes strength, but her words also reflect pain. Poignant lines remind young Americans — not unlike Gorman — that our work is not done. We must strive for progress in a society that is fast-paced and continuously evolving. Accommodating changing times also means acknowledging the dark that remains. In doing so, and in the words of Gorman herself in “The Hill We Climb,” perhaps we might “raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.” What exactly does it mean “to forge a union with purpose?” Can love truly “become our legacy?” Will the poem that implores such affirmations be remembered and recited for years to come? I don’t know, but I don’t believe that its relevance to the present detracts from the message it has to tell. If anything, the call for light and unity is one that we needed.
Columnist Elizabeth Schriner can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org