Words carry the weight of reality in an extremely precarious balance. Enter Amanda Gorman. On Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, Gorman was featured as the youngest inaugural poet yet, and she performed her poem “The Hill We Climb” that offered a reprieve from the cerebral nature of the inauguration and offered a moment of contemplation, reflection and feeling. In addition, Lin-Manuel Miranda performed Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Cure of Troy” during the evening’s live stream inaugural celebration.
The theme of this inauguration’s program highlights unity, truth and healing—and yet, poetry has always championed these ideals. American literary critic Harold Bloom once said, “poetry is anxiety”—a feeling that everyone that lived through 2020 is probably familiar with. While both poems offered a moment for thought and observation, Gorman’s poem is unsatisfyingly optimistic while the Heaney poem speaks to something more apparent in the zeitgeist.
“The Hill We Climb,” is an inspiring poem written in rhyme that confronts the audience with the mindset that we should face our difficulties. It begins with the question, “where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” Gorman asks the obvious question after the phenomenon of 2020, as we try to recuperate in the midst of catastrophe.
The poem offers sentiments of putting “differences aside,” which leads to the words that I believe capture the most heat in the hearts of Americans watching: “if nothing else, say this is true: / that even as we grieved, we grew / that even as we hurt, we hoped / that even as we tired, we tried / that we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.” This was one of the most poignant and (forgive me) relatable moments of the poem. The duality of existing through 2020 is that even as the world seems to be dying, individuals are still living, and these lines reconcile this conflicted, dumbfounded feeling.
Although this was where the poem is at its best, it degrades into a sense of blind optimism in the following lines: “Not because we will never again know defeat / but because we will never again sow division.” Gorman’s assertion that “we will never again sow division” is a hope that reduces political conflict to the people’s responsibility, rather than that of the government and those in power. This had my head turned away from the TV in disinterest.
Gorman’s poem is also a call to action in some ways as she continues to say that “if we merge mercy with might, / and might with right, / then love becomes our legacy.” These lofty concepts of “mercy” and “might” seems to romanticize the struggles of Americans, which reduces the images of 2020: tents used as makeshift hospital rooms, mass graves, children in cages at the southern borders, rent not being paid, families going hungry, misinformation spread by powerful companies and protests against systemic racism and police brutality in our country. Although Gorman’s words hold wonderful sentiments, it’s too easy, and I don’t buy it since the lines don’t allow for subtle complexities to shine through. Most momentous movements in history are never as simple as merging mercy, might and righteousness. I don’t disagree with Gorman on a conceptual level—she is speaking a truth, and yet the poetic phrasing of such a simplistic, bold statement does not meet the standard of poetry that necessarily melts my bones.
On the other hand, “The Cure of Troy,” recited by Miranda, is a poem that makes a more powerful poetic statement and leaves room for personal interpretation. It’s a subtler, more nuanced poem that directly addresses suffering and does not have any implied calls to action like in Gorman’s poem. Heaney writes, “Human beings suffer. / They torture one another. / They get hurt and they get hard. / No poem or play or song / can fully right a wrong / inflicted and endured.” The first stanza offers an eerie and unwitting response to Gorman’s poem that seemed to try and achieve exactly that. Heaney’s poem evokes catharsis, it acknowledges suffering with no frills, whereas Gorman’s poem discusses the human capability for mercy and might, which is too idealistic by comparison.
Heaney’s poem is hopeful in something greater. “Believe in miracles. / And cures and healing wells. / Call miracle self-healing, / the utter self-revealing / double-take feeling.” For Heaney, miracles take only belief. Gorman on the other hand implies through her last lines that “there is always light as long as we are brave enough to be it.” In these lustrous lines, Gorman calls on the audience to cultivate bravery in addition to merging mercy and might. If 2020 has taught me anything, is that we have already been braver than we think by merely fighting systemic racism and a pandemic, and, for me, Gorman’s sentiment misses that mark. Instead, Heaney ends his poem with a more emblematic thought: “It means once in a lifetime / that justice can rise up / and hope and history rhyme.”
In spite of my criticism, I know that Gorman’s is the type of poem that can pervade the masses in its simplicity. “The Hill We Climb” is a unique poem because it speaks to everyone and it tries to be about everything. Gorman’s poem has seemed to meet the moment and sparked a new interest in poetry. Poets.org reported an increase in traffic to its website by 250 percent since the inauguration, and Gorman’s poetry books are topping bestseller charts. Gorman’s poem was a hit and it was able to reach the hearts of the people, even though personally, it feels more like a poetic pep talk than a true poem that makes the “top of my head fall off,” as Emily Dickinson once said. “The Cure of Troy” conveys the degree to which most of life’s conditions are out of our control. There is a quiet power in Gorman’s words and a renewed interest in poetry for a new generation can only be a good thing.