In this lesson, students learn about the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history and consider her work as part of a tradition of occasional poetry.
By Carol Jago
- Published Jan. 20, 2021Updated Jan. 25, 2021
Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.
Updated: Jan. 25 with more information, and an opportunity for students.
Featured Articles: Several Times pieces about Amanda Gorman
Note: This is a special edition of our Lesson of the Day. We have invited Carol Jago — longtime English teacher, associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at U.C.L.A., and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English — to suggest ideas for teaching about occasional poetry and “The Hill We Climb.” Ms. Jago is the author of many books, the most recent of which is “The Book in Question: Why and How Reading Is in Crisis.”
In this lesson, students will learn about Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history; how she came to write “The Hill We Climb”; and how it fits into the tradition of occasional poetry.
They will also learn about Ms. Gorman’s belief that poetry is political, and that reading and writing are instruments of social change. Finally, they will be invited to create their own occasional poems.
I. An Introduction to the Poet
Do you know who Amanda Gorman is? After Jan. 20, many more people will know her name since, at 22, she is now the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history. Committed to connecting literacy to the project of democracy, she considers reading and writing to be instruments of social change.
Encouraged by her mother, an English teacher, Ms. Gorman began writing poems as a child, finding her voice as she assembled words on the page. Where other young poets turn inward, she draws inspiration from events in the news.
In an interview with Adeel Hassan, she talks about what she felt as a child:
“I grew up at this incredibly odd intersection in Los Angeles, where it felt like the Black ’hood met Black elegance met white gentrification met Latin culture met wetlands. Traversing between these worlds, either to go to a private school in Malibu, or then come back home to my family’s two-bedroom apartment, gave me an appreciation for different cultures and realities, but also made me feel like an outsider. I’m sure my single mother, Joan Wicks, might describe me as a precocious child, but looking back in elementary school I often self-described myself as a plain ‘weird’ child. I spent most of elementary school convinced that I was an alien. Literally.”
It has been a remarkable journey for Ms. Gorman to have traveled from feeling like an alien to becoming first the Youth Poet of Los Angeles, then, three years later, the first National Youth Poet Laureate and now the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history.
Watch her 2018 TEDEd talk, embedded above, to learn a little more about her. You will see that, in the tradition of a griot speaking truth to power, Ms. Gorman often turns to her literary mantra, “I am the daughter of Black writers, who are descended from Freedom Fighters, who broke the chains who changed the world. They call me.”
- What does she say in this talk that stands out for you? Why?
- Have you ever encountered poetry that, like the examples she gives, has something interesting to say about politics and democracy? What examples come to mind?
- How might you answer her key questions: “Whose shoulders do you stand on? What do you stand for?”
II. What Is Occasional Poetry? Understanding the Tradition of “The Hill We Climb”
As its name suggests, occasional poetry documents and reflects upon particular occasions, events both public and private, grand and less grand, from Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” to Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died” on the death of Billie Holiday.
Often occasional poems are commissioned and intended for a public reading.
Through the ages, kings and queens have summoned poets to celebrate their triumphs.
Since John F. Kennedy, most incoming Democratic presidents have invited poets to mark their accession to the highest office in the land.
While presidents have typically taken a hands-off approach to the poem’s composition, President Kennedy asked Robert Frost specifically to read “The Gift Outright” at his inauguration and suggested a revision to the last line.
At the president’s request, Frost changed “Such as she was, such as she would become” to “Such as she was, such as she will become.”
In 2013, President Barack Obama asked Richard Blanco to be his inaugural poet.
Mr. Blanco’s occasional poem, “One Today,” describes a country under “one sun” and “one light,” where people toil on “one ground, our ground.”
Fortunately, writing occasional poems is nothing new for Ms. Gorman.
She composed “In This Place (An American Lyric)” and performed it at the Library of Congress for Tracy K. Smith’s installation as U.S. Poet Laureate.
After watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify at the confirmation hearing of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, she wrote “We Rise.”
She described that experience and read the poem in a PBS interview with Alicia Menendez.
Ms. Gorman was contacted by the Biden inaugural committee in late December.
She was given no specific instructions on what to write but was urged to focus on unity and hope. The Times reports:
[Ms. Gorman] joins a small group of poets who have been recruited to help mark a presidential inauguration, among them Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco.
But none of her predecessors faced the challenge that Gorman did. She set out to write a poem that would inspire hope and foster a sense of collective purpose, at a moment when Americans are reeling from a deadly pandemic, political violence and partisan division.
The article also describes how she had written most of the inaugural poem before the Jan. 6 siege at the U.S. Capitol, but stayed awake late into the night to finish, “adding verses about the apocalyptic scene that unfolded at the Capitol that day.”
Before you dive into the poem itself in the next section, put yourself in Ms. Gorman’s shoes. If you were asked to write a poem by the Biden inaugural committee, what are some things you might want it to communicate? Why?
Questions about “The Hill We Climb” for Writing and Discussion
The Poet Amanda Gorman Says America Can Be the ‘Light’ It Needs
Update: Here is a transcript of the poem from CNN.
1. Watch the video of Ms. Gorman reading “The Hill We Climb.” Then read the poem, underlining its most important words. Explain why you think these particular images are essential to the poem’s meaning.
2. Ms. Gorman has an extraordinary ear for subtle rhymes. Watch or reread aloud “The Hill We Climb” and listen for them. Which stood out for you?
3. Throughout the poem we find references to events from the news. Identify these lines. What do these references invite readers to reflect on about America and Americans?
4. How does Amanda Gorman marry sound to sense, her language to her message, in these lines?
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.
In this truth, in this faith, we trust.
5. In the title of her poem Gorman employs the metaphor of a hill. Beyond a feature on a landscape, what does this image suggest to you? What else might a hill represent? Where else does this image appear in the poem?
6. How would you characterize the tone of this poem? What is the “light” Gorman makes reference to here?
There is always light.
Only if we are brave enough to see it.
There is always light.
Only if we are brave enough to be it.
7. Identify lines in the poem that reflect the occasion for which “The Hill We Climb” was written. How do the lines you have chosen suggest issues surrounding the inauguration of a president in 2021?
8. Read the poem once more selecting a line or phrase that struck you as luminous or beguiling. Write about what the line caused you to think. Turn to a partner or small group, read the poem aloud once more, and discuss the selected lines.
9. In the Times article about how Ms. Gorman came to write this poem, we learned that some of the lines were inspired by the events of Jan. 6. Which do you think those were? Why? Once you’ve made your guess, look back at this article to see if you were right. Do you think she managed to do what she told The Times she planned to do by both confronting dark realities and offering “a breath for joy”?
10. Dwight Garner, a Times book critic, writes about Ms. Gorman, “If her performance made you vaguely feel that you’d had a blood transfusion, it was perhaps because you could sense the beginning of a remade connection in America between cultural and political life. A sleeping limb was tingling back into action.” Read the rest of his piece to the end, where he compares Ms. Gorman’s work to that of Robert Frost, who read at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. Do you agree? What does Mr. Garner capture about this 2021 poet and poem that puts into words something you, too, have felt?
Write Your Own Occasional Poem:
Consider writing your own occasional poem inspired by a news event that moves, angers, saddens or inspires you.
For example, right now, many poets are writing about the losses Covid-19 has wrought.
Julia Alvarez’s “How Will This Pandemic Affect Poetry?,” which you can read in this piece, is a remarkable example, and a collection edited by Alice Quinn, “Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic,” contains many more.
In the video above, you can hear Ms. Gorman’s poem “The Miracle of Morning,” which explores these losses while also crafting a praise song for human endurance.
Create an Animated Poem:
You might use these as inspiration to make short videos of a poem of your own choosing — one someone else wrote, or one you wrote yourself.
Write a Readers’ Theater Script:
Ms. Gorman’s inaugural poem can easily be performed as Reader’s Theater.
Divide the poem for individual voices, then choose some lines to be read in chorus for emphasis. Perform the poem for your class — whether you’re currently in school virtually or in-person.
Consider the Role of Inaugural Poetry:
A 2008 article, “The Intersection of Poetry and Politics,” written just before Mr. Obama became president, quotes Christian Wiman, then editor of Poetry Magazine:
In a way, the poem itself is not the point. I would guess that a president-elect decides to have an inaugural poem in the first place not in the hope of commissioning some eternal work of art, but in order to acknowledge that there is an intimate, inevitable connection between a culture’s language and its political life.”
Do you agree? Is there “an intimate, inevitable connection between a culture’s language and its political life”? What examples can you find to support your opinion?
Pair “The Hill We Climb” With “Inaugural” by Jericho Brown
The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown also wrote a poem on the occasion of Joe Biden’s inauguration. Listen to him reading “Inaugural.” What do you understand by these line “I don’t want/To be hopeful if it means I’ve got to be/Naïve”?
How do you think these lines relate to the later passage that reads, “To the air because we are dumb enough/To decide on something as difficult/As love”?
What do “Inaugural” and “The Hill We Climb” share — in terms of message, wording, tone, structure or anything else? What lines show that?
Join a “Slow Chat” About This Poem on Twitter on Friday, Jan. 29:
Melissa Smith, an English teacher and the founder of #TeachLivingPoets, is organizing and moderating a “slow chat” on Twitter so that students everywhere can “learn together and discuss this history-making poem.” All the details are here.
- The Times published “Amanda Gorman Captures the Moment, in Verse” on Jan. 20.
- You can also learn more about Ms. Gorman via the Poetry Foundation.
- And Here and Now interviewed Ms. Gorman to discuss activism and art in times of trouble.
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