“She Was Speaking Directly to Us”: Professor Celina Su on Amanda Gorman’s Inauguration Poem, “The Hill We Climb”
Of the many stirring elements of last week’s presidential inauguration ceremony, Amanda Gorman’s reciting of her inauguration poem, “The Hill We Climb,” captured the most hearts, as evidenced by the outpouring of love for her across social and traditional media. Graduate Center faculty even praise her “soaring verse” in their reactions to President Biden’s inauguration.
We invited Graduate Center Professor Celina Su (GC/Brooklyn, Urban Education/Political Science) to share her thoughts on Gorman’s poem and why it moved so many of us. A social scientist who studies participatory democracy and holds the Gittell Endowed Chair in Urban Studies at Brooklyn College, Su is also published poet whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine. She offered her thoughts as a fellow poet.
The Graduate Center: As a published poet, what do you think of Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb”? What was your reaction to it when you watched her present it?
Su: It’s always exciting to hear poetry in public. Writing and reading poetry are usually solitary affairs, and because of that, perhaps under-recognized. “The Hill We Climb” is an achievement that fit the occasion — clear-eyed (regarding what happened in the Capitol on January 6th, for instance) and galvanizing.
GC: Amanda Gorman is one of only six poets to read at presidential inaugurations, and by far the least well known when she took the stage, especially compared to legends like Maya Angelou and Robert Frost. But she’s become an overnight sensation with the public and the press, in conversation, on social media, on Amazon where her forthcoming books are bestsellers, and in the news. What accounts for her magnetism and the reaction to her performance?
Su: For me, it was partly the combination of different sensorial experiences that made her performance so magnetic — hearing the musicality and rhythms of her words, watching her fingers flitter with the line “the hill we climb,” noticing the contrast between her yellow coat and the mostly black robes and jackets surrounding her on that clear, cold, gray day on the screen. In other words, her performance was fit not only for this occasion (an American presidential inauguration), but this particular historical moment. This poem has at least some cadences that might be best appreciated when recited, rather than when read on the page. In a public way, with an audience of millions, Gorman managed to give little embraces and nudges to different communities through specific references — to undocumented DREAMers, for instance, with the lines “out of the shade” and “unafraid,” echoing one the movement’s key chants, and in playful ways to fans of the musical Hamilton, in another example. This expansive, inclusive approach — with lines for different regions in the country — created a space in which people who might not usually read or engage with poetry found an entry point of access into this particular poem, and by extension, into Gorman’s larger body of work. One didn’t need to catch all of her allusions to feel like she was speaking directly to each of us.
GC: What is it about great poetry that stirs us? Are there any phrases or moments in Gorman’s piece that you would point to as pitch-perfect or high points that will be remembered and perhaps quoted as time goes on? The last two lines are already appearing as memes: “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” Can you analyze for us what gives those lines, or others that you loved, their power?
Su: Gorman’s use of repetition, rhyme and assonance, alliteration, and other poetic devices made her lines memorable and immediately quotable. I appreciate several of her lines, and especially her pairing of “just is” and “justice.” Overall, I would say that I especially appreciated that the poem allowed room for contradictions and different truths, and disabused us of a notion of ever-upwards, linear progress.
GC: How did you first become interested in poetry and what is the experience of writing it like for you?
Su: To me, poetry is a way of knowing and theorizing about the world, not just a means of dissemination. So, as I write poetry, I never quite know where my lines will take me, or what associations or references will pop into my mind. I think that I first became interested in poetry when standard essay forms felt rather restrictive in high school, and I felt very conscious (and self-conscious) about my use of the English language, as I emigrated to the U.S. from Brazil in middle school, and was still getting used to the textures of this particular language. Playing with language and form felt like it could perhaps help me to articulate observations, feelings, and rhythms of thoughts, dreamlike sequences, and haunting experiences that I couldn’t quite articulate in standard prose, expository writing.
GC: How do you think, or hope that Amanda Gorman’s poem and presentation will change the perception of poetry or its role in national life?
Su: It’s my hope that Amanda Gorman’s poem allows more Americans to engage with language differently, and to demand more from elected officials and other public figures. True leaders mobilize us, speak to us, and engage us. They help us to think a little differently, to consider others’ experiences, and to feel simultaneously supported and challenged. They acknowledge and build upon facts and interpretations. They gently reach out to us, so that we take little steps forward, rather than dig in our heels. When most media outlets feel like echo chambers, hearing poetry compels us to slow down a bit, to listen as well as speak. In these ways, Gorman’s poem is an act of intellectual leadership.
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