I suspect like most of the world, I learned who Amanda Gorman was within hours of Joe Biden’s inauguration. Turns out her collection Call us What We Carry is every bit as good as “The Hill We Climb” which is included as the final poem in the book.
I should be up front, I don’t typically read poetry for fun, in part because I work with it so much professionally. Gorman’s book though is an exception, even more so in that it wasn’t a struggle to read the whole thing.
There are 3 things I especially appreciate about this poetry: 1) its use of visual form, 2) the focus on “we” as the speaker/subject, and 3) the notes at the end. The technical expertise on display is prevalent throughout the collection, including use of page space and shape, font shape (italics, bolding, etc), and general use of language. One of my favorite definitions of “poetry” is “patterned use of language that may or may not follow traditional conventions of communication in order to present an idea, feeling, or experience” (I’m paraphrasing here). This suits Gorman’s work so well.
I’m going to use a poem titled “School’s Out” (possibly my favorite) as a representation of what I mean. On the surface, this poem looks pretty traditional as it uses stanzas, allusions, alliteration, and several other fairly standard poetic tropes. But when you read it, it’s actually really approachable. The first stanza:
Swung blunt as an axe-blow:
All students were to leave
Campus as soon as possible.
What caught my eye first was the use of enjambment (when there’s a break in the line but not in the grammar between multiple lines). It’s so effective in both halves of a stanza split evenly by the colon; there is the sibilance and alliteration is the repeated ‘s’ in lines of the entire stanza as well as the ‘b’ in line 2. The image is also highly relatable to anyone who knows a current college student or instructor.
After a few more line that express the reaction of those students (but also faculty, staff, family, friends, etc.), there is a triple asterisk line (***), and another stanza. This third section is what really struck me as so clever; it’s both scholarly and accessible at the same time:
Beware the Ides of March.
We recognized that something ran
Rampant as a rumor
Among our ranks.
Cases bleeding closer,
Like spillage in a napkin.
There’s the allusion to probably the most famous line of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (I.ii), which also just so happens to be the approximate date in 2020 when most school decided to shut down for the rest of the semester and go 100% remote. There’s the image of the spill and napkin, and there’s the sound effect of the alliterating ‘r’ that connects enjambed lines, and there’s also a question as to whether the lines that follow on the next page are a part of the same stanza (they could be narration-wise, or not based on grammar). And then there’s the conclusion several lines later: “There is power in being robbed/& still choosing to dance.” I love the acknowledgement of both the struggle and the hope here, and this is a fairly consistent thing throughout the collection.
If you’re interested or even curious about poetry, try this collection.