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New Beginnings

New Beginnings

Amanda Gorman’s Poem And The Hope For The Future 

By Ashley Herber

Amanda Gorman is America’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, and her inauguration poem “The Hill We Climb” speaks to both the past and the future of the United States. Her poem also highlights the importance of new beginnings, a theme that can be translated to Walla Walla University as well.  

WWU’s resident expert on poetry is Dan Lamberton. Lamberton is a professor of English, has an advanced degree in writing poetry, is an editor of Poetry Northwest (University of Washington’s creative writing journal), and for the last 20 years has been a part of a committee to select Washington state’s poet laureate. [1] 

In speaking of Amanda Gorman’s presentation at the presidential inauguration, Lamberton said, “This youth poet laureate of America, when she got up, she was sort of glowing in the way she was dressed and in the way she presented. She presented beautifully, articulating well, she really did a good job of reading it. I’m speaking about it sort of abstractly, but it’s just that it’s moving to see that happen.” [2] 

Poetry is powerful and often commemorative, and poet laureates are appointed by various institutions to read for different occasions. [3] The first U.S. president to use a poet laureate in their inauguration was John F. Kennedy, who brought Robert Frost on to read. The only other presidents to have a poet laureate read at their inauguration have been Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and now Joe Biden. [4]  

There are many different types of poet laureates in the U.S., including the most well-known Library of Congress National Poet Laureate—currently held by Joy Harjo, the first Native American to hold the title. [5] But the youth poet laureate program was started just recently in 2016 and named Amanda Gorman the first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017.  [6]  

Lamberton highlights the theme of new beginnings in Gorman’s poem. Photo by Dan Lamberton.

Gorman wrote what is called an occasional, which is a poem written for a specific occasion. Lamberton explained that occasionals are often not very good, because poetry is usually done best when there is time to properly reflect on the choice of words and discover their meaning. [7] 

However, Lamberton said, “Poetry is difficult, and had she written a dense or lyrical kind of poem it would have flown over people’s heads. She wrote a kind of conversational piece that really was a speech with intermittent rhyme in it. She read all of the line breaks and everything so you knew it was a poem, but had she written what would later qualify as a great piece of art I doubt it would have had the punch of what she did here. It was a proper occasional.” [8] 

At only 22 years old, Gorman has also already graduated from Harvard, written two books, founded a writing program for underprivileged youth, and is an “ardent activist, feminist, and supporter of social justice and equality.” She plans to run for president in 2036. [9]  

Gorman included two “Hamilton” allusions in her poem, explaining in an interview with CNN that the musical was one of her inspirations for “The Hill We Climb.” Gorman grew up with a speech impediment where she couldn’t say the letter “r,” and she would sing the song “Aaron Burr, Sir” from “Hamilton” to help overcome it. [10]  

Lamberton explained that “Hamilton” has been a national phenomenon and is an appropriate and important allusion in Gorman’s poem. He also mentioned the significance of the Biblical allusions in the poem, and even the reference to herself: “I think her own reference to herself about being a black girl from a single mother was really powerful.” [12]  

After the January 6 riot at the capitol, Gorman also added references to that specific event. Lamberton said that although Biden mentioned white supremacy in his speech, Gorman addressed it more directly through her art. He continued, “She hit something that needed to be hit.” [13]  

Lamberton said that the inauguration “needed celebration, it needed brightness, and it needed color, and you compare her with Biden who is 77 years old and she’s a battery. It needed brightness after what had just happened. The whole capitol steps needed brightness. They needed to be washed off and she I think she did a pretty good job at starting the washing.” [14] 

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This brightness is needed for a new beginning in America, and at WWU. A new beginning means to start with a clean slate, to fix the bad, and to grow the good—a daunting task, but a necessary one, especially after COVID-19 has, and still is, disrupting so much.  

Lamberton expressed that the nation really needs a new beginning, one called for by a young person, not an old politician. The nation needed a young person to get up and call for a new beginning, to say “‘I need it. We need it.’” Lamberton continued, “It was really powerful.” [15] 

Lamberton further said that WWU also “desperately needs something to help us get out from under COVID,” and that “with everybody trapped in their room, I think there is a desire for starting over freshly.” [16]  

COVID-19 has taken away so much, has caused fears and anxieties, and has created divisions, but WWU is full of young people capable of bringing about new beginnings on this campus. Gorman showed the country the power of words, of thoughtfulness, and of intentionality, and the students at WWU can take a lesson, a battle cry even, from her now famous closing lines: 

“When day comes we step out of the shade, 
aflame and unafraid, 
the new dawn blooms as we free it. 
For there is always light, 
if only we’re brave enough to see it. 
If only we’re brave enough to be it.” [17]  

Citations 

  1. Interview with Dan Lamberton, 1/26/2020. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Poets.org – Academy of American Poets. (n.d.). Inaugural Poems in History. Academy of American Poets. Retrieved January 29, 2021, from https://poets.org/inaugural-poems-history. 
  1. Poet Laureate | Poetry & Literature | Programs | Library of Congress. (n.d.). The Library of Congress. Retrieved January 29, 2021, from http://bit.ly/3jfW2S1. 
  1. What We Do. (n.d.). National Youth Poet Laureate. Retrieved January 29, 2021, from https://www.youthlaureate.org/what-we-do-1. 
  1. Interview with Dan Lamberton, 1/26/2020. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Who is Amanda Gorman? | White Plains Public Library. (n.d.). White Plains Public Library. Retrieved January 29, 2021, from http://bit.ly/2MQdG2I. 
  1. ‘Wow, you’re awesome’: Cooper left speechless by youth poet laureate. (n.d.). CNN. Retrieved January 29, 2021, from http://cnn.it/2O0Ceqh. 
  1. Interview with Dan Lamberton, 1/26/2020. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Amanda Gorman’s Poem Stole the Show at the Inauguration. Read It Again Here. (n.d.). Town & Country. Retrieved January 29, 2021, from http://bit.ly/3aDdwnM. 
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