Amanda Gorman caught America’s attention by reciting poems during the inauguration of President Joe Biden and the 2021 Super Bowl. Her comprehensive poetry book, “Call Us What We Carry,” has just been released. It is an attractive collection of a wide variety of subjects and formats.
I’m no poetry expert, but I appreciate his verbal creativity and appreciate his generational and racial insights. I remember my high school English teacher saying, “You shouldn’t read a poem quickly, you should skim through it, letting the words roll.” Gorman’s words are so fluid and usually so simple. For example, she writes: “It’s easy to harp on, harder to hope. Isn’t that the truth?
Like presidential oratory, public poetry occupies a less prominent place in American public discourse than before. I remember two other presidential poets – Robert Frost reading “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961 and Maya Angelou reading “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993, but Gorman feels different.
Frost and Angelou were well-established and recognized veteran poets at the top of their craft who brought gravity to two incoming young presidents. On the other hand, Gorman was a little-known representative of Gen Z who stole the show on a day of great uncertainty, attempting to connect today’s youth with a very old incoming president.
Gorman was a promising before Biden’s inauguration due to his 4th of July appearance on “CBS This Morning” in 2019 reciting his “Believer’s Hymn for the Republic”, a delightful blend of history and hope that characterizes many of his poems. “CBS This Morning” featured her again in April 2020 to perform “The Miracle of Morning,” which is in her new book about our collective and individual efforts to deal with the pandemic.
“Call Us What We Wear” includes 73 poems, most I understood, some I didn’t. It is divided into seven sections representing different aspects of our history. My first interpretation of “what we carry” imagined physical loads such as supplies and passengers, boxes and packages, but I quickly realized that Gorman meant only memories, experiences, traumas, lessons, historical interpretations, achievements and failures were “what we carry”.
Many Americans remember Gorman reciting “The hill we climbduring Biden’s inauguration. This poem is included in his new book, allowing the reader to re-read and savor his words which captured the historical significance of this day. She began: “When the day comes, we wonder, ‘Where can we find the light in this endless shadow? closing lines:
“The new dawn blooms as we release it,
‘Cause there’s always light,
If only we’re brave enough to see it,
If only we were brave enough to be.
Gorman uses several different formats to present his poems. Some are written in a traditional form, others are diagrams and dialogues. Two that caught my attention are concrete poems, or visual poems, where the arrangement of words suggests the meaning of the poem.
Gorman’s “America,” presented in the form of our flag, and “Masks,” with words arranged in the form of a mask, ask, “Who were we under our masks?” Three other concrete poems are formatted as a text message, the United States Capitol, and an eyeball.
His book is also unusual in that it contains 12 pages of notes explaining many historical references in the poems.
Perhaps the most current and powerful of his poems is “Fury and Faith”, about current race-related protests often represented by images of Black Lives Matter. Two stanzas interrupted my reading as I lingered over his succinct ideas. The memorable first stanza is:
“But the purpose of the protest is not to win.
It’s clinging to the promise of freedom,
Even when quick victory is not promised.
“Our goal is never revenge, just restoration,
No domination, just dignity,
Gorman’s Super Bowl poem, “Chorus of Captains,” isn’t in his new book but should have been. In it, she celebrates three ordinary citizens: an injured veterinarian, an educator, an intensive care nurse, whom she calls the three captains of the day. It’s about three normal people in a normal day. His poem ends:
“Let us march with these warriors,
Load up with these champions,
And carry the call of our captains!
We celebrate them by taking action
With courage and compassion,
By doing what is good and right.
For as we honor them today,
They are the ones who honor us every day.
Gorman reads and sounds like his era. His poems are not stuffy and elitist, but clear and common. She acknowledges historic hurts and pain, but sees the promise of a greater and nobler future. She recites like rap, but goes well with a symphony. It combines the many voices of America’s past into one clear voice for a better future. It’s something we need right now.