Getting geeky about the "The Hill We Climb"

Literary lessons using Amanda Gorman's inaugural poem

Many years ago (the internet informs me it was June 18th, 2010), I was wandering around Lisbon when an immense motorcade went past. I stood on the corner, unable to cross the street as horns blared and what felt like endless black cars passed by. The whole city seemed to reverberate with the noise. Did the president die? Was the pope in town? Only later I learned that it was all to honor a writer: the author José Saramago had died.

Here in the US, we don’t often honor our writers as national figures that way. (Insert scorned writers’ rant.) But there are still moments in our civic and political life when we do call upon our poets and authors, when we recognize the power well-written words have. Inaugurations are one.

I’d imagine many of you watched the inauguration with your kids as a civics and history event, as you rightly should. I’d like to offer a way to tie in some literary lessons to build on that event, working with the inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” by Amanda Gorman.

I’m not going to repeat all the info about her life and the creation of the poem, or print the whole text of the poem, or talk about its significance or how inspiring it is. (Though my students were SO inspired by both poet and poem. It’s such a powerful thing for kids to see someone, not to mention a Black woman and fellow young person, stand up and speak their truth with such power and grace.)

No, I’m going to get geeky.

The Poetry Toolbox:

Consider the saying, “neither rhyme nor reason.” It implies there are two ways things hold together and have meaning: logic, and form. Gorman uses rhyme — and other sound-echoes — to emphasize and express her message. Her words gain power both through what they say and how they sound.

These sounds might come in many forms:

  • rhyme (exact or slant rhymes, at the end of lines or not):

    When day comes, we ask ourselves,

    where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

    The loss we carry,

    a sea we must wade.

    We’ve braved the belly of the beast.

  • alliteration (when words start with the same sound):

    To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.

  • assonance (words with the same vowel sounds):

    When day comes, we step out of the shade,

    aflame and unafraid.

  • repetition (with or without minor changes):

    if only we’re brave enough to see it
    If only we’re brave enough to be it

  • rhythm

    That even as we grieved, we grew
    That even as we hurt, we hoped
    That even as we tired, we tried

Get out those colored pencils:

This is what I suggest: print out the text of the poem and gather your young poetry geeks and some colored pencils.

Pick a color for every sound you hear echoing. Look for one thing (rhyme or alliteration, for example), just listen for what sounds jump out at you, or color-code as many sound patterns as you can.

OK, let’s get geeky:

For instance, consider the lines below:

And yes we are far from polished
far from pristine
but that doesn’t mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect
We are striving to forge a union with purpose

Maybe we color all those 'p’s orange (polished, pristine, perfect, purpose) and we see how that sound links those four important words. We color the rhyme in “pristine” and “mean” blue. We turn all the f’s green. We underline the repetitions and near repetitions: “far from,” and “striving to form a union/striving to forge our union” and see how repetition pairs the ideas of perfection and purpose.

The colors — the sounds — braid throughout the poem, giving form and power to the message of the poem, from simple things like “just is” and justice,” to things that build and build. I’ll point out one other example I especially like:

If only we dare
It's because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it

Listen to how “dare” and “American” echo off each other (and suddenly being American is about daring), then build into “inherit,” which echoes off “repair it,” and then “share it,” all those things becoming part of what it means to be an American. And then as counterpoint, we have the repeating “sh” in “shatter” and “share it,” pairing those two ideas as opposites. And shimmering around these are other smaller reflections: the “be” in “because being,” the rhyme of “shatter” and “rather,” the m’s in American” and “more.” The more you listen, the more the whole poem reverberates.

Isn’t being a poetry geek fun?

Don’t stop there:

You might also look at other poetic elements:

  • puns and plays on words (the double meaning of “shade” as both shadow and slander)

  • references (Hamilton? Scriptures? MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech? Others?)

  • metaphor (the hill we climb)

Or you might listen to the poem with a lighter touch, just savoring the sounds, feeling their power. In any case, geek out and revel in the civic power of poetry.

All quotes from Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb.”

Share A Few Crooked Words

Leave a comment