Episode 656: “Us” is Also the Country that the Poem is About

On the Overthinking It Podcast, we offer a close-reading of the first half of Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb.”

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Peter Fenzel and Matthew Wrather get to subject the popular culture—a poem, of all things!—to a level of scrutiny it certainly does deserve! They analyze and discuss Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb,” focusing on its references, it’s ambiguities, and it’s phonology. It’s an exciting and in-depth conversation, and they only make it through the first half.

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5 Comments on “Episode 656: “Us” is Also the Country that the Poem is About”

  1. John C Member #

    Random thoughts that I don’t think were mentioned…

    Gorman makes quite a bit more use of alliteration than we might expect, and it’s something that I generally associate with Anglo-Saxon poetry in place of rhyme. Some of the rhythms seem to come from similar traditions, which suggests that it’s extremely deliberate. It seems to be drawing attention to something different than rhyme, maybe related to irregular meter, but I can’t put my finger on it.

    Mentioning of rhythms also reminds me that, while I don’t want to sound reductive, this is a poem that definitely owns the Hamilton soundtrack. Someone with a better ear than me could probably pick out more specific comparisons than noting the same “sit under their own vine” quote and some bits that sounded like Alexander’s death patter.

    And I don’t think it’s out of the question to compare this to “I Have a Dream,” given that MLK Day was two days earlier, and it’s unlikely that Gorman wouldn’t take advantage of that natural zeitgeist. More of a reach, given that I don’t know Gorman’s work or when she handled her final edits, but given the other thing that happened last Monday, I can’t help but wonder if some of the emphasized ideas, like the shining city on the hill, divisions, or the purposeful union are defiant pokes at the (pathetic) 1776 Commission Report. I decided to force myself to read the word salad, and it’s an absurd (and hilariously poorly edited) overview of American history that wants to say that the United States is always hard at work to live up to our ideals and we need to constantly do better, but at the same time the country is mostly falling apart because Black people keep talking about the bias they face, because to the prior administration, being held mildly accountable is way worse than centuries of oppression.


    • Stephen Phillips #

      I agree about the alliteration. There were times when it was reminiscent of Beowulf. The longer strings are closer to middle English poems like Sir Gowan and the Green Knight, or more modern poets like Walt Whitman.

      Also, Pete, the Norman Rockwell picture you talked about was The Problem We All Live With. So there’s another we.


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      The alliteration, I think, has to do with the fact that these lines were meant to be performed, and (like the same- or similar-sounding words I kept going on about during the podcast) it’s a literary effect that comes across well in performance. This does link them to the pre-modern English alliterative versification that you mention, but also to a lot of oratory (I always think of the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” which William Safire wrote for a speech given by Sprio Agnew.)


      • John C Member #

        Definitely a possibility. What I’m wondering, though, is whether it’s also either a dig at the problems of the prior administration, showing that a Black woman who isn’t old enough to rent a car can absolutely “do Western civilization” better than the white nationalists who tout it.

        Another possibility is that it ties into Biden’s unity rhetoric, by grabbing from multiple traditions. From that perspective, there are two pieces that seem relevant. From text extracted from the Congressional Record PDF, one:

        “We are striving to forge a union with purpose
        “To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors,
        “characters and
        “conditions of man”

        And two:

        “we must first put our differences aside
        “We lay down our arms
        “so we can reach out our arms
        “to one another”

        Both of those have an introductory line saying “get with the program,” and then goes off-book in different ways. In the first, we have half-lines connected by alliteration. The second could be extracted as an English haiku.

        Of course, in looking for confirmation that she deliberately referenced Hamilton (as opposed to drawing from the same sources), connecting to the meta-narrative around the play, I found an article linking to her poking Lin-Manuel Miranda about it on Twitter, so, I suppose that a sufficiently motivated researcher could dig through her mentions to see if it’s come up before and just ask if it hasn’t, but that seems less fun…


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