The Rhetoric of Poetry: of Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb.”
She’s been called the “sensation” of the inaugural ceremonies and festivities this past week – and deservedly so. Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb” knocked our socks off with its artistry and spirit, and her performance inspired us to carry on with hope and healing. Not surprisingly, many of our ELA colleagues went right to work with splendid ideas for bringing the poem to our classrooms. Chief among them was “Lesson of the Day” in TheNew York Times by the brilliant Carol Jago, who not only analyzed the poem but put it in the tradition of occasional poetry and suggested creative ways to engage students to write their own poems.
But make no mistake – “The Hill We Climb” is an invitation to rhetorical analysis. Whether through the five canons of rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery) or the College Board’s Big Ideas (rhetorical situation, claims and evidence, reasoning and organization, and style), this poem is a rhetorical treasure trove. What a study in audience and occasion it is on so many levels: the inaugural ceremony, the role of poetry and politics, the optics of this young African American woman commanding the same podium as the first woman vice president, a woman of color and daughter of immigrants. In interviews Gorman talks about how the events of 6 January influenced her revision as she worked through drafts – another opportunity to make exigence real. And speaking of style: the vibrant yellow coat, the blazing red headband add levels of rhetorical significance, not the least of which, as Washington Post writer Karen Attiah, explains, “were also a visual nod to the 1972 campaign materials of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for president.”
Through poetry, Gorman delivered a passionate argument, filled with clear logic about our country’s past and present and the promise of a future where “we live up to our own time.” More thought and idea than data and example, her evidence moves clear-eyed through our history and looks at this moment with gimlet gaze. The language she uses and her delivery of it may echo the inspirational oratory of Lincoln and King, yet it is so much of this moment in time that we may ask if her audience is all of us – or primarily the younger generation. Masha Gessen, writing for the New Yorker Magazine, places this performed poem in “the tradition of American political speeches [where] democracy often figures as a work in progress…something we inhabit but continue to work on, an endless fixer-upper,” though Gorman is “more radical and challenging.”
In her 2018 TedTalk, she declares, “the choice to be heard is the most political act of all.” On 20 January 2021, not only was Amanda Gorman heard, but she called others, including the generation now in our classrooms to speak up. They may not be waiting for our permission, these about-to-be voters and leaders, but we know a little bit about effective rhetoric. Let’s pass it on!
Thoughts? Please share your ideas and, if you decide to approach the poem rhetorically in class, your experience.