'The Hill We Climb': A poem we hear, a poem we read
I went to college in the town in which Emily Dickinson lived her entire life. On a gray, damp and chilly afternoon during the spring semester of my junior year, my English professor led the class on a pilgrimage to the poet’s gravesite — where we took turns reading Dickinson’s words to each other and the blackbirds overhead.
I’d like to say it was a spiritual, transformative experience; but the truth is it was cold and wet and growing darker by the moment ... and one of our members already had earned his professor’s scorn by saying “Hey, Emily, how’s it shaking?” when the group reached her tombstone.
I won’t be naming any names — besides, that was hardly as embarrassing as when the same student settled into a soft chair in a heated auditorium and promptly fell asleep as the Irish icon Seamus Heaney (who would later win the Nobel Prize) read of his love of the dark drop, the trapped sky, smells of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.
I mean, it’s not as though our poor unfortunate hero was there as a guest of the daughter of the Yeats scholar who had invited Heaney to campus. Or that later, at the family’s house for dinner, he would be seated across from Heaney himself.
That was a fun evening.
If there is one thing I have come to believe, armed with such eclectic experiences (among others), is that the poem you read and the poem you hear are symbiotic twins — not exactly alike and yet of the same fertile spawning ground.
Watching a repeat episode about the life of William Stafford on Southern Oregon PBS’s “Oregon Art Beat” recently, what hit home was the infusion of life as others read his works — the communal exerience of writer, reader and listener.
In print, those same words inspire something more personal, more textural and intimate.
Neither experience outshines the other. A stirring poem aloud brings theatricality and passion; read to oneself, it stirs just as deeply.
I’ve had the good fortune to encounter such moments through the years; but rarely so memorably as during the inauguration of President Joe Biden this week, when 22-year-old Amanda Gorman took to the podium and read “The Hill We Climb.”
It was a work filled with imagery and conviction, punctuated by rhyme schemes of her own device and read with a knowing well beyond her years.
If you missed it live, it can be found at the usual internet suspects.
In the meantime, I’m going to get out of the way, and let Miss Gorman’s words speak to you for themselves.
'The Hill We Climb'
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
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished
We the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one
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 forgea union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid
If we’re to live up to our own time
Then victory won’t lie in the blade
But in all the bridges we’ve made
That is the promise to glade
The hill we climb
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
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy
And this effort very nearly succeeded
But while democracy can be periodically delayed
it can never be permanently defeated
In this truth
in this faith we trust
For while we have our eyes on the future
history has its eyes on us
This is the era of just redemption
We feared at its inception
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was
but move to what shall be
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation
Our blunders become their burdens
But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one
We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west,
we will rise from the windswept northeast
where our forefathers first realized revolution
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states,
we will rise from the sunbaked south
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
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