When you deliver the U.S. presidential inaugural poem at 22 and become an instant household name, you might wonder whether your moment is over and done. No such fate has befallen National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman. In 2021, she became one of history’s few best-selling poets with the publication of “The Hill We Climb,” published her children’s book “Change Sings” and recited a poem at the Super Bowl. You read that right. Amanda Gorman is upending the status quo, and she’s only just getting started.
Whereas “The Hill We Climb” was a celebration of what with effort is possible, Gorman’s newest work, the poetry collection “Call Us What We Carry,” redoubles back on what ails us in the first place. The objects of her gaze are America’s refusal to own and atone for its history, the ominous changes to our climate and the coronavirus pandemic and its politicization. Gorman’s words read like that of Lady Liberty in a pointed argument with white supremacy or of the ultimate public defender trying to release us from captivity: “There is no one way to count who & what counted most to us in that dark.”
Gorman is formidable when she draws parallels between the past and our present concerns, as with lies that have historically become truths, which became the permanent record. (For instance, the “1918 Spanish flu” is called that not because the outbreak originated in Spain but because the country did not conceal its cases, she explains.) Of these maddening outcomes she writes in a prose poem: “This discord is so ancient it makes fossils of us all, a history no longer entirely our own & yet only ours, never understood.” She also reckons with the limitations inherent in her role as messenger: “Some will hate our words because they burst from a face like ours.” She keeps going.
In “The Surveyed,” a clever allegory, Gorman compares our desire for safety and belonging in this pandemic and nationalistic era to the hopes of Blacks migrating out of the Jim Crow South. In “The Truth in One Nation,” she writes “What can we call a country that destroys/Itself just because it can?/A nation that would char/Rather than change?/Our only word for this is/Home.” One hears throughout continual echoes of James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
But Gorman is not Baldwin or Claudia Rankine (whose influence is evident in Gorman’s craft). She is a Gen Z Angelino who brings the fresh self-awareness and frankness of youth to these pages with a prosody that is as playful as it is stern (“To touch/To meet/To human/Again”). Her syllables are often homonymic (“Absolutely abulic, incessantly incensed”) and force us to ask whether a word means what we think it means, or whether she is playing or we are just being played. Her riddles interleave what reads like a sociological thesis told in free verse. (“All we know so far is we are so far/From what we know.”)
Gorman speaks for a generation that simply wants the chance to bloom and blossom yet was born in the slag heap of the failed decisions of generations past. In perhaps her most moving poem, “Alarum,” she writes: “Our loss/colossal & blossomed/is never lost on us. Love the earth/like we’ve failed it. To put it plain/we have shipwrecked the earth/soiled the soil/& run the ground aground./Listen. We are the loud toll/on this planet./Our future needs us/alarmed. Man is a myth/in the making./” It ends with this plea to her elders: “Oh, how we want our parents red & restless, as wild & dying for a difference as we are.”
How Gorman arrived so young at a place of such accomplishment is as compelling as her art itself. She describes herself as a “skinny black girl” who was born with an auditory processing disorder that led to a speech disorder — an inauspicious start for one who wants to make language her craft. But starting in elementary school Gorman began to teach herself to grasp, form and wield words just as a blacksmith brings heat, an anvil, and a hammer to iron. She described her process in a 2018 interview as such: “I woke up early every day and . . . I’d wear another writer’s voice like clothing and move onto the next one, until I’d gone through a stack of 10 different books. I wore ephemeral versions, copying their sentence constructions, verbiage, and tones. Then I’d step out of them and choose the best characteristics of those styles, until I created a voice that was mine.” Is there any clearer illustration of what it takes to move from apprentice to master?
Occasionally Gorman infuses her English with Latin, perhaps as a retort to or even rebuke of some White male classmates who criticized her in the hallowed halls of Harvard University for not being familiar with the ancient language, as she told the school magazine. Push me and watch me grow, seems to be her point. Or even: How dare you. She also makes the case that pandemic politics have as much to do with race as political persuasion: (“Suddenly it struck us:/Why it’s so perturbing for privileged groups to follow/restrictions of place & personhood./Doing so means for once wearing the chains their power/has shackled on the rest of us.”) To those who would critique such thoughts as identity poetics, Gorman has previously offered this wise response: “The personal is political. The fact that you have the luxury as a white male to write all your poems about being lost in the woods, that you don’t have to interrogate race and gender, is a political statement in and of itself.”
There is at times a sloppiness unbecoming such a gifted and precise writer, as when she collages the diary of a Black U.S. Army soldier serving in 1917 amid war and a flu epidemic and turns some of his prose into her own verse. Rendered this way, it’s impossible to tell what is his and what is hers, and this blurriness obscures what would otherwise be a fascinating presentation.
But perfection is not required. Her poetry insists that not just she but an entire country is capable of growing itself to a place of glory, like Tupac’s rose in concrete. Her emergence in this very moment is the instantiation of our ability to press on. We shall overcome goes the spiritual, but “We have survived us,” is what Gorman says. As she looks ahead in these pages, she is like Washington crossing the Delaware. “We must change/This ending in every way.”
Julie Lythcott-Haims is the author of the books “How to Raise an Adult,” “Real American: A Memoir” and “Your Turn: How to Be an Adult.”