"The Hill We Climb," Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poem, read to this writer like the poetic version of a neo-soul song: an endearing work that had the structure but not the function of what it wanted to do. Gorman had said that Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker were two of her biggest influences, and you can see in several of its magnificent lines. Elongated, with jittery accents and rhymes that work, they are examples of the poet’s attempt to build on the tradition of form and organic lyric verse that came from both women, a lineage that ranges from Lucille Clifton to Rita Dove and Terrance Hayes. The problem was that even Brooks and Walker themselves weren’t fully formed at 22; they needed years of living, learning their craft, and developing on the complex rhapsodic traditions that make the poems Gorman wants to write work. They didn’t just rhyme to earnestly rhyme, which is the poem’s most significant flaw.
Yet Hill doesn’t fail for me on account of said lines and the sweep of its attempt. It also needs to be noted that the cultural contents that made up that attempt spoke to many black people who felt ignored by black poetry for half a century. In Zoom chats with lit elders processing the poem and her inaugural performance, I didn’t hear people patting a kid on the head. What I did hear was a lot of people relishing the chance to talk about poetry without being pressured to overlook a literary/ slam poet monster or venerate someone who they only knew as a troll. That one of their trolls, Ishmael Reed, deemed Gorman a “token” in the same essay he championed Bill Cosby and OJ Simpson—and did it without #blacktwitter checking him—only strengthened those elders’ identification with her. "Woke motherfuckers couldn’t go after Reed when he said 'Art is cock,' refused to deny calling James Baldwin sexual slurs, and was so obsessed with Alice Walker he got profiled on the Today show," several of them told me, "but they want to get brave about a kid writing about trying to make sense of America?"
Also, an uneven collection isn’t a bad one. When Gorman steps away from being a public voice and weaves a gift for lyric landscape with her internal thought process on being a young person in a country in peril, she not only is as good as any young poet in the country but shows the potential to be as good as the masters she calls on. And she calls on a few of them. In “Lighthouse,” an emotionally stirring metaphorical poem about youth and connecting with other human beings, you can see her channeling both late-era Robert Hayden and early career Yusuf Komunyakaa in both her compact lyric voice and experimental lines.
“The moments wavered unscheduled,
Planless, not plotess. Col lap sed
Into no m ore than a shape
That we felt numbly.
(& tell us what is the hour
But a rotation that we mark our grief).
Whole months swept by, fast but dragging,
Like a damp void trapped in the rearview,
Our souls, solitary and solemn.
In “Another Nautical,” one of her most successful “America as a ship that can be redeemed” poems, Gorman can channel Brooks’ gift for bringing syntactic steel to formal elegance.
This book like a ship is meant to be lived
In are we not the animals two by two
Heavy-hearted and hooked horned
Marching into the Ark of Our Lives
We, the mammals, mark to flood
This day throbbing until tomorrow
And in the surprise of the book, the several poems where she shows a remarkable gift for the organic, open form miniature lyric that the young Langston Hughes was so good at, like this part of her not-calling-but-calling her ancestors in “Who We Gonna Call.”
Our country, a land of shades
Yet there are no wraiths but us
If we are to summon
Anyone or anything
Let it be our tender selves.
If Carry were smaller, maybe 45-55 pages, it would be a literary timestamp for the ages. The book, however, is 240 pages long. Some of her free verse and lyric hybrids are uneven, and some fall flat (especially “Monomyth,” which reads like notes to a screenplay). If we were to talk shop over coffee, I would tell Gorman to reread Tracy L Smith—especially the Smith of Life on Mars—to see how she uses allusions in regards to pop culture subjects in gorgeous two-line stanza story poems (because the way she namechecks folks like Drake don’t work on the page). Also, and this is hard to say, Gorman struggles with making the word “we” work outside of the good-natured gossamer homily.
Again, however, that sentence is hard to write because I feel the post woke black embrace of Gorman in my bones. If my inner critic sighs at how her “we” poems can fall flat, my inner citizen is pulling for her to keep fucking trying until they don’t. It is also noticeable that the ancestors she is influenced by this collection—Hayden, Brooks, (Margaret) Walker, Hughes, and Angelou—were all shunned by the elite black poetry cliques of their time for being insufficient to the cause of radicalism. Her going deep into their body of work in the best poems of Call Us What We Carry is enough for me to be firmly in the camp of the people who are emotionally invested in her talent and want her internet trolls to get the fuck out of the way. Amanda Gorman isn't there yet, but she’s on her way. If you can’t earn your critique, don’t hinder her.
Gorman's Call Us What We Carry is out now. Pick it up at a local bookstore.