The Problem Isn’t The Poem But The School And The Teachers Who Would Teach It

Poet Amanda Gorman’s interminable poem “The Hill We Climb,” read by the poetess at Joe Biden’s Inauguration, has apparently been removed from the curriculum of elementary schools in Miami-Dade County, Florida as inappropriate for grade-schoolers. It took an objection from a single parent to get the job done, which the mainstream media thinks is significant—you know, a single complaint is enough to “ban” literature. It is significant, but not in the way they think. It is significant because it shows how few parents are actively engaged in their children’s education and properly on the look-out for political indoctrination in the schools.

The poem is inappropriate for sixth grade and under even if it were taught competently and objectively. I could see the thing being used productively in high school, for example to teach what agitprop is, how events are framed differently by various political factions, or to show what bad poetry is. Unfortunately, using “The Hill We Climb” appropriately requires a level of skill and objectivity most teachers lack, and a degree of trust today’s teaching profession doesn’t deserve.

Now here is the poem:

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 forge a 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.

Could you wade through it all? “The Hill We Climb” is, as you can see, hackneyed partisan drivel. Supposedly Gorman wrote it shortly after the January 6, 2021 riot at the Capitol. It was obviously one of those things you should place in a drawer and check a few days later after the fog of emotion has cleared. The riot “very nearly succeeded”? There was never the slimmest chance that the riot would succeed at anything but being a riot and an embarrassment. Nor was there any smidgen of a threat to “destroy democracy” from a few hundred idiots with sticks and bear spray. The poem is mordantly funny: “we will never again sow division, says the verse that is being read at an Inauguration specifically to sow division, of a President who has gone on to demonize half the country repeatedly.

As poetry, this is free verse doggerel, full of lazy cliches: gold-limbed hills, windswept northeast, lake-rimmed cities, sunbaked south. As history, it is critical race theory in (occasional) rhyme. The parent was dead right to call it out as inappropriate for elementary schools, but the larger issue is that our educational system would want to teach such a slanted view of our nation at all. Putting “The Hill We Climb” into perspective could encourage critical thinking about bias, racial distrust, the politicizing of American institutions and historical events, the Rashomon phenomenon, the use of literature and poetry in politics, law, the Constitution and much more, including how not to write a poem. Heck, I could teach a whole semester around “The Hill We Climb” .

But I wouldn’t trust any public school system to use it at all, because I know what would happen.

14 thoughts on “The Problem Isn’t The Poem But The School And The Teachers Who Would Teach It

  1. Gawd, if I was her English teacher my initial critique would be to revise using half as many words and we’ll talk. A decent stream-of-consciousness rough draft I suppose but way too meandering and unfocused. My patience allowed for only skimming the second half.

  2. I got about 2/3 of the way through it before giving up. I shouldn’t let my blood get angryed up so much this early in the day. You’d have thought we’d survived the Black Death the way this so-called poem rants on and on. And don’t even get me started on the “belly of the beast” line.

  3. I made it through a few stanzas and I’ll admit, my eyes glazed over. I kept trying to get it to rhyme or display meter. I read a lot of Dr. Seuss right now to my children and he makes far better (and sensible) rhymes. Perhaps it gets better as you go on, but free verse, no rhyming pattern? I never did well in poetry, but those were the ones I hated the most. I think my classes, when we get there, will focus on poets like Keats and Poe.

    • It’s not really free verse. Most lines end in terrible rhymes. I’m not sure what it is. Just bad writing. Free verse has an inherent strength. This is failed old fashioned verse.

    • In my opinion, there is way too much to critically unpack in that poem for K-6 elementary school aged children maybe even most 7the & 8th grade children. It would be pure indoctrination to present this poem in any form in these grades before critically thinking skills have been reasonably established in the minds of the youth so they could reasonably unpack the poem based on actual reality.

      Side note; Amanda Gorman seems to me to be the epitome of a Generation Z young person that has been thoroughly indoctrinated by 21st century propaganda.

      • But you and I know they don’t want it to be critically unpacked. Just taken at face value with all the bobbleheads nodding in unison.

  4. I remember not quite liking her delivery when she read it, but it kind of sounded like a rap song, as far as the rhythm went.

    Reading it, I think I appreciate it more because I am getting the words, instead of some kind of stilted delivery.

    And, there is some rhyme there and some structure.

    I did think it meandered a bit and was drawn out, but then I figured she was probably given a time slot to fill and probably had to fill it. Filling up time is not a good way to start off drafting a poem (if that is what happened).

    As for the reference to the riots, I am not sure what to think. Not knowing to what she was referring, I figured she was talking about the whole of the Trump Presidency. That I found offensive. Knowing now that she was referring to the January 6 riot, I am less offended but kind of dumbfounded by the hyperbole.

    Is there something of worth in there? Well, some of the messaging is optimistic, which is a fitting American theme. Some of the structure is interesting, but I am not a big fan of free verse. It’s kind of like the abstract art of poetry. As my high school art teacher said, “you can do abstract art, AFTER you learn how to draw.” If you can’t write a decent sonnet, you may want to hold off on the free verse.

    All in all, this might be a good first draft of a promising poet who might one day be excellent (and worthy of study in high school), but that is not who you want to highlight on inauguration day. Hell, even Bill Clinton had the sense to call on someone like Maya Angelou. But, I guess we are talking about Biden.

    -Jut

  5. Aw, c’mon, Jack. That poem has not been removed from the curriculum, it has been banned. Banned! The same way Florida has banned all manner of great educational books and other materials.
    There was a time when we could say educators were choosing appropriate materials for the classroom. No more. Now, when some materials are chosen and others are not, those not chosen are Banned! When materials once used in the classroom are re-evaluated and no longer used, they are not discontinued, they are Banned!
    It should be clear by now that those who appear to be somewhat selective actually are dictatorial censors. Well, they are, anyway, if they can be tied to one side of the political spectrum.

  6. “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.

    Pro-tip. If the lowest can reasonably believe they can become the highest with a little bit of effort – all the “far from polished” worries literally do not matter. Every – single – human – being faces a plethora of tiny obstacles in life and a handful of large obstacles in life. Some people have more than others. Some people have greater capacity to face them than other. But *every* *single* one of us faces challenges and obstacles. What this “poet” is probably alluding to are the ill-defined “microaggressions” that are some magic hindrance to a particular set of people.

    Yet we all face “micro-obstacles” – and some random individual looking at you sideways may be one of them. But if you can’t get past it, the problem is you, not society. Society is made up of flawed human beings. The *VAST* majority of whom are trying to do their best with their own obstacles.

    No, what this person demands is that everyone around them behave perfectly according to their definition of perfection. And if that other person makes one single mistake – especially a mistake that can be labeled a “micro aggression”, then, well, the offended individual has every excuse that someone was holding them down.

    “But that doesn’t mean we are
    striving to form a union that is perfect.”

    Yes, as a matter of fact we *ARE* trying to form a more perfect union. It’s literally in the opening paragraph of our society’s Operating System. We *must* seek to make more perfect the institutions and processes that allow our federal system to thrive in a wildly diverse nation of competing interests to maximize individual freely-pursued outcomes.

    What the “poet’s” problem is, is they want us to create perfect people. People who are 100% hampered with worrying about every tiny little nuance of their own behavior that they are more nervous than a 18th French Radical during the height of the Reign of Terror.

    Yes, people should be concerned with their manners. But manners cannot be expected to cover to a neurotic level of detail people’s personal ever changing feelings and moods that may cause some minute interaction to be perceived incorrectly by a potentially aggrieved person.

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

    It already is, you “poetic” twit.

    “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.”

    Putting differences aside really seems to flow counter to the claim that we are committed to “all cultures”

    “We lay down our arms
    so we can reach out our arms
    to one another.

    We seek harm to none and harmony for all.”

    There’s only one side that has “taken up arms” on this topic in the past decade. And it isn’t the ones your poem subtly accuses – and yet the poet demands those who haven’t taken up arms to still lay them down anyway.

    “Scripture tells us to envision
    that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
    and no one shall make them afraid.”

    No it doesn’t. Scripture tells us that everyone will sit under their own vine and fig tree and invite their neighbor’s to do the same after God’s renders judgment on all nations and re-establishes His law in the world.

    “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.”

    We have dared. Can the artificially aggrieved try now?

    I’m not doing the rest of that drivel.

  7. To answer your first question. I tried to wade through it but it became a slog after the first ten stanzas.
    So I gave up reflecting on the homework requirements my 7th-grade social studies teacher, Mr. Scala, insisted on for his assignments. “Answer in three paragraphs with each paragraph consisting of three well-constructed sentences. ” He would admonish us that anything beyond that is just unnecessary, irrelevant filler. and shows an inability to be inciteful. Then I added what my homiletics professor advised, “for every minute you speak after ten minutes detracts from being effective by 10%.” So if you speak for 20 minutes you might as well not have spoken at all.

  8. Let them teach it right alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson’s A Nation’s Strength:

    What makes a nation’s pillars high
    And its foundations strong?
    What makes it mighty to defy
    The foes that round it throng?

    It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
    Go down in battle shock;
    Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
    Not on abiding rock.

    Is it the sword? Ask the red dust
    Of empires passed away;
    The blood has turned their stones to rust,
    Their glory to decay.

    And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown
    Has seemed to nations sweet;
    But God has struck its luster down
    In ashes at his feet.

    Not gold but only men can make
    A people great and strong;
    Men who for truth and honor’s sake
    Stand fast and suffer long.

    Brave men who work while others sleep,
    Who dare while others fly…
    They build a nation’s pillars deep
    And lift them to the sky.

    I think the contrast is striking, and I feel certain that even a sixth-grader would think so. One is a pean to racial grievance, the other an ode to perseverance and sacrifice.

    I know which I’d prefer.

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