Teaching Poetic Devices Using “The Hill We Climb”

On January 20, 2021, Amanda Gorman faced a unique challenge. The youngest inaugural poet in United States history, Gorman wanted her poem “The Hill We Climb” to “envision a way in which our country can still come together and can still heal” without “erasing or neglecting the harsh truths . . . America needs to reconcile with.”

Studying “The Hill We Climb” offers students a unique opportunity to access poetry. As an occasional poem, the work was written and recited to honor a specific event, the swearing in of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice president of the United States. With elements such as speaker, audience, tone, and theme made so concrete and socially relevant, students are better able to analyze how poetic devices within the poem create engagement and meaning.

Inaugural poems are also unique in that, unlike a poem that is printed in a magazine, collection, or anthology, they are a predominantly auditory experience. This puts additional pressure on the aural elements—rhyme, consonance, assonance, repetition, anaphora—that can separate poetry from other forms of literature.

Teaching Poetic Devices Using Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb”

Start your lesson by watching Gorman perform her poem. Then, use the examples of poetic devices below to guide a discussion about how Gorman uses poetic devices to engage her audience and develop themes in her work. Consider inviting students to write their own occasional poems, or compare and contrast Gorman’s poem with other inaugural poems through history. Most importantly, remember that the poem is a call to unity. Encourage students to share and understand other perspectives, as opposed to trying to prove each other right or wrong.

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 justice.

Poetic Devices:

  • The poem starts with a rhetorical question and repetition of the pronoun “we.”
  • The opening lines also rely on assonance—repeated vowel sounds—in “sea,” “beast,” and “peace.”
  • There’s also an internal rhyme between “just is” and “justice.”

Teaching Points: The rhetorical question provides the organizing principle for the poem, a searching for light in the darkness. It also unites the audience at the outset: we, the listeners, are looking for light together. Repeating “we” echoes the Constitution, implicitly defining the poem’s audience as we, the people of the United States and thus unifying the nation throughout the poem. The assonance captures the audience’s attention and make the lines memorable, as though they were lyrics to a song. The internal rhyme acts as a highlighter, introducing key themes in the poem—the gap between the status quo (what “just is”) and justice.

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

Poetic devices:

  • Diction is at play in these lines with verbs like “forge” and “compose.”
  • There’s also consonance, repeated consonant sounds, with the letter “c.”

Teaching Points: The verbs here are interesting because they describe what “we” are all trying to do together. “Forge” is a word used to describe metalworking, heavy, manual labor that requires strength, knowledge, and expertise. “Compose” usually describes the creation of music or other fine arts. Pairing these verbs suggests the complexity of working together as a country and the need for people with many different skill sets to cooperate. Gorman then uses the same consonant in describing all the different types of people: “cultures, colors, characters, and conditions.” She is both enumerating the differences between Americans and uniting them with the same sound.

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.

Poetic Devices:

  • These lines use alliteration, or repeated initial consonant sounds: grieved/grew; hurt/hoped; tired/tried/tied/together.

Teaching Points: These lines use paired alliterative words to describe the shared American experience of the recent past. While alliteration highlights all the words containing repeated sounds, there is also an escalation here. Gorman moves from pairs of alliterative words to a crescendo of five prominent “t” sounds, culminating in the internal “t” of “victorious.” Even though she is describing pain and struggle, she places the most drama on a note of profound optimism—victory—and transforms the line into a rallying cry.

We will rise from the gold-limned hills of the West.
We will rise from the wind-swept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.
We will rise from the sun-baked South.

Poetic Devices:

  • Anaphora, a repeated word or phrase at the start of a line, occurs as “We will rise” begins each of these lines.
  • Gorman also includes parallelism through the repeated use of nouns modified by compound adjectives, such as “gold-limned hills,” “wind-swept Northeast,” “lake-rimmed cities,” and “sun-baked South.”

Teaching Point: Anaphora is known for its use in Biblical psalms as a means of creating musicality and highlighting that which is repeated. It has a similar impact here. The phrase “We will rise” is incantatory and rhythmic, underscoring the hope and optimism in the poem. It’s particularly impactful here because it introduces phrases that describe distinct regions of the US. While Gorman is iterating the differences within American culture, she is emphasizing that Americans will rise stronger, together.

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.

Poetic Devices:

  • The final lines of the poem rely on both symbolism and metaphor. Dawn’s light is a symbol.
  • Gorman builds on that symbol by suggesting through metaphor that “we,” the audience, can be that light.

Teaching Points: Gorman’s image of the dawn’s light is rich with connotations: knowledge, truth, divinity, birth and resurrection. The poem ends on a note of profound optimism: that light and its characteristics are always present. The final sentence becomes a personal challenge to the listener. Gorman is calling on us, the “we” of the poem, to be the light ourselves.