We often lament the lack of civics and citizenship curriculums in today’s schools. We believe we should add lessons on the importance of voting, readings of the U.S. Constitution, lectures on the essential elements of a democracy and the rights and responsibilities of every American of all ages, races and gender. We can’t answer President Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day call for unity without knowing these axioms.

Rollie column

Rollie Atkinson

But maybe there are even more powerful lessons than civics we are guilty of omitting from our children’s classrooms these days. We think we also learned this on Inauguration Day, not from our new president, but from a 22-year-old poet named Amanda Gorman. Her soaring recital of her spoken words reminded us — and our entire nation — of the power of poetry. More poetry is what we should be teaching. Poetry inspires, forces us to imagine, helps us to discover our inner voices, adds meaning even to silent moments and educates both our hearts and our minds. Thank you, Amanda Gorman.

“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,” she challenged in her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” which she ended by reading, “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.”

Gorman, a Black woman raised by a single mother and educated at Harvard University, is our nation’s poet laureate. She is the third poet to be invited to deliver an Inauguration Day poem. Robert Frost recited his poem;  “The Gift Outright,” at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration and Maya Angelou shared her “On the Pulse of Morning” poem at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993. We think Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” outmatched those earlier offerings and supremely fits the current times and challenges we face.

Poetry is fun and easy to read and compose. Very young children can do it. (“Hickory, dickory, dock …”) Even toughened cowboys recite poetry and hold poetry reading contests. Lovers’ most intimate moments are captured in poetry and Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies are conveyed by couplets of rhyming words. Everyone should have a favorite poem or poet. (We like Wendell Berry’s “The Mad Farmer’s Revolution.”)

Embracing poetry could grant everyone the added power of ‘poetic license.’ Very different from the lies of past-President Donald Trump, poetic license allows a speaker to espouse beyond any literal meaning of a set of words and lift her or his language to the metaphysical or strata of wonderment, mischievous or defiance. (Think of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”)

“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,” Amanda Gorman writes in the first stanza of her 2021 historic poem, read from the steps of the U.S. Capitol that was invaded just days earlier by what we have to assume was a mob of non-poets.

Sonoma County is blessed with two poet laureates. We have Sebastopol’s Phyliss Meshulam and youth poet laureate Zoya Ahmed. We have library shelves full of all kinds of poetry books. A Sonoma County library card is a free ticket to the musings, wisdoms and word songs of Whitman, Berry, Emily Dickinson, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Angelou, Langston Hughes and many, many others.

The very young Amanda Gorman says she one day will run for president and no one who knows her well is doubting her ambitions. She is not eligible until 2036. Too bad we must wait so long to elect a poet as our president.

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