‘At First‘ is written in a creative and experimental form that echoes the lives and experiences of people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some lines feel as though they were written by a young man or woman, but they are broadly appealing to anyone who was asked “how are you?” and struggled to find an answer during the pandemic.
This poem can be found in Amanda Gorman’s 2021 collection, Call Us What We Carry.
Explore At First
‘At First’ by Amanda Gorman focuses on the changes that language underwent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The poem takes the form of a series of text messages. They discuss the missing words, like “joy” and “get together,” as well as the unbelievable darkness of the pandemic. “We,” all human beings who endured the pandemic, learned how to suffer in a way that “we” prayed to avoid “our” whole lives. We “mastered” it in a way. The poet also brings the concept of making a “mark” on the world and how some people turn to the darkest of methods to accomplish this.
Stanza One / Message One
There were no words for what we witnessed.
Unprecedented & unpresidented.
In the first stanza, which is also the first text message in a chain of seven messages, the speaker says that there are “no words for what we witnessed.” The juxtaposition between this line and the start of a poem is interesting. The following lines make it clear there are some words that can be used to describe “what we witnessed” but, Gorman never explicitly states that she’s talking about COVID-19.
The following lines refer to the way that speech changed over the course of the pandemic. When one asked how another was doing, messages like “Hope we are doing well” and “as we can be” were common. The messaged were “stalled” and “stilted,” as one could expect a telegram to be. These were “unprecedented” times, she adds.
The poet also coins the word “unpresidented” here. This suggests that Gorman’s speaker found the presidential leadership at the time lacking as if there was not a president at all.
Stanza Two / Message Two
When asking how others are faring,
Precise & peopled hurt as this.
The second stanza/message is the longest. Here, Gorman refers to how “we,” all of humanity, became familiar with an intense kind of pain that results from being separated from loved ones and even watching them pass away. She uses alliteration in lines line “Specialists in suffering.”
When speaking about this pain, there was no way to express honestly how one felt, nor did one expect another to explain their pain fully. People were hurting in a way that seemed impossible.
Stanza Three / Message Three
We began to lose words
That was sicckk!
In the third stanza, Gorman explores the loss of language. Words like “laughter” and “joy” were forgotten as they fell out of use, as were phrases like “get together.” None of these things were relevant during the worst days of the pandemic.
Stanza Four / Message Four
Ha! we’re dead.
The fourth stanza is the shortest at three lines. The lines mimic the dark humor of a young person experiencing the terror of the pandemic. They make light of the death around them with the phrase “Ha! we’re dead” and the use of two skull emojis in the third line.
Stanza Five / Message Five
To try is to take a stab,
Souls but the desire to mark
The fifth stanza transitions into a darker subject, leading a mark on the world by any means necessary. Desperation breeds more desperation, and when “we teach children” to “Leave a mark on the world,” it may lead someone to “shoot up / Souls” to do so. The unmanageable pandemic furthers the chaos of this world order.
Stanza Six / Message Six
Up the globe?
Like the one we left behind.
The male shooter, who could be any of the many men who have engaged in such terrible violence in the United States and around the world, wants to be remembered, even for something terrible.
Stanza Seven / Message Seven
Sorry for the long text;
Been in our throats.
In the final stanza, the speaker acknowledges the length of the text and apologizes for it. There are “no small words in the mouth,” they add. It takes a lot to try to suss out how one is feeling in this environment, especially when there is so much going on at once.
It’s possible to “find the rhetoric of reunion,” Gorman concludes by letting “love reclaim our tongues,” or looking to a different kind of language than that which seems appropriate for the dark times of the pandemic. The best way to show one’s heart is through the “tip of the tongue.” The poem ends with this emphasis on the importance of language.
Structure and Form
‘At First’ by Amanda Gorman is a seven-stanza poem that takes the form of a series of text messages. The stanzas are separated into text/speech bubbles and arranged on the page, alternating from the right and left sides as one would expect to see a chain of text messages.
Within the messages, Gorman writes in verse but, there are a few moments where she plays into the form of the text. For example, in the fourth stanza, she uses two skull emojis following the line “We are deceased.” The final stanza also begins with the line “sorry for the long text,” a familiar line most readers have likely used at one point or another after writing a long text message. Gorman is here referring to the previous messages.
The poem is written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Instead, they vary in length and use a wide variety of end words. There are a few examples of rhyme in the text, including end rhyme and internal rhyme.
Throughout this piece, Gorman makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four of stanza one and lines eleven and twelve of stanza two.
- Alliteration: a feature commonly seen in Gorman’s poetry. It occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “masters of moan” in stanza two and “dead” and “deceased” in stanza two.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “Specialists in suffering, / Aces of the ache, / Masters of the moan.”
- Allusion: occurs when the poet refers to something that’s not explicitly explained in the poem. In this case, the speaker refers to the COVID-19 pandemic and the government under former President Trump.
Gorman engages with themes of loss and hopelessness in this piece, as well as the importance of language. The latter ranges from the dark, lost words of the pandemic, to the terms of love one has to seek out to outlast the darkness.
In parts, the tone feels hopeless and dejected. But, Gorman transitions to a more hopeful tone at the end of the poem, alluding to a possible change in rhetoric. It is between individuals and the words one uses that this is going to take place.
The purpose of this poem is to show the way that language changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Words were lost. But, they have to be regained in order to overcome the darkness.
The speaker in this poem (and possibly two or more speakers) are likely young people, like Gorman herself, experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Amanda Gorman poems. For example:
- ‘Memorial’ – a poem about the past and how poets are able to use their writing to help readers relive it.
- ‘The Hill We Climb’ – a moving depiction of the United States as it was on the cusp of President Biden’s inauguration in 2021.
- ‘Chorus of the Captains’ – an occasional poem written for and performed at the 52nd Super Bowl. It describes the work of three American heroes in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- ‘School’s Out’ – a powerful poem that explores the experiences of young people during the COVID-19 pandemic.