‘Memorial‘ directly addresses poetry and the skill poets and other artists have to convey elements of the past to their readers. This poem was published in 2021 in Amanda Gorman’s collection, Call Us What We Carry. This poem can be found in part four of the collection, titled Memoria.
‘Memorial’ by Amanda Gorman is a beautiful poem about memory and the way that poets tap into it in their work.
‘Memorial’ begins with the speaker discussing memory and how it’s the only way that one has to relive the past. Poetry, she concludes, is the best way to truly expense the past and relive it in a genuine way. Poets use their various techniques to convey parts of the past in a way that readers can “touch” and “taste.”
When we tell a story,
In the first three lines of the poem, the poet separates out her words, creating short lines that stand alone as single-line stanzas. She speaks about the past, memories, and writing by describing how when “we,” human beings, tell a story, “We are living / Memory.” This is the way that human beings relive the past and share it with others. It’s the only possible way to live the past again.
In ancient Greece, the Muses, the dainty-footed daughters
Why so much great art arises from trauma, nostalgia, or testimony.
In the next few lines, the speaker expands the scope of the poem, writing in a verse paragraph about ancient Greece and the Muses. She’s alluding to the mythological figures that were said to embody the various arts, including dancing, painting, and sculpture. There were nine in total.
It is through the things they embody, like writing, that we relive the past. They were “thought to inspire artists.” Artists used their various crafts and looked to the past to create. It is “remembering,” Gorman notes, that “makes us create.” She’s suggesting that the bulk of artistic inspiration comes from what a writer or artist lived in the past.
The verse paragraph ends with the speaker suggesting that this fact about creation may explain why past trauma is so inspiring. So much art comes from “trauma, nostalgia, or testimony.”
But why alliteration?
Instead remembers it, touches, tastes, traps its vastness.
The speaker tries to answer another question about creation in line nine of ‘Memorial.’ She asks, “But why alliteration?” She’s wondering why poetry’s elements have the effect that they do. Why the “pulsing percussion, the string syllables?” The speaker provides an answer. She suggests that the sound of syllables when they are connected in a poetic way, are capable of pounding the “past back into you.” The language of poetics is an effective way to communicate the “trauma, nostalgia, or testimony” from the previous lines.
The speaker explores how poets can use their words to create imagery that appeals to the reader’s senses. This imagery can “touch” the reader in a way that just “telling” or “performing” a story can’t. It “traps” the “vastness” of a story and delivers it in a way that’s like living in a memory.
Only now can Memory, perviously marooned, find safe
Feel all these tales crushing our famished mouth.
It’s through poetry and through the tales of authors that “memory” (personified here) comes to “us.” It was distant and untouched until channeled through poetic means. It returned to find “safe / Harbor within us.” The image of a harbor relates to the sea imagery that’s used throughout Gorman’s collection, Call Us What We Carry.
Structure and Form
‘Memorial’ by Amanda Gorman is a sixteen-line poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The stanzas range from one line up to six lines. Interestingly, while the first three lines feel like lines of verse, the next few are written in what reads far more like a paragraph than a stanza. This remains the case for four lines of text and then reverts to lines of verse in line nine.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three.
- Allusion: occurs when the poet references something that is outside the scope of the poem. For example, Gorman alludes to Greek mythology and the “Muses,” mythological women who were described as embodying the creative arts and sciences, like dance and painting.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. These should trigger the reader’s senses. For example, “Why the pulsing percussion, the string syllables?”
The purpose is to ask and answer questions about writing poetry and how it affects readers through its ability to tap into memory. The poem is fairly short, and it accomplishes this goal quickly.
The speaker is likely meant to be Gorman herself as she explores the effects of poetry and how it is used to channel and convey memory. But, the speaker could also be a persona as there is no indisputable evidence that suggests it’s the poet.
The meaning is that poetry, and art more broadly, has the ability to help readers, viewers, and listeners relive the past in a way that other means of “telling” and “performing” do not.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Amanda Gorman poems. For example:
- ‘In This Place (An American Lyric)’ – a moving poem about American life and the tragedies, acts of bravery, and hope that shape the nation.
- ‘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’ – describes the work of three American heroes in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an occasional poem written for and performed at the 52nd Super Bowl.