WASHINGTON (AP/NEXSTAR) — Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman summoned images dire and triumphant Wednesday as she called out to the world “even as we grieved, we grew.”
In language referencing Biblical scripture and at times echoing the oratory of John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the 22-year-old Gorman read with urgency and assertion as she began by asking, “Where can we find light/In this never-ending shade?” and used her own poetry and life story as an answer. The poem’s very title, “The Hill We Climb,” suggested both labor and transcendence.
“We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
Of such a terrifying hour.
But within it we’ve found the power
To author a new chapter,
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.”
It was an extraordinary task for Gorman, the youngest by far of the poets who have read at presidential inaugurations since Kennedy invited Robert Frost in 1961, with other predecessors including Maya Angelou and Elizabeth Alexander.
A native and resident of Los Angeles and the country’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, Gorman told The Associated Press last week that she planned to combine a message of hope for President Joseph Biden’s inaugural without ignoring “the evidence of discord and division.” She had completed a little more than half of “The Hill We Climb” before Jan. 6, when the U.S. Capitol came under siege by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.
“That day gave me a second wave of energy to finish the poem,” Gorman told the AP. She had said that she would not mention Jan. 6 specifically, but her reference was unmistakable:
“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.”
Frost’s appearance at the Kennedy inauguration was a kind of valedictory — he was 86 and died two years later.
Gorman’s career is just beginning. Her first two books — the picture story “Change Things” and a bound edition of her inaugural poem — come out later this year. Ceremonial works are often quickly forgotten, but Angelou’s “On the Pulse Of the Morning,” which she read at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton, went on to sell more than 1 million copies as a book.
Invited to the inauguration late last month by then-incoming first lady Jill Biden, Gorman has read at official occasions before — including a July 4 celebration when she was backed by the Boston Pops Orchestra. She has also made clear her desire to appear at a future inaugural, in a much greater capacity, an ambition she stated firmly in her poem.
“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.”
Gorman’s performance earned instant praise. Vice President Kamala Harris could be seen offering a thumbs up immediately after the reading, and social media filled with appreciation for the youthful poet’s inspiring message for the road ahead.
To some, the young poet’s speech outshined performances by better-known celebrities, including singers Lady Gaga, Garth Brooks and Jennifer Lopez.