Overnight, as the world’s attention was set on Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th president of the US, 22-year old Amanda Gorman stole the show as the youngest ever poet to perform at a presidential inauguration.
Gorman became the sixth poet to perform a poem at a US presidential inauguration, reciting her poem, ‘The Hill We Climb’, which echoed the theme of the inauguration — “America United.”
‘The Hill We Climb’ was completed after the Capitol Hill riots earlier this month. Talking to The New York Times’ literature reporter Alexandra Alter, Gorman said the performance was “probably one of the most important things I’ll ever do in my career.” With poise, grace and authority, Gorman began reciting her poem at the inauguration with both hands raised.
“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. In the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice. And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow we do it. Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”
In just under six minutes, Gorman’s poem described the struggle of her nation’s “striving to form a union,” and the resilience of its democratic history to overcome adversity.
“While democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated,” she announced. “In this truth, in this faith we trust for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us. This is the era of just redemption. We feared it at its inception. We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour, but within it, we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves so while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe? Now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?”
“We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be a country that is bruised, but whole, benevolent, but bold, fierce, and free. We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation. Our blunders become their burdens. But one thing is certain, if we merge mercy with might and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.”
“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 told The New York Times that she refused to “gloss over” the events of recent history. Through metaphor, she drew on the Capitol Hill Riots, the murder of George Floyd by policemen, the resulting race riots, and the catastrophic loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic– which has so far claimed the lives of over 415, 000 Americans.
“What I really aspire to do in the poem is to be able to use my words to envision a way in which our country can still come together and can still heal,” she said. “It’s doing that in a way that is not erasing or neglecting the harsh truths I think America needs to reconcile with.”
“We have to confront these realities if we’re going to move forward, so that’s also an important touchstone of the poem. There is space for grief and horror and hope and unity, and I also hope that there is a breath for joy in the poem, because I do think we have a lot to celebrate at this inauguration.”
PAST INAUGURATION POETS
Throughout US history, only four presidents have chosen to have poets read at their inauguration. John F. Kennedy became the first president to have an inauguration poet in 1961, when Robert Frost was asked to read ‘The Gift Outright‘.
The next poet to read at an inauguration was in 1993 by famed poet and activist, Maya Angelou who read ‘On the Pulse of Morning‘, at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. Four years later, as he was sworn in for his second term, Clinton selected Miller Williams to read his poem ‘Of History and Hope‘.
Twelve years later, at Barack Obama’s first inauguration, Elizabeth Alexander performed her poem ‘Praise Song for the Day‘ and four years after that, Richard Blanco recited ‘One Today‘ at Obama’s second swearing in.
WHO IS AMANDA GORMAN?
In 2017, Gorman was a 19-year old student studying sociology at Harvard when she became the first National Youth Poet Laureate.
The following year, she was interviewed by Today, where she said that the role was “intimidating” but since she was the first, she got to “…set the precedence for what I want to see in the United States.”
“The passion comes from my heritage,” she said of her motivation. “I think I must write. I must speak up. There’s been too many people kept out of that opportunity.”
Later this year, she will release two books— ‘Change Sings: a children’s anthem’, a children’s book illustrated by famed author and illustrator, Loren Long, and in September, Viking Books for Young Readers will publish Gorman’s debut poetry collection and will include the inaugural poem, ‘The Hill We Climb’.
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