Watch Amanda Gorman Read “The Hill We Climb,” “Making Mountains As We Run,” “Fury and Faith,” and More

Led by celebri­ty host Tom Han­ks, the Biden inauguration’s enter­tain­ers, A‑listers all, were safe bets, reli­able sta­di­um-fillers with instant mass appeal. They “did exact­ly what we need­ed them to do,” remarked Stephanie Zacharek at TIME, offer­ing the reas­sur­ance that “we no longer need to live in dread.” They were “singers you actu­al­ly know,” Alex­is Petridis wrote at The Guardian. The com­ment was a dig at the pre­vi­ous administration’s C and D‑list line­up, and also, per­haps, an admis­sion that what Amer­i­cans most crave is the famil­iar, which, of course, means, first and fore­most, a nation­al focus on celebri­ties we all know and love.

For a moment, how­ev­er, this rep­e­ti­tion of com­fort­ing house­hold names was punc­tu­at­ed by an entire­ly new young face and voice—that of a poet, no less, a stan­dard bear­er of the form that has held the nation’s rapt atten­tion in the work of Whit­man, Frost, Hugh­es, and Angelou.

Aman­da Gor­man, cho­sen as the first Nation­al Youth Poet Lau­re­ate in 2017, chan­neled a tra­di­tion of Amer­i­can lyric writ­ing about Amer­i­ca in her inau­gu­ra­tion poem, and she brought to it her own expe­ri­ences as a Gen Z black fem­i­nist and activist who over­came a speech imped­i­ment to address the coun­try at one of the most sig­nif­i­cant tele­vised pub­lic events in recent his­to­ry.

Gorman’s resume is a tes­ta­ment to her generation’s com­mit­ment to art and activism in the face of com­pound­ing crises, and to her per­son­al com­mit­ment to change in a coun­try that promis­es lit­tle for young black artists in par­tic­u­lar. Named youth poet lau­re­ate of Los Ange­les in 2014 at age 16, she pub­lished her first book of poet­ry, The One for Whom Food is Not Enough, the fol­low­ing year. She then went on to found a non­prof­it writ­ing and lead­er­ship pro­gram, open the lit­er­ary sea­son for the Library of Con­gress in 2017, and grad­u­ate cum laude from Har­vard Col­lege with a degree in soci­ol­o­gy in 2020.

While chart­ing her own lit­er­ary path, Gor­man learned to use her voice as “a polit­i­cal choice,” as she says in her TED-Ed stu­dent talk above, in which she con­fi­dent­ly asks a small audi­ence of her peers, “whose shoul­ders do you stand on?” and “what do you stand for?” These are the ques­tions she asks stu­dents in work­shops, she says, to shake them out of the idea that poet­ry is for “dead white men who were just born to be old.” Then she shares her own answers. Gorman’s pub­lic appear­ances tend to focus on process as much as on pol­i­tics and prosody. In a talk on “Pre­sen­ta­tion and Read­ing” at the Acad­e­my of Arts & Sci­ences in Cam­bridge below, she reads a poem, then has a brief dis­cus­sion of “how it came to be.”

Gor­man is as skilled a sto­ry­teller as she is a poet and edu­ca­tor. In her 2017 Moth Grand­SLAM appear­ance in Boston, fur­ther up, she tells the sto­ry of try­ing to catch her big break audi­tion­ing for Broad­way, an aspi­ra­tion shaped by her child­hood love of The Lion King. Her inau­gur­al poem, she tells PBS, was writ­ten to “be acces­si­ble to any­one who might be watch­ing, that they can feel that they are rep­re­sent­ed and well-estab­lished in this poem,” an act of writ­ing she calls “a real­ly dif­fi­cult dance to do.” The effort did not blunt the poem’s most inci­sive lines, how­ev­er, includ­ing its ref­er­ence to “the bel­ly of the beast,” in which “we’ve learned that qui­et isn’t always peace.”

For Gor­man, speak­ing out is a per­son­al imper­a­tive she honed as “a form of a pathol­o­gy,” over­com­ing her speech issues “by embark­ing on spo­ken word over and over and over again and recit­ing my poems. No mat­ter how ter­ri­fied I was, because I had the sup­port of oth­ers, I was able to kind of slow­ly climb my way to the place I am at today.”

For mil­lions of young peo­ple who watched the inau­gu­ra­tion, it will be Gorman’s sto­ry of per­se­ver­ance, com­mu­ni­ty, per­son­al growth, and refusal to be pas­sive and silent in the face of social injus­tice that will most res­onate, per­haps for the rest of their lives, amidst cel­e­bra­tions of a longed-for return to the famil­iar. See Gor­man read more of her poet­ry above and below, includ­ing a poem for anoth­er inau­gu­ra­tion, that of Har­vard Pres­i­dent Lawrence S. Bacow, in 2018.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Joy Har­jo, New­ly-Appoint­ed U.S. Poet Lau­re­ate, Reads Her Poems, “Remem­ber,” “A Poem to Get Rid of Fear,” “An Amer­i­can Sun­rise” and More

Lis­ten to Robert Frost Read ‘The Gift Out­right,’ the Poem He Recit­ed from Mem­o­ry at JFK’s Inau­gu­ra­tion

Ani­mat­ed Poet­ry by US Poet Lau­re­ate

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • WW says:

    To be fair, she is no Bald­win, Angelou, or Sand­burg, for that mat­ter. I tried to like her poem, but it was typ­i­cal angry-SJW stuff; the fact she was even there, and got flown-home on a pri­vate-jet and giv­en a mod­el­ing-con­tract, deflates her asser­tions. This isn’t tak­ing Kamala being made VP into account, either. It isn’t “racist” or “misog­y­nis­tic” to believe this, it’s an uncom­fort­able-truth. A poem unit­ing the races, and coun­try would have been more appro­pri­ate.

  • Louise Beaumont says:

    Make the world a bet­ter place, punch a poet today.

  • Mary Kortsen says:

    Amanda’s words and deliv­ery were so inspir­ing and mov­ing! My hus­band who has nev­er had an inter­est in any­thing close to poet­ry was so moved. Many of my friends have com­ment­ed that she has renewed their inter­est in poet­ry.

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