Poet Amanda Gorman referenced everything from biblical scripture to Hamilton in one of the most talked about moments of Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony.
The 22-year-old summoned images dire and triumphant, and at times echoed the oratory of John F Kennedy and the Rev Martin Luther King Jr, as she called out to the world “even as we grieved, we grew”.
With urgency and assertion, 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 labour 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.
Mindful of the past, she wore earrings and a caged bird ring – a tribute to Angelou’s classic memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – given to her by Orpah Winfrey, a close friend of the late writer.
“I have never been prouder to see another young woman rise! Brava Brava, @TheAmandaGorman! Maya Angelou is cheering-and so am I,” Winfrey tweeted.
Former US president Barack Obama, who was at the ceremony to watch his vice president take the oath, praised Gorman for “more than meeting the moment”.
He tweeted: “On a day for the history books, @TheAmandaGorman delivered a poem that more than met the moment. Young people like her are proof that “there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it; if only we’re brave enough to be it”.”
Gorman was also hailed by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who tweeted: “YES @TheAmandaGorman!!!”
Gorman soon responded: “Thx @Lin_Manuel! Did you catch the 2 @HamiltonMusical references in the inaugural poem? I couldn’t help myself!”
Among the Hamilton inspirations in her poem were: “History has its eyes on us,” a variation of the Hamilton song History Has Its Eyes On You.
Discord and division
Gorman, a native and resident of Los Angeles and the country’s first national youth poet laureate, 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 January 6 and the siege of the US Capitol 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 January 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 inaugural was a kind of valedictory – he was 86 and died two years later.
Gorman’s career is just beginning.
Her first two books come out in September – the picture story Change Things and a bound edition of her inaugural poem, along with other works.
Ceremonial odes are often quickly forgotten, but Angelou’s On The Pulse Of The Morning, which she read at the 1993 inaugural of President Bill Clinton, went on to sell more than one million copies as a book.
Invited to the inaugural late last month by 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.”
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