fb-pixel Skip to main content

Amid presidents and pop stars, poet Amanda Gorman grabs the spotlight at inauguration

Inauguration poet Amanda Gorman reads 'The Hill We Climb'
Amanda Gorman, 22, the youngest inauguration poet in US history, reads her poem "The Hill We Climb" at the inauguration of President Biden. (Video via C-SPAN, Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

If Amanda Gorman, 22, has it her way, her knockout poetry performance on the steps of the Capitol on Wednesday won’t be the last time she appears at a presidential inauguration. She plans on taking the oath of office herself.

“I always say the really, really long-term goal, meaning 2036, is to become president,” Gorman said in a 2017 interview with the Globe after being named the first National Youth Poet Laureate. She has repeated the hope in interviews ever since.

Tapped as the inaugural poet for President Joe Biden’s ceremony, Gorman, who graduated from Harvard last year, faced an enormous challenge. She somehow needed to deliver an original composition that at once recognized the deep-sown racial and political divisions of the nation and imagined a potential path forward. And she’d need to speak those words on the same steps to the Capitol that only days earlier had been under siege by a violent mob of Trump supporters rallying to overturn a free and fair election.

Polished, potent, and titled “The Hill We Climb,” Gorman’s five-minute spoken-word poem outshined even the performances of megawatt stars like Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga, who went before her:

Advertisement



We are striving to forge a union with purpose, to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man and so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us / We close the divide because we know to put our future first / We must first put our differences aside.

Gorman, who described herself in the poem as a “skinny Black girl, descended from slaves and raised by a single mother,” told several media outlets this month that she began writing the work ahead of the Capitol riot. But the insurrection that rocked Washington on Jan. 6 influenced the trajectory of her composition, which she finished later that night.

Advertisement



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. / In this truth, in this faith we trust. / For while we have our eyes on the future, / History has its eyes on us.

The last line includes one of two references to the blockbuster Broadway musical “Hamilton,” written by one of Gorman’s main inspirations, Lin Manuel Miranda. (She also described the late Maya Angelou as her “spirit grandmother” in a Harvard Gazette interview.) Miranda and Gorman shared an exchange on Twitter hours after the inaugural performance.

“You were perfect. Perfectly written, perfectly delivered. Every bit of it. Brava!” wrote Miranda.

Biden’s inaugural committee contacted Gorman late last month, according to The New York Times. Dr. Jill Biden had heard the young poet open the Library of Congress’s literary season in 2017 and suggested she read something at the inauguration.

Although she was the youngest performer Wednesday and the youngest inaugural poet in US history, Gorman is no stranger to success. The Los Angeles native began writing at the age of 5 and, by 16, was made a youth delegate to the United Nations and was on her way to becoming the first Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate. As a student living on Harvard’s campus, majoring in sociology and minoring in Spanish, she released a book of poetry called “The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough,” which helped land her the title of the first United States Youth Poet Laureate.

Advertisement



Gorman performed regularly around the Boston poetry scene during her time at Harvard. Her work — often a commentary on political and cultural issues — was featured at the 2019 Fourth of July event with the Boston Pops Orchestra and the 2018 inauguration of Harvard president Larry Bacow. She could be spotted at the Moth StorySLAMs and readings at the Prudential Center.

On Wednesday, she presented her work to an audience of millions, joining a prestigious roster of poets who’ve been tapped to mark the next chapter of the American presidency, among them Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Alexander, and Richard Blanco.

The inclusion of poetry at the presidential inauguration is a relatively rare and recent phenomenon. Only three other presidents — John F. Kennedy in 1961, Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1997, Barack Obama in 2009 and 2013 — have had poets read at their ceremonies.

Frost, a longtime Massachusetts resident who was also a Harvard student, famously did not deliver the poem he had composed for Kennedy’s ceremony, because the sun’s glare upon the snow-covered ground blinded him from seeing his manuscript. He instead recited his “The Gift Outright” from memory.

Gorman, after beginning her year with the nation as her audience, will in September release a new poetry collection, also titled “The Hill We Climb,” aimed at teenage and adult readers. Her debut picture book, “Change Sings,” with illustrations by Loren Long, comes out the same day.

Advertisement



And perhaps a dozen or so years down the line, she will not only be writing but also running for president.


Hanna can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @hannaskrueger.