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Poetry

Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman ‘has always been an absolute supernova’

Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the inauguration of President Joe Biden at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)
Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the inauguration of President Joe Biden at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)ERIN SCHAFF/NYT

After four contentious years, Wednesday’s inauguration of Joe Biden as the country’s 46th president seemed pre-ordained to be a moment of healing for large portions of a country ravaged by plague, economic uncertainty, and political violence.

But the real balm arrived as poet Amanda Gorman, luminous in her yellow coat and red headband, recited “The Hill We Climb,” her inaugural poem for the ages that points a way forward amid cascading crises.

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.

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If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Gorman, who at 22 is the youngest inaugural poet in the nation’s history, harnessed the moment. She imbued it with hopeful purpose and transfixed the country — a bright new flame who left CNN’s Anderson Cooper struggling for words, Oprah aglow, and Twitter agog.

But for those who’ve known Gorman, who graduated from Harvard University last year with a degree in sociology, her command performance was hardly a surprise.

“My only concern about the inauguration other than security was that dear, brilliant Amanda Gorman was going to overshadow basically everyone at this historic event, no matter what she did, because she has always been an absolute supernova,” said Sarah Lewis, an associate professor in Harvard’s history of art and architecture department and its African and African American studies department. “Very few can follow her on stage.”

Lewis, who founded The Vision and Justice Project, asked Gorman as an undergraduate to write a poem about Frederick Douglass and the role of visual imagery to open the project’s convening in 2019.

“She read all of the material in a few days and synthesized it into a stunning poem that blew us all away,” said Lewis. “I have been dreaming of what might happen when she left college and more people saw her brilliance.”

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By then, Gorman, who’s from Los Angeles and has spoken openly about overcoming a speech impediment, had already been anointed the country’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, sharing the stage with former US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith.

Smith, who now chairs the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University, said Gorman’s inaugural recitation came at a critical juncture for the country.

“I watched her as she not only recited her poem, but reached out to the nation with such poise, such conscience, and such proof that we do indeed have control over our future,” said Smith, who was born in Falmouth. “For me, her presence on the dais seemed to make literal the crossroads we as a country confront: We can either move forward with courage, acknowledgment and with love into the future, or we can circle back around to the violence and the denial of the past.”

As National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017, Amanda Gorman read her work "An American Lyric" at the inaugural reading of Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith.
As National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017, Amanda Gorman read her work "An American Lyric" at the inaugural reading of Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. Shawn Miller

Gorman’s inaugural poem, which comes out of a tradition that stretches back to classical antiquity, felt so immediate in part because of the circumstances under which much of it was written: in the harrowing hours after pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

But it also pulled from the cadences of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton,” viral tweets, and a generation of young spoken-word artists.

“Its sonics mark it as a 21st-century poem,” said Stephanie Burt, an English professor at Harvard. “She obviously belongs to a specifically African American tradition of performed poetry, in addition to a tradition of poems on public occasions that goes back beyond Virgil.”

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Joshua Bennett, an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College, praised Gorman’s ear for internal rhyme and alliteration.

“We also bear witness in her performance style — the cadence, hand gestures, et al .— to the influence of a spoken-word tradition,” said Bennett. He added that her performance served as “a powerful example of what can emerge at the intersection of a robust commitment to the dance of language on paper, and the singular power of poems given to the air.”

In “The Hill We Climb,” Gorman writes:

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.

The poem doesn’t use the sort of elaborate metaphors some people associate with written poetry. That’s part of why it’s so effective as a poem that marks an historic moment, said Boston poet laureate Porsha Olayiwola.

Porsha Olayiwola, of Jamaica Plain, became Boston's Poet Laureate in 2019. She read with Amanda Gorman when Gorman was studying at Harvard.
Porsha Olayiwola, of Jamaica Plain, became Boston's Poet Laureate in 2019. She read with Amanda Gorman when Gorman was studying at Harvard. Tatiana Johnson

“It’s an occasion for all of us as a country, and it’s imperative for poets to realize and understand when it’s important to use colloquial language, when it is important to use the language of the people,” said Olayiwola, who said she read with Gorman when she was at Harvard. “[She’s] figuring out a way as a wordsmith to attempt to bridge a country. It’s an immense path, through poetry.”

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It was quite a task for Gorman, who at 16 became the youth poet laureate of Los Angeles. And while her words were meant to provide solace and hope to an entire nation, they had special resonance for Alondra Bobadilla, Boston’s first youth poet laureate.

“It’s incredibly empowering,” said Bobadilla, a senior at Fenway High School. “When you see a young woman of color reading at such an important event it moves something in you. It makes you feel as if you can also conquer those places.”

And how could it not? As Gorman writes:

Somehow we do it.

Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed

a nation that isn’t broken,

but simply unfinished.

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.

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

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.