How Amanda Gorman became the voice of a new American era

Her recital at Joe Biden’s inauguration electrified viewers and sent the hitherto little known poet’s work to the top of the charts

On Wednesday in Washington DC, a striking young woman stood at a podium on the steps of the US Capitol, surrounded by the country’s leaders, who were masked against the pandemic. She was unmasked, at a safe distance, so she could speak with resonance and force, spreading her enthusiastic vision without danger. She radiated joy, conviction and purpose as she declaimed the poem she had written to mark the inauguration of Joe Biden as 46th president of the US: The Hill We Climb. Tears sprang from the eyes of many listeners, those weary and wary from four years of domestic discord, whether they sat on folding chairs at the Capitol, or on easy chairs in their homes. Hearing her words, they felt hope for the future.

That woman’s name is Amanda Gorman. She is America’s first national youth poet laureate and, at 22, she also is the youngest poet accorded the honour of delivering the presidential inaugural poem. But despite her youth, Gorman’s assurance and bearing made her seem to stand outside time. Erect as a statue, her skin gleaming as if burnished, her hair cornrowed, banded with gold and drawn tightly back into a red satin Prada headband, worn high like a tiara, she evoked what poet Kae Tempest calls the “Brand New Ancients”: the divinity that walks among us in the present day. According to Greek mythology, nine muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, inspire creative endeavour, with five devoted to different kinds of poetry – epic, romantic, lyric, comic or pastoral and sacred. Gorman suggested a new poetic muse – one to inspire the poetry of democracy.

Gorman told the New York Times that she had not wanted to dwell on the rancour, racism and division of America’s four years under the Trump administration: she wanted to “use my words to envision a way in which our country can still come together and can still heal”. That way would require action, her poem declares: “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. We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another, we seek harm to none and harmony for all.”

Gorman knows the importance of taking action to make the change you want to see. Raised in Los Angeles by a single mother, Joan Wicks, a middle-school English teacher, Gorman overcame daunting obstacles to forge her path. Amanda and her twin sister Gabrielle, an activist and filmmaker, were born prematurely. In kindergarten, the future poet was diagnosed with an auditory disorder that gave her a speech impediment. When she was in third grade, a teacher introduced her to poetry, and it was through writing and reciting poetry that she found her voice. She found a role model in the poet Maya Angelou, whose autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings reminded her of her own life, she remarked in one interview: “[Angelou] overcame years of not speaking up for herself, all for the love of poetry.”

As Gorman struggled to improve her spoken fluency, she also strove for social justice. For her, it was clear from the start that expression was to be both poetic and political. In 2014, at the age of 16, she founded a non-profit organisation to support poetry workshops and youth advocacy leadership skills, called One Pen One Page. The following year, she published her first poetry book, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, and went to Harvard to study sociology. (She graduated in 2020.) Her clarity of expression received a turbo boost from musical theatre while she was in college, with the arrival of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, whose lyrics she memorised and recited (the song Aaron Burr, Sir helped her pronounce her “R”s, she has said).

In the spring of her sophomore year in 2017, she was named America’s first national youth poet laureate, an honour that took her and her poetry to public events across the country. At one of these, held at the Library of Congress, Dr Jill Biden heard her read a poem she had written in the wake of the white supremacist “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, titled In This Place (An American Lyric). Three years later, Biden, as first lady-elect, suggested the young poet for the inaugural honour.

Amanda Gorman.
Amanda Gorman. Photograph: Kelia Anne/AP

In the first week of January, Gorman was halfway through writing The Hill We Climb when a mob of angry Trump supporters invaded the US Capitol in an attempt to violently overturn the election result. She finished the poem in the hours after the melee, undeterred, with that jarring tumult as backdrop.

On inauguration day, Gorman wore a ring depicting a caged bird, a gift from Oprah Winfrey that attests to the link the young poet represents between the past and the future. It not only summoned thoughts of the poet’s first inspiration, Angelou; it reminded anyone looking for portents that Angelou, as the US poet laureate, had also recited a poem to a new president on the Capitol steps: Bill Clinton, in 1993. One day, Gorman may be the audience, not the author, of such a poem: she has presidential plans. “I am working on hashtags,” she told the Harvard Gazette. “Save the 2036 date on your iPhone calendar.”

The last lines of The Hill We Climb, containing an intended echo of Miranda’s Hamilton, constitute a poetic battle cry: “We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover in every known nook of our nation in every corner called our country our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful, when the 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.”

Her words not only electrified Washington, they have prompted a surge of admiration in the public at large. That same day, her two forthcoming books were Amazon’s top two bestsellers. Instagram feeds flash continuously with images of her triumphal stand at the Capitol; op-eds across the country have called for poetry education programmes in schools, and television news broadcast highlights of her performance hour after hour – lyric adrenaline bursts to reanimate democracy.

Gorman has appeared on many of these news programmes. On one, Good Morning America on ABC, Miranda made a surprise appearance to congratulate her. “The right words in the right order can change the world; and you proved that yesterday,” he told her. “Keep changing the world, one word at a time.”

As if anyone could stop her. As she writes in her forthcoming book, Change Sings:

I can hear change humming
In its loudest, proudest song.
I don’t fear change coming,
And so I sing along.

Liesl Schillinger

The GuardianTramp

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